Popdose Flashback ’90: The Vaughan Brothers, “Family Style”

Written by Music, Popdose Flashback '90

On the 20th anniversary of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s death, Michael Fortes revisits the Texas guitar master’s swan song: a collaboration with brother Jimmie Vaughan.

The Vaughan Brothers "Family Style"I feel terrible about it now, but when the initial reports started rolling in about the helicopter crash that had occurred following a concert played by Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray – the reports that stated one of those musicians was on board, but we didn’t know which one just yet – the immediate thought in my tactless thirteen year old mind was, “I hope it was Clapton.”

In reality, my worst fear was that it might have been Stevie Ray Vaughan who perished in that crash on August 27, 1990. My father had gotten me hip to Stevie Ray back in ’84 when he brought home a cassette of the album SRV had released that year, Couldn’t Stand The Weather. An appreciation for late ‘60s and early ‘70s blues rock was something my father had given me by letting me grab hold of all his old Johnny Winter, Cactus, Savoy Brown and Rolling Stones records, and it was rare that he latched on to something new. This was one new guy we could agree on.

Furthermore, the owner of a local record store I frequented at the time was a huge Stevie Ray Vaughan fan. She went to his concerts, had all the albums and a clutch of bootleg cassettes and videotapes. She even had a coveted photo of herself with Stevie Ray proudly displayed in her home. Yes, my mother and I got to know this merchant so well that we hung out with her at her house on some occasions, even after the store went out of business.

So really, it was Stevie Ray who had the biggest emotional connection to me and those around me, above and beyond the other guys who played alongside him at that last concert. And when the news came in that, yes, Stevie Ray had perished in the crash, my heart sunk.

Around this time, it had also been announced that Steve Ray recorded an album with his brother, Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Jimmie Vaughan. This would be Stevie Ray’s swan song, a musical meeting of the two famous guitar-slinging Texan brothers. I had hopes that I’d be hearing the kind of six string fireworks I imagined were flying during Stevie Ray’s recent tour with Jeff Beck, the one that still holds a mythical place in my mind. For I never heard a single note of those performances, and yet the mere knowledge of the tour drove me to explore and become a fan of Jeff Beck’s jaw-dropping musicality and staggering catalog of jazz-rock instrumental albums.

The Vaughan Brothers "Family Style" Side 1In hindsight, I had very unrealistic expectations for the Vaughan Brothers’ Family Style. For one, the only Fabulous Thunderbirds songs I knew at the time were “Powerful Stuff” and their signature hit, “Tuff Enuff.” To be honest, I didn’t find either of those songs to be particularly affecting, even though “Tuff Enuff” was, and still is, an infectious earworm that will probably never go away from anyone who hears it. But, suffice to say, the soft and cozy brotherly love vibe that ultimately permeated Family Style kind of had me snoozing.

Chic’s Nile Rodgers produced the record, and the drum sound heard on the record was awfully similar to what Steve Jordan had achieved on Keith Richards’ Talk Is Cheap from two years prior. Fine and dandy, good stuff, but something was missing. That lion’s roar of Stevie Ray’s voice – and his guitar – was noticeably muted. Perhaps this was in deference to his more understated older brother, perhaps this was something Nile was pushing for, I really can’t say. But at the time, all I knew was, I’d rather be listening to Couldn’t Stand The Weather or In Step. I placed the record in a protective plastic sleeve, and it stayed respectfully in my collection for the next 20 years.

Revisiting it now, after having developed a stronger appreciation for the magical intersection of blues and soul music, I hear two guys making a record that tried to straddle the line between an honest, authentic enjoyment of each other’s company, and an attempt to make a hit record. The one song on here that came remotely close to being that “hit record” was “Tick Tock,” the real pop gem of Family Style. A commenter on the album’s Amazon.com page pointed out how similar John Mayer’s “Waiting On The World To Change” sounds to this tune. And I totally hear that. But I also feel this – I’ve heard Mayer’s song far more often than “Tick Tock,” and yet, it’s “Tick Tock” that won’t leave my brain. It’s a great, great song that meshes blues, pop, soul and a sincerely hopeful world view all together in one neat little package. As a final statement, it’s actually very affecting, and worth the cost of the entire Family Style album.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/jLs5REzFvOY" width="600" height="344" allowfullscreen="true" fvars="fs=1" /]

As for the rest of the songs, they are pleasant but mostly forgettable blues rock jams with much too light a touch for them to make a strong impact, at least on me. Perhaps “Long Way From Home” might be deemed an exception with a few more listens, and certainly “Hillbillies From Outerspace” is a fun, finger-snappin’ retread of the territory mined by Booker T and the MG’s all those years ago on “Green Onions.” But emotional impact is light, at least until we get to the instrumental jam “Brothers” at the very end, where Jimmie and Stevie Ray take turns playing the same guitar, passing it back and forth to each other. If you listen closely, you can actually hear the guitar changing hands.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the last we’d hear from Stevie Ray. Epic Records had plenty of prime material sitting in their archives to foist upon us in later years. But at the end of 1990, Stevie Ray Vaughan left us rather quietly on record. By this time, though, he didn’t really need to hammer us over the head anymore. His magic was already proven to be self-evident.

In true Cratedigger style, this edition of Popdose Flashback ’90 was reviewed using a real vinyl record.