Cry Tough

Essential bassist Tommy Shannon hangs in there

Shannon recites the 12-Step Program from AA, which worked for him: "You had to hit bottom, become totally powerless and helpless and full of despair before you could break through and find a life, a way out. Which comes from a power greater than yourself. Stevie was sober when he died. Four years of sobriety. We were playin' better, our ideas blossoming. I helped write 'Crossfire,' came up with that riff. I've got over ten years of sobriety now. I'd rehabbed on my own. Cops didn't drag me in."

Then disaster struck. Shannon was on one of a convoy of helicopters flying back to Chicago from Wisconsin's Alpine Valley Music Theater in 1990, where Vaughan had opened for and played with Eric Clapton. "We got there first, and I went to my room, got a call about six in the morning that Stevie's helicopter had gone down, no survivors. The best friend I ever had in my life. Lost him and the career." But unlike when he was left behind by Winter, "this time was different. It's strange, I had no desire to go drink or get high. Every year you get a chip for however many years you've been clean and sober. Every year I get my chip, and I get him one too, and give it to his mom."

As he had with Uncle John Turner, Shannon forged a rhythm partnership with drummer Chris "Whipper" Layton. With the Vaughan band defunct, they joined the Arc Angels with noticeably younger members Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton. "The idea was to play a few gigs around [Austin]. But people packed the clubs, goin' nuts," Shannon recalls. "So Geffen flew down an A&R guy. We did a lot of rehearsals, did our record." It was a bittersweet experience. Shannon cites "internal conflicts" as the reason the rising band was destroyed within 18 months "If we [had] stayed together, we'd probably be rich by now."

At present, Shannon and Layton are road warriors in twilight, trying to make their current band, Storyville, ignite beyond its fanatic Austin base. "I don't like being on the road anymore," declares Shannon. "Been there, done that, seen that, so to speak. My whole idea of enjoyment is different. I'd like to do studio work. But I'll never quit playing as long as I live, that's like breathing."

His foundation comes from the '60s, when music shaped people's lives the way World War II had for the previous generation: "It breaks my heart; I feel sorry for young kids today. Music is so disposable now, so totally oversaturated. It's just business. People have totally lost touch with what it's really all about, the love of music."

Still, when Shannon acknowledges a young guitarist -- like the young Winter, the adolescent Stevie Ray -- people should perhaps take heed. Shannon and Layton have recorded an album with Kenny Wayne Shepherd. "He's 19," Shannon says of Shepherd. "This guy Johnny Lang is 16, another guy in town here, Guitar Jay, I think he's 16. He's incredible -- I first played with him when he was seven years old at Ann Richards's inaugural ball. Give 'em a chance; what do they expect of 'em at this age?" Shannon says, still taking young guitar slingers seriously when few other professionals will.

"I also got to play with Clapton, the Stones, Jeff Beck, Little Richard. Can you imagine that?" he marvels, like some provincial musician. I point out something that seems to elude Tommy Shannon: They also got to play with him.

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