Jimmie Vaughan's Got No Blues At All

Jimmie Vaughan is the blues guitarist who reinvented "less is more." On his website bio, younger brother Stevie is quoted as saying, "I play probably 80 [percent] of what I can play. Jimmie plays one percent of what he knows. He can play anything."

This may be a terrible question to ask a lifelong bluesman, but why only blues?

"I play blues and rock 'n' roll," he responds. "People call it different stuff. I just play what I like, what I want to hear myself."

The most profound original track of Vaughan's later career is "Six Strings Down" (that, and "Boom-Bapa-Boom"). Its refrain, "Heaven done called another blues stringer back home," from his 1995 album, Strange Pleasure, is a gospel eulogy to his lost brother, who people love even more as time marches on. But for Vaughan, like most blues musicians, the future is mainly about the glorious past.

"I listen to jazz records from 1959," he says. "You can't have jazz without the blues; they're all connected. Gene Ammons and Willis Jackson, that's who I like. I listen to old gypsy records, flamenco, Sabicas, Nino Ricardo. I listen to Segovia—don't try to play like that, but it inspires me. I also like country music—George Jones, Webb Pierce."

Personally, I'd like to hear Vaughan stretch out and do a doo-wop album, a gospel album along the lines of "Six Strings Down" or a country album of some kind. Take some bigger chances. But that's a selfish, unfair request. You can't argue with his own refrain: "I just don't feel 'country.' I play what I like."

Approaching 59, Vaughan still looks like a movie star, with a perfect black hairline, "a longtime avatar of retro cool." He has always dressed as a blues dignitary, right down to the way that fine fabric hangs down over his boot heels. No one dressed like that since the heyday of Chess Records in Chicago in the 1950s—until the Fabulous Thunderbirds brought the style back at the tail end of the 1970s. Since then, it has become the standard wardrobe for a thousand blues bands. Originally, it was the way former sharecroppers "dressed up the blues," so they wouldn't be thought of as raggedy winos.

So here comes a fourth CD under his name, Jimmie Vaughan Plays Blues, Ballads & Favorites, on Shout Factory, out this very week. Again, Vaughan is peerless in his taste and hasn't played a wrong note in 40 years. The album has lots of space and air between the instruments. It's dry, with little reverb, even on vocals, and has a short blues "conversation" with Lou Ann Barton. A Texas-shufflin' rhythm section with horns, cherry-picked from the Antone's fraternity—Austin-based musicians who let few into their tight professional clique. Except, of course, the members of Vaughan's touring band, which includes Providence-based Doug James. James is the best baritone sax player and arranger in the business.

A few years ago, Vaughan signed on to do a book with David Ritz, autobiographical collaborator of the R&B pioneers. But then he decided he didn't want to spill it. Or maybe his memories are just like his playing—heavy on groove and tone, but with dignified restraint. Why contribute to the endless junk heap of celebrity biographies? There are virtues to privacy, and you won't find him on Twitter.

"I just worked on it a little while," he says. "Didn't want to do it anymore. That's not what I do, is it? It's not that I have a bad or particularly weird or dark life. I mean, how would you like to have a book revealing everything about you?"

Actually, there have been a few. But Vaughan sums up his present as such: "I'm happily married. I've got twins. I really enjoy being with my family, playing guitar all the time, driving around in [classic custom] cars. I have a good life."

He's built five cars over the last 30 years. It takes at least five years for him to build one.

"It's not like transportation," he says. "It's art you can drive to the store. You nickel-and-dime it as you go along. They never get finished."

But Vaughan himself is working toward a happy ending.

"In the '80s," he says, "I was completely wild and out of my mind, running around the country. I'm not the same guy I used to be."

So now he'll raise his kids in Austin, and stay there, "unless they run me out of town." Texas knighthood would be more likely.

"Thank goodness we don't have that," he says, democratically.

Well, we don't have knighthoods here, like they do in the land of King Arthur (Sir Mick, Dame Elton). But we do erect statues to musicians we've lost in air disasters—like Buddy Holly in Lubbock, and Jimmie's brother, Stevie, in Austin. There's plenty room in Texas for a few more, and I say put one honoring Jimmie Vaughan up now, in the State Capitol. (He already has Fender and Gretsch guitars named after him, and probably a car or two.) They should put up statues for the other founding Thunderbirds too, especially Keith Ferguson, and even one for drummer Mike Buck.

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