Twenty-five-year session man, front man and solo artist Kim Wilson's vocal and harmonica work has clearly made him an essential ingredient of the Texas Blues. But to leave it at that would discredit his contribution to blues as a whole. Any blues fan can tell you how powerfully Wilson--whose shows this weekend at the Rhythm Room are set to be recorded for a new album--interprets a multitude of styles, how cleanly he writes, or how elegantly he blows the harp and vocalizes a phrase. They may sing praises to the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the band he formed with Stevie Ray's brother, Jimmie Vaughan, and which Wilson still fronts. The late blues great Muddy Waters often said that his favorite vocalist and harmonica player were both Kim Wilson.
Born in Detroit in 1951, Wilson moved with his family to Southern California at age 9. There he grew up studying guitar and trombone--unsurprising pursuits, since his parents both sang professionally. But it was in high school in the mid-'60s that he discovered the blues, soul and R&B. He listened to Wolfman Jack incessantly, as did his friends. At 17, he picked up a harmonica and found his groove.
Within a year, Wilson was playing with and learning from renowned musicians like Eddie Taylor, Albert Collins and Lowell Fulson. As he drifted more into the blues, he drifted away from California, which was not exactly the strongest blues scene of the day. In 1973, Wilson moved to Minneapolis, formed a band and made a single-song recording. But while there he met Jimmie Vaughan, who hailed from Austin, Texas. They began to work together, and by the fall of '74, Wilson had gathered his stuff (some records and amplifiers) and headed south.
In Austin he and Vaughan immediately started what was to become the Thunderbirds. After much touring and the obligatory, constant turnover of, yes, drummers, the T-Birds began to play regularly at Clifford Antone's now-famous local club. They soon became the house band, backing up pretty much anyone involved in the Texas Blues and "Outlaw" scene of the '70s. The rest, cliche or not, is history.
Since their first national release, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, in 1979, Wilson and the group have continually set the highest standards for the uniquely American musical form they love to play. After more than a dozen recordings and thousands of performances with the T-Birds, Wilson has launched a second band, The Kim Wilson Blues Revue. Two years ago he started his own label, Blue Collar Music.
Texas Blues, with its centurylong history, its Dallas to Port Arthur to Austin trek, and its tapestry of artists from Leadbelly and Victoria Spivey through the Winters and the Vaughans to Sue Foley, is forever enriched by the work laid by Wilson, himself a student and historian of classic blues everywhere. His influences include James Brown, Albert Collins, B.B. King, Etta James, Smilley Lewis, Little Walter, Jimmie Rodgers and, always, his idol and mentor, Muddy Waters.
We often wonder what will be remembered as the essentials of our time. If the blues are to be part of this legacy, so will Wilson's work. "Ain't it tuff enuff?" asks his best-known lyric. Indeed it is, and built to last.
Fri., March 6, 8 p.m., 2009