can’t see the forest

Texas Flood

Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954–1990) was an American blues guitarist, the driving force behind the 1980s revival of electric blues music and one of the most famous white bluesmen and electric guitarists in history. He brought American “roots” music back into the popular realm at a time when synthesizers and highly doctored vocals were topping the charts, drawing on influences such as Albert King, Buddy Guy, and Jimi Hendrix and inspiring a future generation of electric blues/rock artists like Derek Trucks and Jonny Lang. His work drew crowds to gritty live performances in the era dominated by superficially appealing, commercial-minded music videos.

Vaughan was born and raised in Dallas, Texas, but dropped out of school to pursue a career in blues music in Austin. His elder brother Jimmie Vaughan is a celebrated blues musician in his own right. Stevie played several club gigs weekly throughout the late 1970s, attracting the attention of David Bowie and Jackson Browne in the early 1980s and subsequently recording what would become the album Texas Flood at Browne’s L.A. studio. Vaughan and his backup band, Double Trouble, toured the US and the world throughout the 1980s. By 1986 Vaughan’s hard drinking and cocaine habit were severely detracting from his well-being and from his musicianship, but he later underwent treatment for these addictions and emerged as a hardcore teetotaler with decidedly Christian leanings. After an historic performance at Alpine Valley, Wisconsin in 1990, which featured an encore jam with several of Vaughan’s heroes including Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton, Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash. Already something of a living legend, the Texas bluesman’s tragic and untimely death robbed America of one of its greatest musical treasures but also cemented his reputation as an icon at the height of his musical powers.

Most often seen with a Fender Stratocaster in hand, Vaughan played with an intense emotionality and a searing-hot tone which were facilitated by his use of ultra-heavy strings stretched high above the fretboard. Playing in this way requires much more physical exertion than is the norm for electric guitarists, but also lends itself to a languid expressiveness not entirely achievable with a normal guitar setup. He used few effects in the signal chain between his guitar and his amplifiers, most notably the wah-wah pedal for tonal variation and an Ibanez TubeScreamer for extra overdrive. As a stage gimmick Vaughan liked to play blazing solos behind his back, and audiences were never quite sure if a given treatment of a tune would be a standard rendition or a vehicle for meteoric improvisation.

Stevie Ray Vaughan lived the blues, proving that this great American medium of expression knows no other color. As an artist he is an inspiration to many thousands of young musicians around the world, and he is widely respected for his victory over the personal demons that haunted him offstage for so many years.

The performance of “Texas Flood” below is from 1983’s Live at the El Mocambo in Toronto, Canada. (RT 9:45)

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