My introduction to Stevie Ray Vaughan came from the nerdiest of sources: an MTV News special about the ‘80s. When the 1989 segment came on, the familiar chaotic images of Tianamen Square were displayed with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s hit “Crossfire” playing in the background. Though the association got me into the library to read all I could about the massacre, I didn’t pick up Stevie Ray Vaughan’s In Step. Less than a year later, Vaughan would be buried in Dallas, Texas.
Being a sophomore in high school in 1990, Vaughan’s type of music didn’t totally reach me. I, like thousands of other teenagers, was slowly trying to deprogram myself from years of listening to hair metal, and was just discovering bands like Soundgarden and Jane’s Addiction. Still, when MTV News announced that Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash on August 27, 1990, I can safely say that his death was the first “rock star” death that affected me. “How can someone who wrote a song that good die?”, I kept asking myself naively. Sure, other rock stars have died, but those deaths came years after they had reached their peak.
Regrettably, I purchased In Step after his death. Even for a metalhead, the album was as hook-filled and infectious as a Def Leppard album. I read about the concert he played the night before his death, which featured Vaughan jamming with Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, and Buddy Guy. Looking back, this show is an easy contender for “shows I would have loved to have seen if I had a time traveling DeLorean”. The more I got into Stevie Ray Vaughan, the more I started to take notice of his influences like Albert King and Buddy Guy.
In six short years, Vaughan transformed the genre of blues-oriented rock. With Texas Flood and Couldn’t Stand the Weather, he converted hundreds of thousands of listeners to the blues. At the height of his ferocity, he took on one of the most sacred songs in rock: Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”. Not only did he do the near-impossible feat of doing that song justice, he transformed it into something that was totally his own. His cover ranks alongside Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” as the greatest covers in rock.
Vaughan’s life did take a Behind the Music arc as years of cocaine and alcohol abuse took their toll on his music in studio (see the hit-and-miss Soul to Soul). But even when he was mixing cocaine in his Jack Daniels to keep going, his live shows rarely suffered. In Step was his “clean and sober” album. It was the album that showcased Vaughan’s increasing confidence as a songwriter. In the spring of 1990, he recorded an unassuming record with his brother Jimmie.
And then it was all over.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy, musically, from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s death was that Vaughan was in the process of another reinvention. Far from being past his prime, he started to experiment by relying less on speed and more on technique. As good as In Step was, it succumbed to overproduction, much in the same way Bonnie Raitt’s comeback album Nick of Time suffered, despite both album’s hook-filled gems. Be it the acoustic “unplugged” movement in the early ‘90s, to the garage rock blues movement of today, there’s every reason to believe that Stevie Ray Vaughan would have remained a viable presence in rock and blues.
For a few years, I couldn’t listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Not out of sorrow, but due to listener fatigue from hearing him on classic rock radio. I’ve listened to his albums so much, I could no longer find anything new in them. That was before the latest reissue of Couldn’t Stand the Weather, which features a live performance in Montreal in 1984. Listen to that, then go on to YouTube and start browsing some of his performances, starting with his cover of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” and suddenly these worn-out standards start to take on a new life. Twenty years on, he’s still blowing us away.