People tend to describe the playing of Jimmie Vaughan in subtractive terms, defining him by what he leaves out. He is restrained, he is minimalistic, he is not flashy, he is tasteful, he is – and this is a very big one for a lot of people – not his brother.
That’s not really how I hear him, although none of the preceding statements are necessarily untrue. I have spent the better part of the last month listening to Jimmie Vaughan Plays Blues, Ballads, and Favorites (released on Shout! Factory Records in the US, although the European version on Proper Records includes two extra songs that are well worth owning), and I don’t hear a player consciously editing himself. I hear him pouring out his soul all over the record; I think it’s just that what is in his soul is different from what people are used to hearing. People expect a certain set of gestures from the modern blues guitarist, and Jimmie really isn’t interested in doing that.
I have more thoughts about the impact of the Sixties guitar hero boom and the accompanying demographic changes of the blues musicians and audience than I intend to go into here, but the very idea of the “guitar hero” implies a certain hierarchical distance between the player and listener. (Am I wrong in reading “guitar hero” as analogous to “superhero?”) In these terms, the guitarist is expected to not only sound good, but to be impressive, and to do things the audience can’t. It’s not only about speed and fluidity, though. There are gestures that communicate emotion to the listener in shorthand, and the sobbing and screaming of bent and vibratoed strings are powerful tools, with which the guitarist can subliminally tell the audience, “I am being expressive.” I’m not being dismissive here; many of my favorite players are impressive technicians, and even more of them use bent strings and vibrato to genuinely communicate emotion, and the audience isn’t wrong or shallow for responding to those things. But those devices do build a bridge between the player and the listener’s expectations that makes it easier for the modern blues audience to process what they hear. Because Jimmie Vaughan uses those devices sparingly if at all, he is perceived as holding back.
The blues guitar heroes of the Fifties and earlier – the ones who had the biggest influence on the ones around them – were not necessarily the ones performing the greatest feats of strength and speed, or bending steel strings with their bare hands. Guitar Slim’s “The Things That I Used To Do” was a massive hit, and a huge formative influence on the likes of Buddy Guy, Earl King, and Albert Collins, surviving into the guitar hero generation with covers by both Jimi Hendrix (an informal jam with Johnny Winter, not intended for official release) and Stevie Ray Vaughan (one of the centerpieces of his second LP). Slim’s guitar solo is no great technical feat; to the contrary, it is simple and sing-songy, does not contain a single bent string, and the broad strokes could easily be approximated with one or two fingers by a dedicated beginner. Not only is it devoid of the technical tricks that we use to connote emotion and soul, but it has the nerve to be largely in a major scale, so it can’t even rely on the minor and flattened “blue notes” to convey its message. The solo is also one of the best in recorded blues history, with a beautiful melodicism, great phrasing, savage, wonderful tone, and perfect structure. It sounds unbelievably good, and is about as emotional and soulful an experience as I can imagine.
That’s where Jimmie Vaughan’s music hits me. Plays Blues, Ballads, and Favorites is the work of a true master who has refined his style into a shining diamond. Jimmie’s post-Fabulous Thunderbirds stylistic shift (in crude terms, he added a capo, dropped his pick, and went BRRRRINNNG!!! on the top two strings a lot) has become part of a larger palette for him, so that he can draw on his command of all styles of blues guitar in service of what he wants to hear. His playing on “Roll Roll Roll,” for instance, could have fit comfortably on any of the first handful of T-Birds albums, whereas “R.M. Blues” features Jimmie in full Strange Pleasure fingers-and-capo glory, and his playing on the rest of the record mixes those elements until the distinction becomes irrelevant. The opener, “The Pleasure’s All Mine,” seems to feature Jimmie in one of his earlier styles – he’s using a pick, and his phrasing and touch have elements of Little Milton and Ike Turner – until about halfway through the guitar solo, when his phrasing starts to reflect his later style. At 2:48 or so, there it is – “BRRRINNNGG!!!” He’s been using the capo all along, and the resulting sound has been a totally seamless blend of his past styles.
The stylistic growth and refinement of Plays Blues, Ballads, and Favorites is not only about Jimmie Vaughan’s stylistic history, though. In interviews, Jimmie has spent the last few years talking about the influence of Gene Ammons, and there is definitely a jazz influence in Jimmie’s increasingly horn-like phrasing that was only hinted at before, and at times, his guitar even takes on a Kenny Burrell or Grant Green-like character. It’s a matter of nuance and touch more than anything else – he’s not playing bebop lines to outline the chords, with the possible exception of the little lick that leads into the ii chord at 1:32 into “How Can You Be So Mean” – but there is a swing and lilt to Jimmie’s phrasing that is new, sophisticated, and exciting. The material emphasizes this side of Jimmie’s music, too; the quirky, contemporary funk and soul that Jimmie started exploring on Family Style and refined on his own solo records is gone, putting the focus back on the shuffle, 12/8 ballad, and twist. That the album is dedicated to Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown isn’t surprising; Gate’s own pickless, capo-assisted playing was among the most swinging, horn-influenced, and best in American music.
Context is everything, though, and the magic of Plays Blues, Ballads, and Favorites is as much due to the band Jimmie has assembled as it is to Jimmie himself (which is to say, a lot.) Jimmie’s long-time collaborator Lou Ann Barton is one of the greats of Texas music, and she is singing in top form here. Her duets and harmony with Jimmie are absolutely charming, and her solo features “Wheel of Fortune” and “Send Me Some Loving” are the best she’s ever sounded on record. The organ master Bill Willis, who had been such an integral part of Jimmie’s solo career, sadly passed away earlier this year, making these his last sessions. He provides a lush cushion for the rest of the band on the tracks on which he appears, and he sings a touching, warm take on Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” to close the record. Jimmie’s long-time drummer George Rains is a true master, with a unique, snappy take on the double shuffle, and a beautiful, relaxed swing. Although guitarist Billy Pitman has been part of Jimmie’s touring band for many years, I don’t believe he has appeared on any of the records until now, and his rhythm playing is stylish, supportive, and swinging. Newer additions to the band – all of whom have collaborated with Jimmie before, some for decades – include Ronnie James on upright bass with his gorgeous tone and deep pocket, and a horn section featuring Greg Piccolo, Kaz Kazanoff, and Ephraim Owens on tenor sax, baritone sax, and trumpet, respectively. Greg Piccolo deserves special mention here – I’ve played with Pic often over the past few years, and he never fails to inspire me. His tone, feel, and phrasing are impeccable, and his way with a simple melody makes him a perfect stylistic match for Jimmie Vaughan.
What haven’t I covered? This is career-best singing for Jimmie, and he plays harmonica on “Come Love” exactly the way you’d expect Jimmie Vaughan to play harmonica (big tone, simple phrasing, sounds like Jimmy Reed). The record is recorded and mixed perfectly, too – Jimmie mentions “that real jukebox sound” in the liner notes, and that’s what it is, with more fidelity in the low end to bring out Ronnie’s bass a little more.
Enough rambling out of me. I suppose my point is this: let’s stop defining Jimmie Vaughan for what he isn’t, and take time to celebrate what he is. Jimmie Vaughan Plays Blues, Ballads, and Favorites is a masterwork by a true guitar hero. “Recommended” doesn’t even begin to cover it.