When Texas tornado Stevie Ray Vaughan's debut album, Texas Flood, was released in 1982, it signaled a new era in blues music. Combining rock, blues, R&B, and pop, Vaughan seemed like the lovechild of B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix. With his band, Double Trouble, he recorded a followup, Couldn't Stand the Weather, which spawned the 1984 hit, “Cold Shot.” This marked my first encounter with the virtuoso guitarist and singer; initially I was not impressed, perhaps due to the single's silly video.
Flash forward to 1990, a tragic year for Vaughan fans. After playing a concert with Eric Clapton in Wisconsin, Vaughan boarded a helicopter bound for Chicago. Shortly after takeoff, he (along with four other passengers) was instantly killed when the pilot crashed into a hilltop over Elkhorn, Wisconsin.
A couple months after the horrific event, his final album was released, entitled Family Style, a collaboration with brother Jimmie Vaughan (best known for his stint with the Fabulous Thunderbirds). Produced by Nile Rodgers, it remains Vaughan's slickest work. And while longtime fans may have yearned for Vaughan's early rawness, I became captivated by his bluesy growl and blistering guitar solos on this album, which instantly transformed me into a Stevie Ray Vaughan fan.
In addition to the treat of the Vaughan brothers jamming together, the elation that pervades the music and lyrics enhances the listening experience. After long struggles with drugs and alcohol, Stevie had successfully completed rehab and was restarting his career with renewed vigor. Perhaps no track encapsulates this feeling better than “Long Way From Home,” a sweaty blues workout that demands to be cranked at top volume. The guitar duel in the middle, overladen with Stevie's strong vocals and a breakneck tempo, is a virtuoso performance by the brothers.
“The Telephone Song,” while using classic blues chord progressions and lost-love lyrics, is saved from banality by Stevie's ebullient voice singing lines such as, “Woke up this morning, I was all alone/ Saw your picture by the telephone/ Wish I had you here to hold/ All I've got is this touch-tone phone.” Jimmie's laid back but punctuating guitar lines perfectly accentuate Stevie's longing vocals growling, “Long distance lovin's/ Gonna drive me out of my mind.” This track represents classic blues with a modern Texas kick.
In the context of Stevie's death, “Tick Tock” makes for sobering listening. While the song's lyrics ostensibly address world peace, one cannot help feeling a wave of sadness when Stevie sings the refrain, "Remember/ Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock people/ Time's tickin' away.” With its mid-tempo groove and ultimate optimism, the song became the album's lead single, symbolizing Stevie's relatively newfound positivity and hope.
Another popular song that has been used in various movies is “Hard to Be,” the byproduct of blues rock mixed with Motown. Horns briefly but powerfully punctuate the guitars and lead vocals. Jimmie takes the lead on “Good Texan,” a winking number combining Texas pride and good lovin': “Ridin' the range I think of you/ I dig your chili you know its true,” Jimmy drawls, “Do it to me like I know you could/ So I can do it to you baby like a Texan should.” While the constant cowboy theme could wear thin, Jimmie's twinkle-in-the-eye delivery accented by a driving beat win the listener over. “White Boots” injects some soul into the proceedings, with R&B-tinged backup singers echoing Jimmie's love of his “baby in the white boots.”
The remaining tracks are tasty instrumentals showcasing the brothers' Texas rock-blues roots. “Hillbillies From Outer Space” shuffles with a beat that Dick Dale would adore. My favorite, “Baboom/Mama Said,” fuses rock, blues, and R&B into an easy-going jam. The fun these two had in the studio is palpable here in particular.
When Family Style was released in October 1990, just two months after Stevie's tragic death, the album scored high on the charts and received frequent airplay, unfortunately due to the recent event. Looking back, though, longtime Stevie Ray Vaughan fans most likely point to early albums he recorded with Double Trouble as his crowning achievements.
While Rodgers' production may have added an unprecedented polish to Vaughan's music, Family Style ultimately converted me into a fan and provided the impetus to check out his other work. Stevie's last album shows him doing what he loved — playing blazing guitar, jamming with family, and reveling in his Texas roots. That's not a bad way to cap off (albeit too soon) an amazing musical career.Powered by Sidelines