Jimmie Vaughan is not particularly interested in talking about the past.
"I've probably forgotten what I've already done," the veteran Texas blues guitarist told me in an interview a few years back. "I'm more concerned with what I'm going to do next."
That said, there is a definite look into the past coloring Vaughan’s current West Coast tour. His three Southern California dates conclude June 12 with a stop at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles for the opening of an exhibit celebrating his brother Stevie Ray. From there, it’s on to Northern California shows June 13 at Moe's Alley in Santa Cruz and June 14 in Hopmonk Tavern in Sebastopol.
When I interviewed Vaughan, he was excited about the new crop of blues artists coming up, most notably Gary Clark Jr. As he sees it, blues is a chain, with younger musicians providing a link to the older.
"John Mayall saw B.B. King, and I saw John Mayall," Vaughan said. "Like most people my age, I remember the (1966) 'Bluesbreakers' album. I remember that it was a trip that they were playing that kind of music and that it was coming from England.
“And it sort of opened doors. It said, 'You can do this, too, it's OK.'”
Mayall's willingness to experiment within blues also encouraged Vaughan to fostered the blues-rock and -pop he recorded in the 1970 and '80s with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Vaughan continues to blend genres in his solo career.
"Playing what you're heart tells you to play," Vaughan said. "That's what I've always tried to do. I feel like I'm a painter. I get a blank canvas and some paints and (ask), 'What am I going to paint?' I can paint something personal to me or something that really gives me the willies.
"I've always been selfish that way," he added. "If I do what excites me, then everybody else will be able to get it."
Vaughan was raised in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas and weaned on Top 40 radio, the best in soul, and early rock 'n' roll. He took up guitar after being sidelined by a football injury at 13, and demonstrated an immediate, almost otherworldly affinity for the instrument.
Vaughan was soon playing in cover bands and tutoring younger brother Stevie Ray, who for the rest of his life would credit Vaughan as his greatest inspiration and influence.
By the time he finished high school, Vaughan's band, the Chessmen, was among the best in Dallas, even having opened a show for Jimi Hendrix. While both rooted in blues and R&B, the two guitarists' styles could scarcely be more different, with Vaughan opting for a clean, precise sound.
Vaughan put his playing to good use in Texas Storm, the R&B cover band that brought him to Austin in the late 1960s. The state capital and home to the University of Texas, the city had a divergent, free-thinking population.
"In Dallas, you had to be a (pop) cover band," Vaughan said. "But when I would come to Austin, I remember that they had beatnik bands and blues bands and jazz guys and Dixieland. They had all this crazy stuff going on."
Vaughan decided to contribute to the craziness by starting a group capable of playing all his influences. Formed in 1974 with Kim Wilson on lead vocals and harmonica, the Fabulous Thunderbirds served as the house band at Antone's, Austin's leading blues club. There, the young musicians jammed with everyone from Buddy Guy to Albert King.
The gig was so fulfilling, the Fabulous Thunderbirds didn't even consider recording until they were approached by Takoma Records.
"We were having so much fun playing every night," Vaughan said. "We weren't really thinking about our career."
The band's fortunes improved incrementally in the first years following the release of its 1979 self-titled debut album. From tiny Takoma, it was on to the larger Chrysalis label for "What's the Word" (1980), "Butt Rockin'" (1981) and "T-Bird Rhythm" (1982).
When the band returned to recording in the mid-'80s, it was for a major label, Columbia. After a high-profile gig opening for the Rolling Stones, the Fabulous Thunderbirds recorded their breakthough album, "Tuff Enuff" (1986). The title track went on to become a Top 10 hit, while the songs "Wrap It Up" and "Powerful Stuff" reached mainstream audiences via MTV and movie soundtracks. The band also won two Grammy Awards.
The Thunderbirds' fortunes had declined by the time Vaughan left in 1990 to record a duo album, "Family Style," with Stevie Ray. In August 1990, just weeks before its release, the younger Vaughan brother died in a helicopter crash. Devastated, Vaughan retreated from the public spotlight.
It took Eric Clapton, an influence – that's Clapton playing on the '66 "Bluesbreakers" album – turned friend to get Vaughan back on stage. He invited the Texan to open for him during a 16-night stand at London's Royal Albert Hall. Heartened by the response, Vaughan launched a solo career. Two decades later, he remains clearly content.
"I can tell you that being a musician has meant everything to me," he said. "It's really taken me around the world and given me a lot of opportunities that I would never have run across.
"I've been able to meet all these people – like John Mayall and B.B. King and Eric Clapton and Albert Collins – all these people who are my heroes, who got me involved (in blues)," Vaughan added. "It's just been a lot of fun and a really amazing thing."
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