Guitarist Jimmie Vaughan has been to the well and back: He has written top-40 hits, sustained major-label success, embarked on countless world tours and fielded invites to jam with the biggest of the big. Now the nimble-fingered player is rebuilding a solo career rich with Grammy wins and a bona fide respect that rivals his days with The Fabulous Thunderbirds. His latest triumph is the Grammy-nominated "Do You Get the Blues?," released late last year on independent label Artemis Records. Yet, with all his acclaim and stardom, he'll never reach the mythical status achieved by his baby brother, Stevie Ray Vaughan.
At age 50, the whims of fate have hardened Jimmie Vaughan as much as his many miles on the road, earning the elder statesman a reputation as a charming yet cantankerous near-legend. Meanwhile Stevie Ray remains a guitar god, a certified legend who took blues-rock to the masses. "Rave On," as he was called, was the Jimi Hendrix of his time, infamous for shredding both fret boards and brain cells with equal aplomb. And Stevie's rock-star death -- a tragic 1990 helicopter crash -- only cemented his status as a deity. His legacy lives on through still-being-released tell-all books, tribute recordings, remastered CD packages, concert DVDs and raw tapes with his backing band Double Trouble. Just last November, major-label imprint Epic/Legacy energized SRV completists with the two-CD set "Live at Montreaux 1982 & 1985." But Jimmie doesn't really want to talk about him -- or his own story, for that matter.
"It's very difficult to talk about music," says Jimmie, calling from his home in Austin, Texas, concerning his latest record and Feb. 15 show at House of Blues. "I just play guitar. I play guitar everyday. ... I really enjoy that. ... The guitar has done everything for me, taken me around the world, allowed me to meet my heroes and play with them. I never would have dreamed when I was a kid that I would get to meet `and play with` ... all these people." Those people include Eric Clapton, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray and Bonnie Raitt.
It's no secret that Jimmie and Stevie were highly competitive, even when they were kids growing up in in Austin. Ultimately, the individual merits of the musicianship of each of the Vaughan brothers make them stand on their own. But taken together, the brothers' body of work adds up to one of the more impressive family efforts in contemporary blues. (And the legacy looks to continue: Jimmie's son, Tyrone, co-wrote and played guitar on the track "Without You" on his daddy's new CD.) With his subdued manner and expressionless delivery, Jimmie conquered the mainstream, pop and adult-contemporary markets. And flashy, risk-taking Stevie Ray shook up the old-school blues set while bringing the blues back into rock's scream of consciousness.
"It's an honor, I guess," says Jimmie, when asked about the praise showered on his family's contributions.
While he begrudgingly acknowledges the achievements, he's also quick to change the subject -- something this grizzled music vet is rather practiced at.
"You gotta understand, I don't think about that. I think about playing music and writing songs and what's gonna be on my next album and what I'm gonna play tonight."
At the peak of their duelling careers in the mid-to-late-'80s, the Vaughan brothers were on top of the world, mining chart gold and platinum, all the while receiving critical accolades for their captivating guitar talents. Slicked-back Jimmie and his band The Fabulous Thunderbirds were a crossover smash, having scored several hits ("Tuff Enuff," "Hot Stuff" and "Wrap It Up") on pop radio with their potent, twangy blues-pop style. On the other hand, the more dangerous Stevie Ray was the toast of the blues world, hailed as The Great White Hope in traditional circles. Those were the salad days: Two American boys bringing back a sense of traditionalism to music, and doing it with style, swagger and skill to spare.
Times were so good, the notoriously distant siblings even stepped into a studio to cut some tracks together in 1990. With Stevie Ray clean and sober for the first time in his life and Jimmie itching to prove that he was more than "Tuff Enuff," the blues brothers recorded "Family Style," a raucous exploration of blues-rock that showcased the Vaughans' mastery of their instruments. The shared session was a milestone for the pair.
Charged up and refocused by the "Family Style" sessions, Jimmie parted ways with the T-Birds after 15 long years of touring and recording, and went his own way. And then tragedy struck: A few months before the album was scheduled to hit stores, Stevie Ray died. Devastated by the loss of his baby brother, Jimmie pulled back, distracting himself with his second love: restoring vintage automobiles. But it didn't take long for Jimmie to get back on that horse: Guitar playing is in his blood. First up was his 1994 solo debut, "Strange Pleasures," released by Sony/Epic. He returned in 1998 with another for the label, "Out There," which snared a Grammy nomination for the song "Ironic Twist."
To this day, despite his successes, Jimmie's stock still hasn't risen above Stevie Ray's. And it probably never will. Checking out in a blaze of glory, Stevie Ray's reputation continues to grow with time. Short of murder and a high-speed chase in a white Ford Bronco, Jimmie can't do much to top his brother in this lifetime. No wonder, the been-there, done-that-the-hard-way performer is not a big fan of interviews.
He does light up, however, when discussing "Do You Get the Blues?," currently nominated for a Grammy in the "Traditional Blues" category. The CD is a no-nonsense dose of electric and acoustic blues that showcases Jimmie's maturity as a songwriter and as a singer. (Though he has played guitar since he was 12 years old, he didn't start singing lead until 1993.) The CD is ripe with special-guest performances (James Cotton, Double Trouble and original T-Bird singer Lou Ann Barton), all ably backed by Jimmie and Hammond B3 player Bill Willis and drummer George Rains. It's a band he seems to be proud of.
So, come to House of Blues expecting to hear Jimmie, his group and special guest Barton rip it up on cuts from his three solo ventures, as well as 1996's well-received "Shuffle: A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan" (for which Vaughan nabbed a "Best Rock Instrumental" Grammy) and "Family Style." Also scheduled are sets from openers Gregg Allman and Johnny A. But don't expect to hear "Tuff Enuff" -- Jimmie's not firing up that time machine.
"No T-Birds songs," says Jimmie. (Forever road warriors, The Fabulous Thunderbirds continue to tour and record without him.) "I play 99 percent songs I wrote on my last three `or` four albums."
I guess that means that a Fabulous Thunderbirds reunion is out of the question? "I've already done that," snaps Jimmie in a boy-what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-you kind of way. "I never say never, but ... . This is the good old days, now, and I'm enjoying myself right now."
After his long years of clocking in at the music factory, Jimmie certainly has earned the right to have it his way. And to have his say. But I'm already on his shit list, so I push on, mentioning Keri Leigh's 1993 biography, "Stevie Ray: Soul to Soul." It's but one of the many books on the market that spills the guts on Stevie Ray Vaughan's hard-partying lifestyle. Jimmie is featured throughout, not always in the most positive of lights, represented mostly by press quotes and interpretive comments from friends and associates. While Leigh claimed to have spent much time interviewing Stevie and those who knew him, the book -- and others like it -- certainly has its detractors. At the top of the list is Jimmie.
"I just kind of ignore it because it is so wrong," says Jimmie, again breaking out the pie charts. "She made up 90 percent of that book. I guess it is a nice book if you don't know anyone. According to that book, she taught `Stevie` how to sing and inspired him to great heights. C'mon."
In fact, Vaughan doesn't recommend any of the books on Stevie Ray.
"They are all completely full of shit," warns Vaughan. "There's so much hearsay ... and everyone's got a story. When they don't have enough stories, they make one up."
When he's not playing guitar, critiquing books or roughing up music writers, Jimmie restores hot rods. The avid auto enthusiast -- The Fabulous Thunderbirds name didn't come from Jimmie's love for our feathered friends -- has a customized 1961 Cadillac Coupe de Ville on display at the Cars & Guitars of Rock & Roll exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
"Music and cars have something to do with each other," says Jimmie, talking about his stable of vehicles in proud-papa fashion. "When I was a little kid, my uncle used to drive me around, and he taught me all the different makes of cars. When I got older I got into hot rods and custom cars." Now he's full-on pedal to the metal. Vaughan's collection of customized road warriors -- including vintage Chevys and Buicks -- would make most car junkies jealous. (Pictures are posted on www.jimmievaughan.com to rub it in.)
But those rides don't even compare to the one Jimmie's music career has afforded him. And even though the Vaughans have proved themselves over and over, Jimmie still feels pressure to do it again. And again.
"You keep working towards expressing yourself better," says Jimmie, who practices an hour every day. "I've been playing a long time. ... I don't know what I have to prove, although every time you put out a record it seems like you have to reprove yourself."
Even when you're Stevie Ray's older brother.