When Jimmie Vaughan says “I have the best job in the world,” he isn’t kidding. For more than four decades, the guitar-slinging Texan legend has been earning his living rockin’ the blues, and nothing makes the man happier. But now, Vaughan is even more excited about his gig than usual-for his newest release he’s consulted the vast blues encyclopedia that resides deep inside of his head and come up with a nearly all-covers set best described by its unambiguous title: Blues, Ballads and Favorites.
Self-produced and recorded in Vaughan’s hometown of Austin, the newest offering by the co-founder of the iconic, still-missed Fabulous Thunderbirds spotlights a wild array of tunes originally recorded by the likes of Roy Milton, Jimmy Reed, Roscoe Gordon and Little Richard, with a Willie Nelson favorite tossed in. No particular criteria were used in selecting the tracks to include; Vaughan simply narrowed down a long list of songs he liked and Blues, Ballads and Favorites was the ultimate result.
“I just wanted to do these songs and that was it, really,” says Vaughan. ‘”And like all of my albums this one is 100% totally selfish. I want people to like what I do but at the same time I have this strong feeling that if I don’t like it, I can’t expect them to. These were just songs that I liked for one reason or another. Some of them were a little scary to me because I hold them up high, but I just did them anyway. These are the ones that made it.”
Recorded with a solid group of mostly local musicians, with longtime cohort Lou Ann Barton lending her vocals to a handful of tunes, Blues, Ballads and Favorites is Vaughan’s first new release in nearly nine years. “I got married and had twins, and a lot of things happened in between,” he says, but as soon as the music emits its mighty roar, it’s clear that nothing has dulled Jimmie Vaughan’s mastery of his axe or his powerful vocal delivery. “I’m just about to turn 59 years old and I’m having a good time,” he says. “I’ve got my second wind here.”
Vaughan’s love affair with blues and rock ‘n’ roll goes back to his childhood in Dallas. Listening to R&B and blues on the radio, seeing Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show, watching to his uncles pick country tunes on their guitars-all of those experiences helped shape the young Jimmie’s musical interests. Then it happened. While home from school recuperating from a broken collarbone, “My dad’s friend gave me a guitar and said, ‘Play this,’” Vaughan remembers. “They were afraid I’d get in trouble around the house. It was an acoustic cowboy guitar with three strings. I learned a Jimmy Reed thing and I’ve been playing ever since. After about a week I knew this was what I wanted to do. I thought to myself, if I really practice I can get some money and get a car and I can split.”
He got the car (he now collects them) and a bunch of guitars but Jimmie Vaughan never did leave Texas. He began playing around the Lone Star State with a series of bands, most notably the Chessmen, who opened once for a hotshot new guitarist named Jimi Hendrix. Then, in 1974, Vaughan hooked up with vocalist and harmonica player Kim Wilson and the Fabulous Thunderbirds were born. At first, Vaughan recalls, “People told us you can’t do this. You can’t have a blues band. Why do you want to do this? You’re crazy.” But the blues fanatics carried on regardless and, slowly but surely, proved the doubters wrong. In 1979 the band released their debut album and their fan base grew steadily from there. Even as rock music morphed around them-with trends such as punk and hip-hop making their grand arrivals-the Fab T-Birds, as they were affectionately known, stuck with the high-octane blues-rock formula that earned their music the tag “Blue Wave” in the media.
The T-Birds reached their peak of popularity with the 1986 release of Tuff Enuff, a classic of the genre that still sounds as monstrous today as it did nearly a quarter-century ago. Jimmie stayed with the group another four years after that, and his first move following his exit from the group was to cut an album with his kid brother, not a bad little guitar picker himself: Stevie Ray Vaughan. Family Style was a huge hit upon its release in the fall of 1990, but its success came with a huge price tag: Stevie Ray’s death in a helicopter crash just weeks after the album’s completion. To this day, Jimmie can’t wrap his head around the tragic event. “The whole thing doesn’t seem like it happened. It still stings,” he says, “but I’m proud of the record we did together.”
Assessing his brother’s prodigious talent and meteoric rise in the 1980s, Vaughan says, “I don’t want this to sound funny, but I think one of the reasons he was so good was because he had to beat me and he had to try harder.”
It took Jimmie a few years to come to grips with Stevie Ray’s untimely passing, and only then was he able to launch his own solo career in earnest. Strange Pleasure (1994), his debut under his own name, was produced by Nile Rodgers and included Dr. John among its cast of players, working out on a set mostly comprised of original Vaughan compositions. The same formula-with Rodgers and the Doctor once again on hand-was utilized for 1998′s Out There, while Do You Get the Blues? (released, ironically, on September 11, 2001) found Vaughan more fully embracing the rootsy down-home Texas blues sound he grew up with.
Each of the songs on Blues, Ballads and Favorites, naturally, has a special meaning to Vaughan, who’s absorbed the essence of these prime slices of Americana for nearly all his life. Several tracks, including the late Doug Sahm’s “Why, Why, Why” and Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s “The Pleasure Is All Mine,” feature a tight, funky horn section, and several spotlight Barton singing in tandem with Vaughan, among them the ballads “I’m Leaving It Up To You” (written by Don “Sugarcane” Harris and Dewey Terry) and Little Richard’s “Send Me Some Lovin’.”
Says Vaughan about his vocal partner, “I go back with Lou Ann before the Thunderbirds. When we met she was 18 and sang a Little Richard medley and I never recovered. She was wild. She’s just got a lot of feeling and we like the same kind of stuff.”
Other highlights include Vaughan’s own “Comin’ & Goin’,” a self-penned instrumental, and the Willie Nelson classic ballad “Funny (How Time Slips Away).” Hammond B-3 organ master Bill Willis-a veteran of the King Records hits of James Brown and Bill Doggett-sings that one on the album. Unfortunately, Willis didn’t live to hear the finished result: he passed away shortly after recording his parts for Blues, Ballads and Favorites. “He was like my musical father,” says Vaughan.
Vaughan relishes the opportunity to pass these songs down to a new generation of blues fans. But mostly he just enjoys singing and playing these songs that have traveled with him throughout the decades. For Jimmie Vaughan music has always been about one thing: having a good ol’ time. “It’s 120% American and I just love it,” he says. “It’s fun.”
And when it comes down to it, that’s all you really need to know.