Mind's Ear

Forget, for a moment, his more famous dead brother. Don't make comparisons, and do not buy into the myth that to celebrate one you must tear down the other. Do not think that just because one brother sold hundreds of thousands of albums, and the other, thousands, that it means anything. To compare and contrast is a famous, familiar pastime, but it ultimately serves no purpose.

They were brothers, yes, raised on the same Texas diet of the Nightcaps and Freddie King and 1960s AM radio. But they were also singular men who went their own ways, followed their own hearts, found their own voices, grew up and then apart only to come together in the months just before one died and sent the other on his way again. Jimmie Vaughan, the older brother long ago dwarfed by the myth of his sibling, doesn't need to stand in Stevie Ray's spotlight -- or his shadow -- to make his case. He has records of his own to speak for him; he has a handful of soundtrack singles and one-off guest shots and a fistful of Fabulous Thunderbirds albums that do his bidding. He's the quietest guitar hero of them all, releasing albums every four years and making music that never seems to rise above a loud whisper.

Recently, Vaughan released Out There, his second solo album of this decade and of his lifetime -- though you might not know it. It has received so little attention, it's almost as if there's a conspiracy to ignore the thing. Perhaps the reason has something to do with the passage of time: Unlike his 1994 debut, Strange Pleasure, his new CD does not feature a song about his dead brother, and Jimmie, now a veteran of his own solo tours, is no longer a sideman-turned-frontman novelty item. But more likely it's the release itself, which is not exactly the stuff of pop-radio airplay. Though it may be titled Out There, it's actually more "in here," the sound of a man making the old echoes rattling around inside his head tangible.

Out There is sly and sexy, a romp through the sweet soul '60s in sharkskin shoes, silken shirts and pleated black pants. It's the soundtrack to a burlesque show and a Stax/Volt revue all at once, a bump-and-grind joy ride down memory lane in the back of one of those vintage cars Jimmie spends so much time restoring at home in Austin. It's boogie-woogie and it's back-porch, with Vaughan working his guitar like a man who has only so many notes in him and doesn't want to waste a single one. So he doles them out, teasing and pleasing. That he barely plays at all on the title track, laying down a quiet rhythm while Bill Willis and drummer George Rains keep the beat in their back pockets, says it all.

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"The space is just as important as the music," Vaughan says. "That sounds funny to somebody who's not a musician, I guess, but that's my way of thinking. I grew up in the '50s and '60s, and music used to have something to do with phrasing and space."

Back then, he was a member of the Chessmen, perhaps the most legendary of all Dallas bands from that era, having released only a handful of brilliant proto-punk singles. They were a garage-rock band playing British Invasion blues, with the sound of Texas-born teens pretending to be Jeff Beck pretending to be Freddie King. "When I was 15, I didn't know the difference between Jeff Beck and Freddie King," he says. "One guy had a bigger amp, and that was Freddie. To me, that stuff was really the same thing, until I really started getting into it. But when the Chessmen called me up, it was, get a big amp and let's go to town. And about that time, Hendrix came out, and it was like Muddy Waters's illegitimate stepchild or something from Mars. To me, it's all the same thing."

Jimmie Vaughan grew up knee-deep in the blues. He happily talks of the first songs that moved him -- the morning he heard Booker T. and the MGs' "Green Onions" while racing to get to school, the hours spent poring over the Nightcaps' "Wine, Wine, Wine." There was the evening in Houston when a twentysomething Steve Miller -- himself a child of Dallas -- taught a 15-year-old Jimmie Vaughan what not to play on the guitar.

"The Nightcaps -- that was the first album I ever bought," he says of the white-boy R&B band that tore up Dallas during the late '50s and early '60s. "I learned how to play lead and rhythm and bass and drums off that record, practically."

Jimmie and Stevie, the latter three years his brother's junior, were guitarists before they could read; the picture on the back of 1990's Family Style -- the two young boys cradling their instruments, Stevie looking particularly small behind his -- has become the Vaughan brothers' legacy. It was, of course, Jimmie who struck out on his own first, playing in bands around the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. The Chessmen was his first paying gig, but there were plenty of others before that. It was Jimmie who first moved to Austin in 1970, his little brother following closely behind.  

From the beginning, it appeared the elder Vaughan never wanted the role of frontman; if Stevie dreamed of one day becoming larger than life, burning brightest in the spotlight, then Jimmie was comfortable standing just off to the side in the shadows. When he joined Doyle Bramhall in the Chessmen, Jimmie was content to play lead guitar. The same thing happened a decade later in the Fabulous Thunderbirds, when Kim Wilson took control of the microphone and, later, the band itself. Vaughan was uncomfortable with the sound of his own voice -- he preferred to let the guitar do his singing for him -- so he let them drive while he gave directions.

In the end, of course, he proved the most valuable player in the Fabulous Thunderbirds. When he left the band in 1990 to pursue his own ambitions, Wilson carried on without him -- and it took two guitarists to replace Vaughan. The T-Birds releases that followed were pale imitations of what had come before; where they had once shuffled along at a casual pace, they now sounded almost histrionic, as though too much could make up for not enough. Jimmie kept the beat; his replacements -- Duke Robillard and Kid Bingham -- lost it forever. They seemed to misunderstand the one thing that Jimmie learned long ago, that the best blues guitarists don't play songs -- they just follow them.

"Like, everybody gets a guitar -- and especially country guys -- and they learn licks: 'Hey, man, you heard this one?' " Vaughan says of his playing style. "Everybody does a little bit of that, I guess. But licks aren't connected. They're just like single words with no meaning. I noticed that about Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Albert Collins and Gatemouth Brown and T-Bone Walker and Freddie King and Eric Clapton -- my heroes. I think they listened to their mind's ear. You've heard about the mind's eye, and it's the same thing with a mind's ear. It tells you what to play. You gotta cancel out all the other shit. You gotta cancel out what you heard the other guys play and try to listen to your own deal."

In June of 1990, Jimmie Vaughan left the Fabulous Thunderbirds. He insisted there was no ill will between himself and his band mates, but he wasn't having any fun anymore. So he quit and sought out his brother, now clean and sober and ready to pick up where they left off 20 years before, when Jimmie and Stevie left Big Jim and Martha Vaughan's house in Oak Cliff and headed south on I-35.

They were reunited in the Ardent Studios in Memphis, Skyline Studios in Manhattan, and the Dallas Sound Lab, where they recorded Family Style, an album that's almost more remarkable for what it wasn't than for what it was. It could well have been a guitar-slinger's duel, brother versus brother in the caged match of the year. But Family Style was barely a blues release at all. It was more about soul than anything, with Stevie and Jimmie playing slow and loose with the songs -- only three of which they actually wrote together. Throughout Family Style, it's hard to tell where one man stops and the other starts.

Of course, the Vaughan brothers would never tour behind the album, as they had planned: On August 27, 1990, not long after Family Style was completed, Stevie died in a helicopter crash after he, Jimmie, Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy shared a stage in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin. Family Style was released the following month. For a long time after that, Jimmie didn't know what the hell to do. He was left with the task of executing Stevie's will, and he came under fire from old friends of Stevie's who claimed Jimmie was living off his sibling's leftovers.

In 1991, Jimmie assembled an odds-and-sods collection of Stevie's outtakes, The Sky Is Crying, and it was a perfect, loving tribute. But then, in 1992, came In the Beginning, which featured a rough, less-than-stellar performance by Stevie at a small Austin club in 1980; even worse, its release was marred by claims that Jimmie wasn't doing good business. Jack Newhouse, Stevie's bassist in 1980, claimed he wasn't getting paid enough; Chesley Milliken, Stevie's old manager, insisted that it was he, not Jimmie, who owned the performance master. It all appeared so unseemly. Then, in short succession, came a greatest-hits package (which featured a previously unreleased -- and with good reason -- version of the Beatles' "Taxman"), a tribute album taken from a 1995 concert on Austin City Limits that featured Jimmie and Buddy Guy and Bonnie Raitt and others, and last year's Live at Carnegie Hall, culled from Stevie and Double Trouble's 1984 performance in the hallowed venue. This fall, Epic Records will release a three-disc Stevie Ray Vaughan boxed set filled with even more outtakes.  

But those who find it disconcerting that Jimmie has released only two albums since 1990, while his dead brother has four to his credit, miss the point: He may well make a little money off Stevie's recordings, but he'd rather have his brother than his brother's royalties. Indeed, after Stevie's death, Jimmie spent the next three years mourning from a distance; he withdrew for a long while, coming out of his garage long enough to play with Eric Clapton for 12 shows in February and March of 1993 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Then he spent the next year recording an album that would pay homage to Stevie: "Six Strings Down," with its references to Alpine Valley and the angels who "done called another blues stringer back home," was the centerpiece of Strange Pleasure.

Out There, though dedicated to another fallen friend -- former T-Birds bassist Keith Ferguson, whose heroin habits finally killed him in May 1997 -- is a far more exhilarated album than Strange Pleasure. A song like "The Ironic Twist" epitomizes the raw stank that envelops the entire disc. It's a celebration, handclaps and horns and greasy beats -- the sort of track no one makes anymore.

"Out There is just a lot more raw than Strange Pleasure," Vaughan explains. "It's more me. It's more, uh, what would be an intelligent term for 'playing shit on the deal'? It's dirtier, it's rawer. The last album was kind of a spiritual thing in a lot of ways. I was thinking about what all happened, and I was overwhelmed with stuff. That's what came out. And now I'm overwhelmed with other stuff. It seems like no matter what you do, you can't control all this stuff. It's just like somebody told me once, you should sing about what you know about, so that's all I'm doing."

Jimmie Vaughan performs Friday, August 14, at Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas Avenue. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $22.50$27. Chris Whitley opens. For info, call 629-3700.

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