Jimmie Vaughan is still a blues speed racer
Getting a call from one Jimmie Vaughan on my cell phone at 8 a.m. recently had me doing a double take. “Hi, this is Jimmie Vaughan. I hope it’s OK that I’m calling this early, but I’m sitting in my hotel room with nothing to do and have time do the interview sooner if you can,” his message says after I let the unknown number hit my voicemail while brushing my teeth at home. When I checked it I had to wonder, was I awake or just groggily mishearing things? Blues legend, Vaughan is a founder of the hard-driving Fabulous Thunderbirds. The guy used to open for Jimi Hendrix—the two infamously swapped Wah pedals. Oh, and he’s the older brother and first mentor of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. There’s more than four decades of blues and rock noodling filling his well-worn boots.
With no label middle man or band manager dealing with the details through my office line, the guitar icon’s unceremonious message is like his music: A mix of Southern politeness and straight-to-the-point pragmatism, Vaughan deliberates on his guitar and in conversation with a charming candidness. Confident but unassuming, inspiring yet accessible. He’s a guitar dazzler who opts for a less flamboyant, refreshingly modest style of playing along the frets.
Armed with a new album of classic covers—his first solo record in nine years, called Blues, Ballads and Favorites—the Texan troubadour is coming to Moe’s Alley for a double header on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 10 and 11. He says he’s at a time in his life when he can look back and pay homage to golden-era blues songs that are still relevant and relatable today. And he’ll be joined by his sax-heavy band and longtime stage and recording partner Lou Ann Barton unreeling her signature smoky pipes.
Speaking to GT from Los Angeles, something other than music is also on Vaughan’s mind. What’s occupying his attention at the time of our chat? His other passion: classic cars. With his beloved ’61 Cadillac that he rebuilt currently on display alongside his Fender Strat at the National Hot Rod Association Motorsports Museum’s “Axes and Axles: The Art of Building Cars and Guitars” exhibit, Vaughan muses over his two favorite pastimes. Which came first? It might surprise you. Both have come a long way.
GOOD TIMES: When did your passion for cars start?
JIMMIE VAUGHAN: I liked cars when I was a little kid before I started playing music. I’ve always been a car nut. I thought if I started to play guitar maybe I could get really good, get some money and buy a car. I’ve sort of been chasing my tail ever since.
You’re turning 60 next year.
I’ll be 60 in March. Wow, that’s the first time I’ve said that out loud.
Are you trying to avoid it?
No, I just noticed when it came out just then. I was like, ah! I can tell you the truth: When I turned 40 I thought, ‘Wow, you’ll know what to say.’ And then when I turned 50 I thought, ‘You’ll know what to do.’ I’m not sure that happened, but it’s like by the time you get there you feel pretty good about it. But when you’re all young and you’re thinking about it, it sounds horrible.
You’re on the road again with a new album. What feels different this time?
Well, I think I am able to appreciate things better now. When I was 30 years old I was crazy and just like a bull in a china closet. But the music is really similar—I think the music is better and we’ve gotten better at what we do. Personally, things seem to get better for me. I’m having more fun than ever and I actually play more now than I did 20 to 30 years ago. I play three or four hours a day whether I’ve got a gig or not. I’m really kind of on my second wind—maybe third wind!
What is the blues to you?
The blues has a bad reputation for being sad, but it’s really not. It’s just a way of getting it off your chest. It’s mostly about life, and men and women, I think. It’s about love more than anything. We’re having fun; it’s not a cry in your beer sad thing where we’re playing a bunch of sad slow songs. I think blues kind of has that reputation. It can be rough or a sad story, but it’s meant to make everything OK. Yes, thinking about the songs on my new album, which are really old songs, I can’t think of any sad ones on there. There’s stuff about romance and things you shouldn’t do, but it’s all pretty tongue-in-cheek and fun. It’s the same things they sing about now.
It’s interesting that listening to Sarah Vaughan informed your album Do You Get the Blues?
My philosophy about all this is still the same. A lot of this jazz, blues, country and a lot of rock—I don’t like all the categories. Like “I’m Leavin’ It Up To You” on my album, that was a hit song that’s been No. 1 three times for different people. Country people have done it, R&B people have done it. It’s like the names and the categories change, but if you boil it down it’s music about people.
Are you a romantic?
Very much so. It’s just all about feelings; you either feel it or you don’t and that’s the way my music is. I’m not sure if this music is for everybody. I’m very much in love with my wife and I feel romantic about her and it relates to this music. A lot of these songs, even though they’re older stuff that was popular when I was younger, if you go back and listen to my older albums it’s the same kind of music about the same things. It’s just the way I feel and I’m trying to express myself honestly to other people about these things I love.
What favorite musical experience do you hold dear after all these years?
Stevie [Ray Vaughan] and I had a lot of fun playing together over the years. I was four years older than him and I ran off from home when I was 14 to get in these bands with people older than me, and we’d go on the road. It scared my parents that I had run off and they couldn’t get me back, so they kind of clamped down on my brother. They were really watching him and saying, ‘We don’t want you to do what he did.’ So that just made him more determined to try harder, I think. And as soon as he got a chance, he took off too. It was just in me and I had to do it, and I think that’s what happened to him too. I think he saw me doing good out there as his big brother, and then he tried even harder, played even more, and was even more determined. He came to Austin when he was 17 or 18 and it was the perfect thing for him. He had the feeling for it.
Your greatest advice?
The main thing that I’ve done is that I’ve never stopped playing. I had this dream that I wanted to be this blues guitar player and everyone thought I was crazy at first. I gotta tell you, if everybody tells you you’re crazy or says, ‘What do you wanna do that for?’ then you might be on to something. Dreams are possible because it happened to me and it’s still happening to me. It’s silly, I used to dream about cars when I was a kid and I decided to be a guitar player, and I guess I just didn’t know that I couldn’t do it even though they both seemed like impossible things at the time.