Documentary explores how Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan brought Texas blues to the masses
In the 1960s, most of the music on the radio was inspired by The Beatles and emerging psychedelic rock. But two brothers from the Dallas area were inspired by the guitar playing they heard in small blues clubs.
A new documentary, “Jimmie & Stevie Ray Vaughan: Brothers in Blues” follows them from the Oak Cliff neighborhood to the top of the music charts. Producer and director Kirby Warnock told the Texas Standard he drew in part on his own memories of watching some of the Vaughan brothers’ earliest performances.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Why did you want to tell this story?
Kirby Warnock: I have always been fascinated by the story of Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, ever since I first saw them back in 1978, when I was editor of a magazine called Buddy Magazine – it was a Dallas music magazine named after Buddy Holly. But I saw them play in Dallas at some clubs here and were just completely blown away by them. And the more I dug into it, I just thought they had probably the most amazing story.
These two brothers came from a little bitty cracker box tract home in Oak Cliff and went to the very top of the rock and roll heap, and all the famous rock stars of that era back in the 70s wanted to play with them, you know, from Eric Clapton to David Bowie to Carlos Santana.
Also, they did not have to pack up and move to New York or L.A. to get signed to a record deal. The Vaughan brothers stayed in Texas and kept playing little clubs around here, and eventually both got a record deal and both did very well.
What was it about the music in particular that grabbed your attention so much?
The first one I saw was Jimmie and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and I went to see them at the Texas Chili Parlor, the original one in downtown Dallas. And I was just blown away because, one, they didn’t sound like anything that was on the radio at that time. And two, they played a really pure, clean style.
Jimmie just plugged a guitar straight into an amplifier, didn’t have any pedals, any effects or anything like that. And they just got such an incredible sound out of just their hands, using their hands to bend the strings and things like that. Why didn’t the whole world know about these guys?
Could you talk a little bit about the synchronicity or the chemistry between the brothers themselves?
Well, the first thing is that when I was watching them play back then, it seemed like whenever one of them was playing, the other one would be there at the gig backstage or something. They both were very supportive of each other. There was never a hint of animosity between them that I saw, and they just were very supportive of each other.
And they always had said to me that one day we want to make a record together. And they got the chance to do that “Family Style,” which was the last recording just Stevie made. And we have in the film Nile Rodgers, who produced that album talking about it and just saying that he didn’t see a hint of animosity and he saw a lot of love between them.
Jimmie was the older brother, and he went first. And Stevie learned to play guitar from watching his older brother. And Stevie told me in one of my interviews that Jimmie taught him the first song he ever learned on the guitar, which was “Wham” by Lonnie Mack. And in the film, Eric Clapton says, ‘I think you have to ask yourself, would Stevie be playing at all if it weren’t for Jimmie?’
I saw them both do stuff with the guitar that I just couldn’t believe, you know? And so they had that immense talent. But they also were committed. They were very committed to what they’re doing, or they wouldn’t have dropped out of school to pursue a musical career.
You talked to a lot of big names: Eric Clapton, Nile Rodgers, Billy Gibbons – did you find it easy to get these folks to talk about the Vaughan brothers, or did you have to do some arm twisting?
Well, I’ll be quite frank with you, I got all those interviews because of Jimmie. When I was working on this film, I contacted the management for each one of those artists I wanted to talk to because I was very adamant that I needed to talk to people who were actually in the room when it happened.
For example, Eric Clapton played the last concert that Stevie ever played at Alpine Valley. I said, “I’ve got to get him to talk about that night.” And then Billy Gibbons wrote a song about the Thunderbirds and their weekly gigs at the Rome Inn in Austin. And I said, “I got to hear Billy tell us about that song.” And then Jackson Browne gave his recording studio to Stevie, free of charge, to record his first album, “Texas Flood.” And I said, “I’ve got to talk to him about that.” And also, Jackson Browne sang at Stevie’s funeral up in Dallas.
And so I contacted their management, but Jimmie reached out to them and just said, “This guy’s okay. You can talk to him.” So I never would have gotten any of those interviews done without Jimmie’s help on that.
I understand that Jimmie Vaughan has not always necessarily cooperated on projects like this. Why do you think he helped you out?
Well, one was that I developed a relationship with him when I was working at Buddy, because I wrote a story about the Thunderbirds in ‘78 and then I wrote a story about Stevie in 1980. And back then, I was about the only person giving them publicity because The Dallas Morning News didn’t cover what was going on in clubs in Dallas. They just went to big concerts. And I just kept up that contact with Jimmie through the years.
And he had always been reluctant to do this with me. And, finally, one day I just said, “You know, we’re not getting any younger, and if you die, people will be able to say whatever they want and you won’t be around to say, ‘No, that’s not what happened.’” I said, “So you’d better tell me your story now.” And he agreed to do it. And we were just blessed to get his cooperation.
Could you talk a little bit about the blues and how it influenced them and where they took it?
Well, they were lucky to be in Dallas, Texas, because there were some influential blues players that came from there. One was T-Bone Walker, who used to be known as Oak Cliff T-Bone. And the other was Freddie King, who lived in Dallas up until the time he died. So they were able to go see these legendary blues players in clubs in Dallas.
We have Jimmie in the film talking about the first time he saw T-Bone Walker. Paul Ray took him to a club in Dallas or down on the Trinity River called Guthrie’s. And Jimmie just said that was a kind of a life changing experience for him. And they both saw Freddie King play, and that was a big deal, too. So they were around those Texas blues – saw those early.
But when they first started, they were like everybody else. They were covering the stuff you hear on the radio. They were, you know, doing Beatles songs, all that British Invasion, you know. But once they saw those blues players, they just totally changed course. As a result of that, they became interpreters of the blues. They put a new twist on it, which I thought, you know, made it more palatable or acceptable to, you know, white college kids.
What do you want audiences to take away after they see this movie?
Really, there’s two audiences for this film. And I know a lot of your listeners were in Austin back in when the Thunderbirds and Stevie were playing here and kind of know the story.
But then there’s a whole other group of people you’ve got to remember, Stevie died 31 years ago. We’ve got an entire generation that can listen to all of his music and watch all of his performances on the Internet, but they don’t really know the story behind how all this happened. And I’m trying to tell them that story, the new generation.
And then for the older group, people my age, it’s going back and looking at that time and saying, we didn’t really realize then how special it was. We pretty much took it for granted. We thought we could always come by next week and Stevie play, and then one day we couldn’t.
And so it really is trying to capture all that history and codify it and get it all together. I kind of look at it as like a cultural history is what it is. Kind of like, you know, what happened, now we’re going to show you how it happened.
Do you hear the Vaughan Brothers’ music being interpreted today? Where do you hear their influence?
Well, the most obvious is Gary Clark, Jr. Because he went to go watch them play. And he said that he had a poster of Stevie Ray Vaughan on his wall when he was a kid.
You know, I think anytime time anybody picks up a guitar and plays a, you know, 12 bar blues, they’re channeling Stevie Ray and Jimmie right there.
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