Jimmie Vaughan talks about his version of the blues, his upcoming MKE show and more

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards once said, “The blues are the most important thing America has ever given the world.” To which Jimmie Vaughan could add: “Amen!

Vaughan was the quintessential baby boomer, born in the Oak Cliff suburb of Dallas, Texas in 1951. At that time, America was in the early stages of the Cold War and the civil rights movement was beginning to gain ground. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said the United States “stands on top of the world”. None of that meant anything to a kid obsessed with rock and roll on his guitar.

As a teenager, Vaughan was already proficient enough to play in local rock bands, establishing a solid reputation as a go-to guitar player. When he saw a Muddy Waters show in 1968, Vaughan moved to Austin and started playing in blues bands. In the mid-1970s, he formed a new group, modestly named the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Powered by Vaughan’s sleek, no-frills guitar licks, the Thunderbirds fused rock, blues and R&B across eight albums with a Texas roadhouse sound that propelled them to international success. Vaughan left the Thunderbirds in 1990 to work with his younger brother, Stevie Ray Vaughan, on a collaborative studio album called “Family Style”. After his brother’s untimely death, Vaughan built a strong solo career playing the music he loves.

Jimmie Vaughan spoke with OnMilwaukee ahead of his show at the Turner Hall Ballroom on Saturday, March 26.

OnMilwaukee: There was music in your house when you were growing up, and it seems your parents were supportive of you and your brother becoming guitarists.

Jimmie Vaughan: Oh yeah. My mother and my father loved music and they liked to dance. My uncles on both sides of the family played in professional bands. We grew up with music. I’m grateful to my parents for letting me do what I love. Guitarists could earn money and avoid hard labor!

You are well known for playing Fender Stratocaster guitars. What made you choose that over, say, a Telecaster or a Les Paul?

When I started playing as a kid, I had a Gibson 330, a hollowbody electric guitar. My dad bought it for me. Later I tried a Les Paul, then bought a used Telecaster for $175. I liked these guitars but always came back to Stratocasters. Buddy Holly had one, Buddy Guy had one, so as a teenager I thought I should have one. (laughs) You can make a Stratocaster sound like a lot of other guitars, even a kick drum. Besides, he looked cool.

In the 90s Fender offered to make a guitar with some of my modifications called Tex-Mex, and these were made in Mexico. After a while, the Fender Custom Shop worked with me to create a new guitar outfitted like the one I used on stage. They followed my specifications to the letter and released the Jimmie Vaughan Signature Stratocaster. So, I’m a happy Fender guy.

You’re not exactly a flashy guitarist. Your version of the blues leaves a little to the imagination.

When I seriously started to become a musician, I imagined myself in a room with Albert King, Kenny Burrell, Buddy Guy – you know, the guys whose playing I admired. I was already copying them so I wondered what I was going to do to develop a style to me. To do this, I took the time to listen to what was going on inside me. All guitarists borrow from the best in the beginning, because they can talk to us directly, express how they feel, and it’s real. It’s honest. Now I got to the point where I had to figure out what I would do. And the answer came to me. I didn’t need to fill every space with a note. I eventually became a musician who relied less on technical skills and focused more on just playing the notes that meant something to me. My game has always reflected what’s inside of me.

You’re on the road these days supporting “The Jimmie Vaughan Story,” which feels like your entire career in a box.

(Laughs) I guess so. It’s a collection of almost 100 songs on five CDs. I put it together to celebrate my 70th birthday. I’ve been playing since I was 12, so we’re talking about 58 years of my work. My first band was called Storm, and that’s covered here. Also my years with the (Fabulous) Thunderbirds and my solo stuff so far. You will hear tracks where I played with Albert Collins, BB King, Billy Gibbons, Bo Diddley, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, John Lee Hooker, people I really admire. I’m probably the proudest that my little brother is there too. It’s been 32 years since Stevie Ray was killed near Milwaukee.

Do you think your music could have taken a different direction if you had continued to play together?

(Pause) I don’t know what to say to that. Stevie was my little brother. I really wish he hadn’t been in that helicopter, you know? It would be much nicer to have him around. I think we could have made other records together and gone on tour. What we did together would have been different from what I do as a solo artist, but the Vaughan brothers on stage, who wouldn’t like that.

What does the Milwaukee setlist look like? Any ideas what you’re going to play?

I’m not going to think about that now. I like to be flexible and play what feels right to me that night. We’ll probably cover something Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and we’ll do something Thunderbirds. I like to add “Shake for Me” by Howlin’ Wolf. It will be a fun evening. We were supposed to play the ballroom in Milwaukee last fall, but the show got postponed.

COVID was definitely not good for the music industry.

This had a very negative effect on live broadcasts. I practically tried to stay productive playing at home or with a few friends.

Did you ever think of reuniting the Fabulous Thunderbirds for a tour?

Neither of us had a serious discussion about it, but I’m very open to the idea. I think it would be fun to play some gigs with the guys. I’m very proud of what the Thunderbirds have done as a group.

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