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Jimmie Vaughan - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 25 / 6 / 2010

Jimmie Vaughan - Interview


One-time Fabulous Thunderbirds founder and blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan speaks to Lisa Torem about his musical career and recently released covers album, 'Jimmie Vaughan Plays Blues, Ballads and Favorites'

It’s almost like performer/guitarist Jimmie Vaughan has something akin to a Midas touch, except that instead of gold, everything the man touches is subsumed in passion. For example, when talking about his penchant for designing custom classic cars, he observes, “It’s not like transportation. It’s art you can drive to the store.” Vaughan grew up in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas, and, as fate would have it, after this would-be jock was knocked-out by a football injury at 13, he received his first guitar, and his world turned right-side-up. His pubescent years found him working in the Swinging Pendulums, at 15, and the Chessman, at 16. His early influences of live performance stemmed from the likes of Muddy Waters and Freddie King. Vaughan also attributes his vow to play every day to being raised in Dallas and having access to AM radio’s DJ with the distinct voice of Wolfman Jack. In the mid 1970s, Vaughan co-founded the Fabulous Thunderbirds with harpist Kim Wilson, and heralded a blues revivalist movement. But, then, in 1990, he left to launch a solo career, recording 'Family Style' with younger brother and guitarist Stevie Ray, with the encouragement of skilled producer Nile Rodgers. His debut solo work, 'Strange Pleasure', in 1994 enabled Vaughan to make more artistic decisions and allowed him to stretch his musical muscles more broadly. His second solo album, 'Out There', featured some unexpected tracks like Astral 'Projection Blues'. A stunning album dedicated to Stevie, after his death in a helicopter crash, 'A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan', in 1996, (Epic/Sony) features the earthy 'Six Strings Down' and punchy 'Pride and Joy'. 'Do You Get The Blues?' in 2001 (Artemis Records), his third solo release, featured the acoustic slide of 'The Deep End', the Texas blues shuffle ‘Robbin’ Me Blind’ and the exciting opening instrumental, 'Dirty Girl', penned by long-time friend, once Billie Holiday bassist and Hammond B-3 player extraordinaire, Bill Willis, Vaughan’s “musical dad.” Vaughan’s list of influences are stunning. Whether listening to the jazz interpretations of Thelonius Monk and Gene Ammons, the blues-imbued roots of Lightin’ Hopkins, the contagious early rock and roll of Little Richard or the romantic strums of Sabicas's 'Flamenco Fiesta', he has a gift for discovering that which makes something beautiful and a more personal gift of making everything he touches his very own. That said, aside from Vaughan’s talent as a guitarist, writer and vocalist, personality wise, he’s a proud and modest man who is quick to pay tribute to other artists and even quicker to laugh at life’s invariable and ironic moments. Our conversation yielded both levity and quiet observation, as he talked enthusiastically about his brand new release, and how growing older gracefully is an art in itself. Vaughan’s newest album, 'Jimmie Vaughan Plays Blues, Ballads and Favorites', is a spectacular trip down a juke box scented memory lane. This ambitious 15 track CD includes tried and true covers, which Vaughan cleverly reinvents, an invigorating instrumental, self-penned Vaughan melodies and plenty of gratifying guitar and horn riffs. The last tune, ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’, says it all. Time, of course, does slip away, but spending it wisely, now that’s a genuine Jimmie Vaughan story. PB: Let’s talk about 'Jimmie Vaughan Plays Blues, Ballads and Favorites'. There’s a lot of back story behind many of these songs.’Funny How Time Slips Away’ was covered by Billie Walker and Willie Nelson.(‘She’s got the) Blues for Sale’ goes back to the 40s, ‘Wheel of Fortune’, recorded by Kay Starr, goes back to the 50s. You have such a broad selection. But, you open with your own tune, ‘The Pleasure’s All Mine.’ You’ve said that your goal was to simply concentrate on songs that you love, but I think there’s a deeper story, there. JV: Well, really, it’s just what songs do I think would be good for an album, what songs go together and I was thinking of a juke box. What would I like to hear if it was a great juke box? If I’m going to make an album like this, just play my favourite songs and see what would work really good in person - if I played, locally I mean. To play on a live gig for people, and so all the above…When I was a kid I had an album by Little Milton, a record called, 'Little Milton Plays the Blues', and he kind of did the same thing. He played songs, but he played all these songs that weren’t his and I always loved that one. I remembered. So, it was a little bit of all that. PB: There’s some really deep material here. ‘I’m Leaving it Up to You’ was number 1 when JFK was shot, and Dale and Grace, the artists that had recorded that version, had actually waved to the motorcade earlier in the day. JV: Yeah, I read that same story. Yeah, ‘I’m leaving it up to you’ was actually number one three times. Besides, Dale and Grace, there was Donnie and Marie and somebody else – PB: Linda Ronstadt. JV: Linda Ronstadt. Yeah, so I thought maybe somebody’s heard this and I liked it because I liked the Don and Dewey original and I was looking for songs that Lou Ann Barton, who duetted with me on the version I did for the album, and I could do together. I thought we’ll just do this one, and, sometimes it’s hard to do songs like this. Because, you don’t want to do a crappy version of something you hold high. So, I thought, we’ll just do the bluesiest version ever. PB: You’ve been performing with Lou Ann for a long time. JV: She’s from Fort Worth and I’m from Dallas and it just works (Laughs). We sort of sound like hillbillies singing the blues. I don’t know. Our voices seem to go together. It doesn’t sound phony, you know. PB: It sounds very genuine. The last tune on the album was sung by – JV: ‘Funny How Time Slips Away?’ Bill Willis sang that. He was the organ player who has sung with me for years and years and he passed away in February. It just happened to be the last song that he made when we were making this album. So, I thought, perfect to put it at the end. PB; It is a very generous album in terms of using several vocalists. You’re a great guitarist, but there are a lot of horns. Was that a deliberate decision or did those songs just lend themselves to that type of arrangement? JV: I wanted to use the horns just because I like them, and it fits with this kind of stuff and I knew that we were going to go on tour with it. It’s just sort of the next phase. I’ve been saving this all these years, hoping that eventually I’d be taking the horns with me. PB: How do you plan to tour this album? JV: Oh, you just get on the bus (Laughs). PB: Are you still enjoying touring after all this time? JV: Yeah. I love to play. I play guitar every day whether I’m on tour or not. I’ve always loved it and I think I even love it more now. I think when you get older you appreciate things even more than when you are younger, possibly, so I’m a guitar nut. What can I say? PB: You were influenced by many guitarists, but especially Johnny “Guitar” Watson. JV: He was just cool and he was quite a musician and a vocalist. He was a great jazz piano player and he made records with just a piano, bass and drums. He played guitar because he could put on a good show with it. He was also a saxophone player. So, I think the appreciation for the sax – to have really great phrasing – he used the guitar like a saxophone. That’s what I like. I listen to sax players all of the time. Johnny Watson's style of guitar playing is really closest to Gatemouth Brown. Gatemouth Brown was the original guy who influenced people along the Gulf Coast. Let’s say, Houston or New Orleans. You’ve got Guitar Slim, Johnny Watson, Albert Collins, and I’m sure there are others that play that style. Gatemouth Brown really popularized it and did that first as far as I can tell. PB: What’s unique about the album is that the horns and guitar work so closely. You just don’t hear that anymore. You hear it in albums from a certain era and then, “Where is it?” You do a lot of call and response and picking up each other’s lines – JV: When I was a kid, and I first heard music, that I was paying attention to, I remember what music sounded like before I could play. That’s what I’m always trying to capture. PB: That feeling? JV: Yeah. That feeling and I just went and did what I liked, with that in mind. Most of the songs are really like live recordings. We would just go over the arrangements and they’re really great musicians. I couldn’t have done it without these musicians. And, it all fell together because they were all available at the same time. It just worked out. It was like the door opened and, okay, here we go. PB: And, you had been thinking about recording this album for quite some time. JV: In the back of my mind, I really wanted to make an album that sounded like a juke box. It’s just like we’ve got plenty of the other stuff going on. We have plenty of this and this is what I like and so I do what I like and, hopefully, someone else will like it and, you know… PB: What about ‘Comin’ and Goin’?’ JV: ‘Comin’ and Goin’ is just my latest instrumental. Again, when I was a kid, you know, in Dallas and in the South, before and after the news, they would always play instrumentals. I love instrumentals and they don’t seem to do that anymore. PB: No, they don’t. JV: But I do. ‘Comin’ and Goin’ is just a reference to the style of picking I was doing. You’re sort of chasing the guitar (Jimmie sings) doo doo doo doo doo doo…You’re chasing it around. It’s not a musical term. PB: So, what do you call it when you’re singing and playing the guitar line at the same time? Is there a name for that? JV: Confusion (Laughs). PB: You’ve done several versions of 'Six Strings Down'. Are you still playing it live? JV: Yes. As a matter of fact, I just played it in Europe every night. People like to hear it. On a live show, we do a lot of the stuff from the album, but, we also do a few things from here and a few things from there. So, it’s kind of a mix. PB: I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything which entails as much showmanship as your double-neck version of ‘Pipeline’ (A YouTube video shows Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan playing both the rhythm and solo parts of the song ‘Pipeline’ in tandem on a double-neck guitar-LT.). JV: (Laughs). Oh, I remember it was fun. It was just something to do, silly. That was one of the songs I started to play when I first started to play. Like probably most kids in America, with a guitar, it has nothing to do with anything, except that it was on the radio, and it just reminds me of when I was a kid. And I used to play that song a lot and we had this double-neck guitar. What if we do it at the same time? People liked it, so we kept doing it. You could do that on the same guitar as well. PB: Really? JV: It looks very complicated. JV: It’s not really. It’s just like when you play guitar and then you play it behind your back. It’s the same thing. It’s just behind your back (Laughs). PB: What do you remember from the T-Bird days? JV: Oh, yeah. Yeah. We had a ball. We went all over the world and really, my approach has always been the same. I’ve always used music as a completely selfish thing. I’ve always tried to play what I’ve wanted to hear. My favourite thing in the whole world is that. Just try to do that. That way it’s always interesting and challenging and fun, you know. I figure, everybody has their own top 40. Nobody can tell you what you like and nobody can tell me what I like. So, it’s completely mine if you know what I mean. PB: I do. JV: If you play that way, with that kind of feeling, other people notice it. PB: So when you embarked on your solo recording career, did that open up a whole new world for you or was it a little intimidating? JV: It was intimidating, but also, I started singing when I was forty. I never really sang before that. Nile Rodgers, who produced and recorded 'Family Style', said, “We’re going to get Etta James and we’re going to do all these instruments, and we’re going to be all wild and everything." He said, "We could get Etta James, but you’ve got to sing and Stevie does, too." And I thought, hmmmm. It was either sing or go home and I thought, “I’ll stay.” PB: Jimi Hendrix broke your wah wah, right? JV: Well, what happened was I was 14 years old and we opened for Hendrix in Dallas. His roadie came up to me and said, “Hey, Jimi broke his wah wah pedal. Can he use yours?” I said, ‘Okay. Sure.” That’s all it was. PB: You’ve played with musicians that have spanned so many genres: rock, blues, swing, jazz. Are there any special performance moments that you recall? JV: Well, when you get on stage with BB King, Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton, your natural defence kind of goes up and you kind of go into some mode after you get off stage. You go, “Wow. I just played with those guys.” But, while you’re doing it, you don’t think too much about it or you might get rattled (laughs). You go into – I don’t know what you would call it…_ PB: Zen mode? When you play with other people and you have such command of your instrument, whether playing rhythm or lead, what are you thinking about up there? Do you have to maintain constant eye contact or is it just a feel? JV: It’s more a feel. You kind of know how you want it to go. That’s a good question. It’s really a feeling from within that I’m trying to go with. And, it sort of tells me what to do next. It’s not something that you really think about. It’s more of a feeling that you go with at the time. And then, later on, you go, I shouldn’t have done that. During it, you don’t want to have a fight with yourself. PB: You dedicated the album to your dad. JV: No, that was Bill Willis – the organ player. I said he was my “musical dad.” I made up that term, there, but he was a big influence on me. I played with him for about fifteen years. Then he died, and the last song that he cut with us, ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’, he sang it and then he became ill and died, so that is why I put it on the album as an end cap. PB: You’ve done some really simple cuts in the past, just you and the guitar. Do you enjoy that kind of “no frills” approach as much as playing with others? JV: It’s really kind of based on the song, what I think will work best for the song. Sometimes right now, these musicians were available, so I just went with it. If I didn’t have any musicians, I would just use an acoustic guitar, I guess. I mean I’m going to play regardless of what anybody else does. But, this record seemed like it flowed easy. It was fun. PB: There are fifteen tracks on the album. JV: What happened was I got excited. I got started and I pretended to be making 45s and I would make one and say, “What’s going to be on the flip side?” I’d make two or three at a time and once I got going I didn’t want to quit. I’ve actually got several in the can for the next one just because I don’t want to stop. PB: The next one? JV: Yeah. PB: Soon? JV: I don’t know. Hopefully, I don’t want to say because – PB: You don’t want to jinx it. JV: Yeah. It’s just a lot of fun. I felt like I was on the edge of the cliff so I might as well just jump off (Laughs). PB: If you record again, will you have a theme? JV: I don’t know until I get there. Right now, I‘m in the same mode. You know, with the same musicians, doing the same kind of style. So, I come across stuff and I’ll say, hmmm. I’ll get this thought out. I could do that and then I just try it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. P: What gets you in the mood for songwriting? JV: I’ll be driving down the street or something will pop in my head. I’m anti. If a bunch of people do something and I don’t like it, I think, I’m going to do it to show them what to do. So, it’s really all of the above. It’s funny, different things get you inspired and they may not always be the thing that people might think. It could be anything. PB: Do you like writing by yourself or collaborating? JV: I like collaborating, too. Usually, what happens, if I write a song with somebody, they give me what they think, and then I just tear it apart and make it mine. So, in the end, in order for me to sing it and play it, with my kind of phrasing and playing, I kind of have to make it mine. And, even if it’s somebody else’s song, I have to make it mine. That’s my method. PB: Yet, it took such a long time to acknowledge yourself as a vocalist? People love to hear you sing. But was it an emotional jump? Did you have a hang-up about it? JV: I didn’t even sing until I was 40 and 'Family Affair' and then Nile Rodgers – PB: But, you’re more comfortable singing now? JV: More than I used to be. I think I’m a guitar player, first, but I enjoy singing. It feels complete to sing, too. PB: Do you still practice or just play on the road? JV: No, I play every day, every single day. And my wife can tell you, and my kids can tell you, that I stand in my living room and play all day and they close the door and run out of the house, trying to be nice – PB: Everyone else is on-line trying to get a ticket to your show and they’re saying, “Get out of here,” right? JV: (Laughs). Something like that. PB: I heard that happened to Chopin and Beethoven, so don’t feel too badly. JV: Oh, good. PB: Jimmie, is there anyone in history you would like to have jammed with? JV: Oh, I don’t know. I like Gene Ammons on the saxophone. I like the way he phrases. He sounds like he’s just talking to you and he never sounds like he’s in a hurry. There’s nothing pretentious about it and he’s just telling you a story that happened to him. And, that’s the way I want to play when I grow up. PB: Is there a story, even when playing an instrumental, in the back of your mind? JV: Oh, yeah. Think of it like when you write a story. You wouldn’t just throw a bunch of words in a bowl, would you? PB: No, never. JV: Like, if you’ve got a paragraph, you’ve got a beginning, a middle and an end, and it all has to flow, and it has to make sense. You don’t want it to be too many words or not enough, you just want it to be natural sounding and that’s the way it is with music. With me, I want it to flow. I don’t want it to sounds like it’s in a hurry. It could be fast, but, I just don’t want it to be strained. It’s something that I’ve learned and it’s satisfying when I can pull it off. That’s the goal, anyway. PB: When you’re touring, how important is the supporting act? JV: I mean, there are a lot of guys from around here, that I know, that are sort of like-minded and I like them. We don’t really have much to do with that. It’s usually the promoter or the local people that want something. PB: Are there some cities that you prefer in terms of the audience? JV: No, I don’t think so anymore. I mean, I love playing in Texas because I know everyone and I’m comfortable here, but I like everywhere. We do good in New York, England, Seattle, Fort Worth. People enjoy the stuff everywhere that I’ve been. I think that’s just from being around for a while, I guess. PB: So, you like that feeling of being around for a while? JV: It’s better than the alternative (laughs). I’m more comfortable in my shoes than I used to be. I enjoy it very much. I’ve enjoyed growing up. I don’t know if I’m going to grow up. I enjoy getting older, so far (laughs). PB: Did you take formal guitar lessons, Jimmie? JV: Nah. I didn’t take lessons. My dad told me when I was a kid, "You need to go down here to learn your majors and your minors" and, I was like, "Okay." I rode the bus down there, and, after the second lesson, the guy said, "You’re too far gone and you won’t listen to me." He was trying to teach me how to read music and I was just not concerned with that. So, I would go home and figure out what the song was and I would just play it by ear and he didn’t like that. I’m still learning about music. I’m still interested in it and I’m still a student. PB: You’ve been in the films 'The Blues Brothers' and 'Great Balls of Fire'. What was that like? JV: It was a lot of hurry up and wait. I have the best job in the world. I would much rather be a musician, than an actor. I don’t want to act. I want to do it. I don’t know. They called me up and asked if I wanted to be in a movie with BB King and Eric Clapton. I was like, okay (laughs). It was more of a way to see my friends, you know. PB: How many guitars do you own? JV: Oh, gosh. People give me guitars. I have quite a few guitars. I don’t know how many guitars I have. I don’t really know. PB: Does each one have a unique personality? JV: Yeah. I have three that I usually am into, at the same time, and the rest of them just kind of sit around. I usually fall in love with about one or two and just work those until they break, and then something else shows up. P: So, when are you taking off touring? JV: Wednesday. PB: Oh, wow. That’s fast. JV: Tomorrow. PB: Tomorrow? Are you packed yet? JV: No, but, I’m actually not unpacked from the last time which was a week ago (Laughs). PB: Thank you.

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Jimmie Vaughan - Interview

Jimmie Vaughan - Interview

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