Driven by Passion
By Briana Loëb
Photos by Leslie Hodge
Jimmie Vaughan is a cultural icon. From his retro, slicked-back hair and signature mid-century shades, to his collection of classic hot rods, to his unmistakably vintage blues guitar sound, Jimmie is the picture of “cool.”
Beyond being a symbol of the contemporary blues revival and of Austin's rich artistic history, he's also someone who has managed to do what few have-he's created a career from his passion.
It all started in 1963 when Jimmie Vaughan was in junior high. A friend of his told him that "if you want to get a girlfriend, you have to play football." Well, to a 13-year-old boy, that seemed like sound logic, so he went to try-outs. "So they threw me a pass and I mysteriously caught it," says Jimmie. "Then they tackled me immediately, and I broke my collarbone."
So Jimmie was stuck at home in a sling for months when his dad brought home a friend's guitar to keep him occupied, and when he touched the strings, everything changed. Listening to the likes of Albert King and Johnny "Guitar" Watson on the radio, and picking up anything he could learn from musicians that he knew, Jimmie fell in love with playing the guitar. And he was a natural, too. "I started playing guitar, and I've been playing ever since. Soon after that, I had a gig, and we had a band. I couldn't play yet, but that didn't matter."
It was the perfect recipe. "The main ingredient was that I was desperate and I didn't know what else to do. I was right at that age; I didn't want to be a failure. I couldn't play football, and I was kind of happy that I didn't have to go to school for three months." Jimmie found out pretty quickly that he could make money playing guitar. Two of his friends banded together, and they formed a trio that played as much as they possibly could. "I wasn't thinking about the future. I was just enjoying playing. I didn't know anything about anything," remembers Jimmie with a chuckle.
Jimmie found out pretty quickly that he could make money playing guitar. Two of his friends banded together and they formed a trio that played as much as they possibly could. “I wasn’t thinking about the future. I was just enjoying playing. I didn’t know anything about anything,” remembers Jimmie with a chuckle.
From there, history was made. Jimmie's distinct style was melded and formed, an easily recognizable tone that would soon bring blues back into the popular music charts. In 1969, Jimmie's group, The Chessmen, opened for Jimi Hendrix,
The Mamas and the Papas, and other widely-known groups. Not long after, he created his own group, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, comprised of acolytes of Clifford Antone. Clifford Antone had a passion for Chicago blues and was determined to start a blues club in downtown Austin. One of the first music venues on 6th street, Antone's added to Austin's reputation as a music city and became home to many notable performers such as the likes of Fats Domino, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, and many others.
"We had a great time. We played there almost every night," says Jimmie. "People started calling us the house band. Clifford booked some of our favorite musicians and blues singers from all over the country, and we'd get to play with them."
Clifford Antone left an unforgettable mark on the music culture of Austin. Even after his death, the Clifford Antone Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to cultivating and preserving the vibrant music community in Austin.
Jimmie Vaughan looks back on those days fondly. "I got to play with my heroes," he says. "When you play on stage with Eric Clapton or Buddy Guy, your natural survival instincts kick into gear, and you do your job, you sort of turn into a gunslinger. Then you go home, and it hits you that 'Wow, I just played with Eric Clapton,' but in the moment, you're in the zone. If you let yourself think about it, you'd freak out."
Jimmie's passion isn't just limited to music. "I've always loved cars," he says. "When I was a kid, I used to draw cars, and it's all I thought about. Somehow I got it into my head that I liked hot rods and custom cars from the '50s, because I was born in '51. So when I was five or six years old I started thinking about cars. I would draw pictures and build models. So when I started playing the guitar, I played for a couple of days and I thought, 'Hmm, if I really practice on that I can get some money and buy a car.' It was always sort of like that carrot hanging out there, you know?"
Now, Jimmie's love for cars has only grown. He's an avid collector of classic and custom cars that you can find in museums and magazines. That young boy who was obsessed with cars has undergone a journey that has been bursting with one-of-a-kind memories, untold heartache, and enough lessons to fill a lifetime.
"And I'm still learning," says Jimmie. "I wasn't great in school because music took root in me. When I was younger, I would buy records from the people that inspired me and then devour them. I'd dissect what they were doing, but I also wanted to make it a little bit mine." Like anyone who has a craft, Jimmie had to figure out his approach. He discovered that the only place to find it was within. "It's all accessible in that creative part of your brain. My mom used to call it 'your knower,'" Jimmie adds with a laugh. "She would say 'you'll know it in your knower.' And I just think it means to listen to yourself."
It takes a unique person to just follow their heart and make it work for a living. Jimmie Vaughan has done just that, all while forever impacting the culture of Austin through music.
Check out Jimmie Vaughan's extensive discography online, and shop the selection at jimmievaughan.com.
Jimmie Vaughan still continues to perform. Stay up to date with Antone's calendar online at antonesnightclub.com to see when other blues sensations will be performing. Learn how you get involved with Clifford Antone's Mission at cliffordantonefoundation.org.
Stay tuned so you can catch this video podcast with Jimmie Vaughan air as the first episode of Masters & Founders, an upcoming podcast by foundingMEDIA.
Special thanks to Nina Thomas for making this magic happen. Issue 6 wouldn't have been the same without you.