It’s not very often the official Texas State Musician is on the other end of the phone. This year, that’s Jimmie Vaughan: master guitarist, sharp-dressed man and embodiment of a certain brand of Texas cool signified by jet-black shades, slicked-back hair and vintage hot rods like his 1963 chopped Buick Riviera. Other recent appointees to the decade-old position include Texas Tornado Flaco Jimenez, Houston’s own Billy F. Gibbons and Lyle Lovett, and singer-songwriter Sara Hickman. Texas State Musician is a completely ceremonial position, but that doesn’t make it any less of an honor.
“I said, ‘Does this mean I'm not going to get a speeding ticket today when I'm on the way home? What does it mean? Jokingly,” chuckles Vaughan, who headlines the Dr Pepper stage at tomorrow’s Freedom Over Texas celebration in Eleanor Tinsley Park, from his home in Austin. “I don't think I really have any duties. It's just an honor. You can't turn that down — it’s pretty exciting, after playing for 50-plus years."
It’s already been a huge year for the Vaughan family. Last December, Jimmie’s late younger brother Stevie Ray Vaughan was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with his backing band Double Trouble. Universally recognized as one of the greatest blues and rock guitarists of all time, Stevie had been eligible for induction since 2008, long enough for many fans to wonder whether his chance had come and gone. Some theories held that Texas was too far removed from the NYC-based social network centered around RRHOF/Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, or that the stewards of Vaughan’s estate (Jimmie included) had not done enough campaigning to get Stevie in. But an article by Texas Monthly’s Andy Langer almost exactly one year ago called attention to the fact that, up until that year, Vaughan’s name had never even been on the secret ballot circulated each year by the Hall’s super-secret nominating committee.
Exactly why some artists get in the first time they appear on a ballot while others appear on ballots for years before being inducted is a minor mystery. One could make the argument that it’s only fair that Vaughan wait his turn in line to get into the Hall. But his absence from even a single ballot is indefensible; the blues are the rootstock of rock and roll, and nearly a quarter century after his death, Vaughan remains one of the best-selling blues musicians in the world.
Paired with a well-timed exhibit devoted to Stevie at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles that lasted most of 2014, the article touched off a groundswell of support that the Hall’s nominating committee couldn’t ignore. Although he says it’s not documented anywhere, Jimmie says the most common number he’s heard is that 18 million fans spoke up on Stevie’s behalf.
“I'm sure everybody in the country is lobbying the Hall of Fame to get their artist in there,” notes Jimmie, 64, who was born four years before Stevie. “I was told one time that the reason that Stevie wasn't in there was because I didn't have an Irving Azoff or somebody in my corner, lobbying the panel. But that's all politics and I don't really know about that. I just know that the fans enjoyed voting for Stevie and helping him get in there. I think he should be something called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
The night of the induction back in April, Jimmie and Double Trouble joined probably Stevie’s biggest present-day acolytes — John Mayer, Gary Clark Jr. and Doyle Bramhall II — onstage for a performance of “Pride and Joy” and "Texas Flood" that was easily one of the highlights of the ceremony, which also featured tributes to Lou Reed and Ringo Starr and a performance by inductees Green Day. (Vaughan’s solo performance of his 1994 tribute to Stevie, “Six Strings Down,” was cut from HBO’s broadcast.) But before all of that, Jimmie gave a gracious, emotional speech inducting his brother.
I know he’d want to thank the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but most of all he’d want to thank his fans, all 18 million of ‘em that voted for him to get in there. I can see him walking up there all humble and shy with his quiet, sweet voice, and he’d be so proud, and so would my mother and father. I wanted to say a few things about Stevie that maybe his fans might not even know about. We all know he’s a great guitar player. He could play beautiful, mean, fun, he could be overwhelming, and he could drag you along when you started listening to him. Dad used to say, ‘He’s a bad motor scooter,’ and he is a bad motor scooter, I’m telling you. But what you’re really hearing when you hear Stevie is his enthusiasm for everything. That’s what he loved. That’s why people love his music — because he loved it so much.
Stevie died in a helicopter crash outside Milwaukee on the evening of August 27, 1990, after playing a concert alongside his friends and peers Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray and his brother. The crash, attributed to dense after-midnight fog at the Alpine Valley ski resort, came just weeks before the Vaughan brothers’ joint album (and only studio collaboration), Family Style, was released. Almost 25 years after losing his little brother so suddenly, Jimmie allows that he’s learned to deal with the pain, but it never goes away.
“Everybody loses people they love,” he says. “We don't need to go into that. But in my little [Hall of Fame] talk I said all the things that Stevie didn't get to have, like a family and children and all those things. It was a sad thing. It's like me every day. I go to the grocery store, [and] I'm bent down in the aisle getting coffee or looking at something and somebody [will] come up behind me like, ‘Oh my God!’
“What it is is they remember that day, or they heard about it, and they've got it pent up inside, and then when see me and it triggers something,” Jimmie continues. “It took me a while to learn that.”
The Vaughans grew up in South Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood, and by his teens Jimmie was already a working musician in a band called the Chessmen, who, not terribly long after they formed, were opening up for their hero Jimi Hendrix. (Hendrix even supposedly borrowed a guitar pedal of his once.) He started coming to Houston to play fraternity parties and gigs at clubs like the Catacombs, where the likes of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, Spirit, Jethro Tull and Ten Years After blew people’s minds at the club’s locations on South Post Oak and in Rice Village.
“One time we had a show with Billy Gibbons and myself on either side of the stage,” Jimmie recalls. “It was billed as like a big guitar battle, like 'Dallas vs. Houston' or whatever it was. It was a lot of fun stuff.”
In the mid-‘70s, Jimmie and some other Austin musicians linked up with a singing harmonica player from the upper Midwest named Kim Wilson to form the Fabulous Thunderbirds, who combined the gritty urban blues of Chicago’s Chess Records with sweeter-sounding Gulf Coast swamp pop and sophisticated R&B a la Houston’s Duke/Peacock labels. Years before they entered the Billboard charts with fish-out-of-water '80s hits like “Tuff Enuff,” Sam & Dave cover “Wrap It Up” and “Powerful Stuff,” the Thunderbirds were the house band at Antone’s — for years and years “Austin’s Home of the Blues,” where much later Gary Clark Jr. would have his own residency — and one of Texas top touring attractions. In Houston, their home base was Rockefeller’s, the legendary Washington Avenue split-level nightclub that used its acoustics as a former bank building to great effect. Perhaps their biggest local fan was then-bassist Keith Ferguson’s father, Jimmie recalls.
“He was a record collector and audiophile guy who knew everything about R&B and blues and classical. His dad worked over there and worked in record shops, so he knew everything about music. He would come to the gigs and we'd line up and ask him questions about the old days and whatever. That was one of the fun things. [Former Houston Post music critic] Bob Claypool was a big fan, and he would come out and hang out with us. He enjoyed it because we were sort of anti-music business in a way, in the sense that we weren't pop music and...you know what I mean. It was just a fun scene, really. We were having fun, and that's what we still try to do.”
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Jimmie has officially been a solo artist since 1994, the year his solo debut Strange Pleasure was released. Other albums such as Out There, Do You Get the Blues? (the 2001 Grammy winner for Best Traditional Blues Album) and companion pieces Plays Blues, Ballads and Favorites (2010) and Plays More Blues, Ballads & Favorites (2011) followed as Jimmie and his Tilt-a-Whirl Band have become a top-drawing festival attraction from Tinsley Park to Brazil, where they polished off a couple of dates last month, and the famous King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Ark., where he’ll play alongside Bobby Rush, Paul Thorn, Ruthie Foster, Taj Mahal and dozens more this coming October. For the past several years, Tilt-a-Whirl has featured the acerbic drawl of vocalist Lou Ann Barton, who was in an early version of the Thunderbirds before going on to become one of Texas’ most popular blues singers; long ago, Jimmie says he once told Barton, “Hey, we’ll start a band and be just like Ike and Tina Turner.”
“I don't care what happens — your career goes up and down, you have hit records, you don't have hit records, old records come back,” he says now. “All kind of things happen, but really the fun thing is to play live. Just to do it one more time. So I feel like I don't get paid to play, I get paid to go there. And then I play for free.”
Jimmie Vaughan & the Tilt-a-Whirl Band perform on the Dr Pepper Stage at Freedom Over Texas tomorrow at Eleanor Tinsley Park, 500 Allen Pkwy; other artists include Clint Black, Josh Turner, Buckwheat Zydeco, Shemeika Copeland and Houston's Thunder Soul. See freedomovertexas.org for details.