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Jimmie Vaughan a terrific team player

Greg Kot

5:30 PM CDT, August 14, 2011

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Jimmie Vaughan is one of the great guitarists of the last 30-40 years, though you might not know it – he’s not about calling attention to himself. He’s about substance and economy rather than excess and showmanship.

In every context in which Vaughan has worked – whether it’s with the Austin, Texas, band he cofounded in the ‘70s, the Fabulous Thunderbirds; his current road combo with singer Lou Ann Barton; or his collaborations with his late, younger brother, Stevie Ray Vaughan -- Jimmie Vaughan is a team player who brings out the best in his accomplices. In that respect, he’s a bit like Steve Cropper or Keith Richards, brilliant guitarists who grew up on blues, country, R&B and jazz, and through intense listening and playing developed a style that was about an ensemble rather than ego.

On his latest pair of albums, “Plays Blues, Ballads & Favorites” and “More Blues, Ballads & Favorites” (Shout! Factory), Gilmore digs up a trove of deep roots music that shaped his style and puts his own spin on it. He points back to the under-recognized brilliance of artists such as Jivin’ Gene and Annie Laurie, and dusts off lesser-known tracks by greats such as Lloyd Price and Jimmy Reed.

“This goes back to me trying to learn about this music when I was a kid,” Vaughan says. “I’d buy a B.B. King album, and he’d cover a song by T Bone Walker, and then through T Bone I’d discover Lonnie Johnson. It set me off on this search that I’m still on.”

Vaughan started playing guitar when he was 12, learning from his prized blues albums and from his uncles, who played country music. That blend of styles can be heard on his cover of “I Ain’t Never,” originally recorded by country star Webb Pierce in 1959.

“I first started thinking about Webb Pierce when my uncles would play his songs, but if you listen to Webb’s version of ‘I Ain’t Never,’ it’s totally R&B,” Vaughan insists. “I always see similarities between blues, country, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. They like to separate out and make it all racial, but I think it’s basically all the same in a good way. If you go back to (country singer) Bob Wills, he’s playing the same beats the jazz big bands were playing. It’s like it was the national beat of the time.”

Vaughan, born in Dallas 60 years ago, moved to Austin when he was 19, and became part of the fertile roots scene in the Texas capital. He played on bills or shared stages with everyone from Jimi Hendrix and W.C. Clark to Z.Z. Top’s Billy Gibbons and his brother, Stevie Ray. He made an impact because it was clear that even though he was influenced by the blues greats, he wasn’t beholden to them, forging an original identity.

“When I got to be 17, 18, I realized it’s really great and fun to play like Buddy Guy and B.B. King, but what are you gonna do if you get lucky and meet them?” Vaughan says. “I have this dream where I’m in a room with all my favorite guitar players – Freddie King, Kenny Burrell, Lonnie Mack -- and we’re each doing a song and it comes around to me, and what do I play?”

As a teenager, Vaughan was in thrall to Hendrix and extended solos, but eventually developed a signature style based on restraint and spacing notes to ride the groove and let songs breathe.

“I used to try to play fast, and it’s fun for a minute,” Vaughan says. “But I always liked saxophone players. They speak on their instrument, and I always wanted to do that on the guitar, to communicate emotionally. It’s more direct. I’m not putting down anybody. But I’d rather hear a melody, a theme, and there’s a lot of that in blues. When the singer or guitarist plays or sings, and there’s space, that’s the time to feel what he just said. When you write, you wouldn’t just throw words into a bowl. There has to be a beginning, middle and end. Same thing with phrasing on the guitar.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan developed a more flamboyant style and was revered for it, before dying in a helicopter crash in 1990 after a concert at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. 

“When I was kid I brought home blues records and a guitar, and Stevie was four years younger, so he would watch me trying to play,” Vaughan says. “He tried to play like Hendrix, and when he did Hendrix, people went crazy. We realized that Hendrix got a lot of licks off Albert King records, and when Stevie did the David Bowie record, ‘Let’s Dance,’ he played those Albert King licks. When he would do that, there was almost nothing you could do anymore to top it. You could stand on your head and do backflips, and you still couldn’t beat what he was doing.

“When Stevie was 19, we were at (Austin blues club) Antone’s and Albert King was playing. (Club owner Clifford Antone) says to Albert you’ve got to let this kid play, because he’s (amazing). Now Albert had heard it all, but he got Stevie up there, and Stevie commenced doing Albert King licks. There was silence at first. Everyone stood there with their mouths open. They couldn’t believe it. But Albert loved it. He put his arm around him, and from then on it was Albert and Stevie. Everybody went, ‘Whew, that was scary.’ I would never have tried that, but you’ve got to admire the audacity.”

greg@gregkot.com

Jimmie Vaughan: 8 p.m. Aug. 25 at Space, 1245 Chicago Av., Evanston, Ill., $28, $40, $58; ticketweb.com.