The Texas guitar master still considers himself a student of the blues

By Eric R. Danton

Texas-born guitar slinger Jimmie Vaughan grew up listening to songs by the likes of Jimmy Reed, Johnny Ace and Lonnie Brooks—the kind of old rock ’n’ roll, vintage blues and country that once filled up jukeboxes and crackled from transistor radios. Stations at the time regularly played songs that blurred genre lines, and young Jimmie didn’t mind it one bit. “I was just listening to the guitar players,” he recalls. “Not because I was smart, I just didn’t know any better.”

Those were the tunes Vaughan could never quite get out of his system, from his days gutting it out on the Dallas and Austin blues scenes as a teenager alongside fellow hopefuls like former ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons, through his star-making turn in the 1980s as a member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and in platinum-selling duo the Vaughan Brothers with sibling Stevie Ray. Now the club circuit is a distant memory, Vaughan left the T-Birds in 1989, and of course his much-missed younger brother passed away in 1990. But even today, the songs of Jimmie Vaughan’s youth continue to inspire and sustain him—so much so that he worked up his own versions of a dozen of them (along with one original instrumental) for his first new solo album since 2001, the aptly titled Jimmie Vaughan Plays Blues, Ballads & Favorites. “It’s a combination of songs I always liked and songs I was a little afraid to do,” he says. “And then some obscure little weirdo stuff that was fun.”

The album was a long time coming, not the least because taking on the songbooks of your heroes is a tall order. “If you start recording songs from other people you hold in high esteem, it gets really scary,” says Vaughan, now 59. “Sometimes, you can do things you think you can’t, and sometimes you just can’t. You just have to go try.” Vaughan spoke with us about those songs, his famous brother and his lifelong process of learning to play the blues.

Did any of these songs intimidate you?

[Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s] “The Pleasure is All Mine.” I love that song and I’ve been listening to it a long time. A lot of songs are scary because I can play them, but I don’t know if I can sing them. Even though I’d listened to them for a long time, I’d never tried to play most of the songs—with the exception of Lonnie Mack’s “Roll, Roll, Roll,” which I’d recorded with the T-Birds in the ’70s. Any song, when it’s new, it’s unfamiliar and scary. But that’s the good part about it, too. By the time you learn it, you want to go do something else. If you get real familiar with something, it’s not all brand new and exciting.

How long did the album take?

It took maybe a year, but we weren’t in the studio very often. It was an on and off thing. I pretended to be making 45 singles with this record. I’d go in with two or three songs, and then the next time my band came to town for a gig, we’d go in again. There were a lot of different sessions. Most of us live in Austin, but not everybody—[saxophonist] Greg Piccolo lives in Connecticut; Billy Pitman, the guitar player, lives in California; Bill Willis lived in Oklahoma—so to get my band together, I have to come up with a block of gigs, or a good reason to fly ’em all out. [Organist Willis died earlier this year.]

Why pretend to be making singles?

It’s more fun and it feels better. You don’t have to come up with a book, you only have to come up with a chapter. You just go in and pretend you’re making a new single for the jukebox down the street, right? In the old days, you’d have a recording budget, book a studio for two or three weeks and try to spend that budget and do the album. I’m not going to do any more albums like that. When I record now, I’m not going to say, “You know what, we need to make a new album.”

Do you still recognize the kid who first fell in love with this music?

I feel like that kid. He’s actually having more fun and is just as excited as when he was a kid. I’m still doing my dream, which was to be a blues guitar player. When I told my uncles I wanted to be a blues guitar player, they said, “What for?” They thought I should be a country guy. It was a very odd thing for me to announce that I was going to be a blues guitar player when I was 15. And I don’t mean from a racial standpoint: In the early ’60s in Dallas, every kind of band played Jimmy Reed songs. I always listened to the black station and wanted to play Little Tommy Tucker and “High Heel Sneakers.”

But your uncles preferred country?

They liked Webb Pierce. So did I, but when I was a teenager, I didn’t know the difference between blues and country. That was the confusing part. On Saturdays in Dallas, it was all country and western shows on the television, like the Wilburn Brothers, Porter Wagoner and Cow Town Jamboree. A lot of the country and western guys would come out and play jazz songs or Jimmy Reed songs too. Back then, music was more together than it was separate.

Did you always want to play guitar?

I wanted to be a drummer at first, but I couldn’t do it as well as the guitar, which seemed easier and more fun.

Coming up with guys like Billy Gibbons, did you feel a sense of destiny?

When you’re young like that, you’re having so much fun, you’re not thinking too far ahead. You’re thinking, “Man, what if I could play this song and do this gig?” and, “Have you heard that new song by Eric Clapton?” (laughs) I wasn’t thinking about my career or anything except, “I can’t believe I have a gig tonight.” I did meet Billy Gibbons when I was about 15, and we played together in Houston at the Catacombs. I was in a band called the Chessmen. The ad on the radio for the Catacombs was, “Dallas’ Jimmie Vaughan meets Houston’s Billy Gibbons from the Moving Sidewalks. On the same stage, battling it out!”

What was the idea behind the Vaughan Brothers album [Family Style, 1990]?

When I was 12, I bought an electric guitar and got in a band at school and started playing. I’m four years older than Stevie, so he was 8 and had a little toy guitar. Somebody would come over to the house and my dad would say, “Jim, get your guitar and play ‘In the Mood’ by Glenn Miller,” because my dad liked that song. When Stevie got a guitar, Dad would say, “You boys get your guitars and play a song.” And the person would almost always say, “You boys are pretty good. Maybe someday you can make a record together.” We grew up and became musicians and finally it happened. I named it Family Style, because it was like sitting at a table family-style. Also, Family Style was a deliberate attempt to have a hit and do something different than what we were both doing with our own bands and careers. We definitely pushed it and tried to do all the stuff we weren’t doing with our own bands.

Think you’d have done another one?

I don’t know. We just didn’t ever get there, you know? We recorded the album, and then the tragedy happened before the record came out. It came out immediately after Stevie got killed. It was already scheduled, so we didn’t know what to do. Do we release it? Do we cancel it? We didn’t know.

Do you still practice?

I play a couple hours every day. Sometimes more. I just took the ferry from England to Hamburg, and I played guitar for four hours sitting in the bus. It’s fun. I’m not hanging out in the bar anymore. I’m over all that young-man stuff about drinking. I don’t do any of that anymore, so I play guitar. When you’re young and out on tour, you don’t want to go home. But you go through life, get a little older and start appreciating what you’ve got. At least that’s what happened to me.

Is playing guitar an ongoing learning experience for you?

I took music lessons last year. I got a guitar teacher who’s unbelievable. I’m not going to tell you his name because I don’t want everyone to call him. He’s mine! (laughs) But he’s a fabulous guitar player who went to the Guitar Institute of Technology and learned from [GIT founder] Howard Roberts. I’m always trying to learn how to play new things. Not necessarily change my style so I sound different, but theory and chords. I still enjoy all that. I’ve never really learned anything that I haven’t used sooner or later. I may not use it for 20 years, but someday it might come up, and you go, “Oh yeah, I know what to do about that.”

Why are you still drawn to the blues?

I just play the music that I love, because that’s what I like to hear. I made it my business to find other musicians who like what I like, and I’m still just trying to learn how to play what I want to hear. I love that stuff. The first time I heard that music, it made me feel great, and I went, “Man, that is it. When I grow up, that’s what I’m going to be.” I’m still trying to do that. That’s what I enjoy doing, so it’s living for me.

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