By Larry Widen Special to OnMilwaukee Published Mar 23, 2022 at 2:01 PM Photography: Todd V. Wolfson

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards once said, "The blues is the most important thing America has ever given to the world." To which Jimmie Vaughan might add, "Amen!”

Vaughan was the quintessential baby boomer, born in the Dallas, Texas suburb of Oak Cliff in 1951. At that point, America was in the early stages of the Cold War, and the Civil Rights movement was starting to gain some ground. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said the United States “stands at the summit of the world.” None of that meant anything to a kid obsessed with playing 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 began playing in blues bands. By the mid-1970s he formed a new band, modestly named the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Powered by Vaughan’s stylish, no-frills guitar licks, the Thunderbirds fused rock, blues and R&B on 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 solid solo career playing the music he loves.

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

OnMilwaukee: There was music in your home when you were growing up, and it sounds like your parents were supportive of you and your brother becoming guitar players.

Jimmie Vaughan: Oh yeah. My mom and dad loved music, and they loved to dance. My uncles on both sides of the family played professional in bands. We grew up with music. I’m grateful my parents let me do what I loved. Guitar players could earn money and avoid hard labor!

You’re 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 hollow body electric guitar. My dad bought that for me. Later I tried a Les Paul, and then I bought a used Telecaster for $175. I liked those guitars well enough but I always came back to the 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 big box. Plus it looked cool.

In the '90s, Fender approached me about making a guitar with some of my modifications called the Tex-Mex, and those 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 onstage. They followed my specifications exactly and put out the Jimmie Vaughan Signature Stratocaster. So, I’m a happy Fender guy.

You’re a not really a flashy guitar player. Your version of the blues leaves a little to the imagination.

When I got serious about being a musician, I envisioned 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 asked myself what I was going to do to develop a style of my own. To accomplish that I took the time to listen to what was going on inside me. All guitar players borrow from the best at the beginning, because they can speak directly to us, to express what they’re feeling, and it’s real. It’s honest. Now I arrived at the point there I had to figure out what it is that would I do. And the answer came to me. I didn’t need to fill every space with a note. I eventually developed into a musician who relied less on technical skill and focused more on just playing the notes that meant something to me. My playing has always reflected what’s inside me.

You’re on the road these days in support of the “Jimmie Vaughan Story,” which looks like your entire career in a box.

(Laughs) I guess so. That’s a collection of almost 100 songs on five CDs. I put this together to celebrate my 70th birthday. I’ve been playing since I was 12 years old, 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 then my solo stuff up to now. You’ll hear cuts where I played with Albert Collins, B.B. King, Billy Gibbons, Bo Diddley, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, John Lee Hooker, people I really look up to. I’m probably most proud that my little brother is on there too. It’s been 32 years since Stevie Ray was killed near Milwaukee. 

Do you think your music might have taken a different direction if the two of you had continued to play together?

(Pauses) I don’t know how to answer that. Stevie was my little brother. I really wish he hadn’t gotten on that helicopter, you know? It’d be a lot nicer to have him around. I think we would have made some more records together and gone out on tour. What we did together would have been different than what I do as a solo artist, but the Vaughan brothers on one stage, who wouldn’t love that.

What does the setlist for Milwaukee look like? Any ideas as to what you’ll be playing?

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

COVID certainly wasn’t good for the music business.

It had a very negative effect on live shows. I pretty much tried to stay productive by playing at home or with a few friends.

Have you thought about putting the Fabulous Thunderbirds back together for a tour at some point? 

None of us have had any serious discussion about that, but I’m very open to the idea. I think it would be fun to play some shows with the guys. I’m very proud of what the Thunderbirds did as a band.