Jimmy Reed was the best-selling blues artist of the ‘50s and ‘60s, but it was only by accident that he was discovered at all. If Vivian Carter and James C. Bracken, the founders of the highly influential Vee-Jay label, hadn’t stumbled across Reed while checking out another artist, we might never have gotten blues classics like “Bright Lights Big City”, “Ain’t That Loving You Baby”, or “Big Boss Man”.
Reed seems to have left as many stories behind as songs. Calvin Carter, Vee-Jay’s A&R Man, recalled an oft-used ploy of getting a policeman to arrest Reed on the eve of recording sessions, so that he would have time to sober up. Reed’s fondness for the bottle even led him to rig a drinking tube that ran through his harmonica rack, so that he could sneak drinks on stage. On some of Reed’s records, you can hear his wife sitting beside him, whispering upcoming lyrics to him. On the basis of such tales alone, Reed would probably find his way into most blues histories. As it happened, Reed recorded a number of standards, and (along with guitarist Eddie Taylor) created a relaxed, classic blues sound. Reed’s music is so tightly woven into the fabric of the blues that you’ve heard several of his songs even if you don’t realize it.
Fittingly, On the Jimmy Reed Highway starts out with the line, “I was 12 years old when I got hip to you”, as both Omar Kent Dykes and Jimmie Vaughan discovered Reed at an early age. Vaughan and Dykes both learned to play guitar by figuring out Reed and Taylor’s easygoing, loping rhythms. Later, with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Vaughan backed Reed on a performance shortly before his death.
For On the Jimmy Reed Highway, Dykes and Vaughan spent a quickly revisited their love for Reed’s music, appending two originals to ten Reed compositions for their loose tribute to Reed’s influence. Highway reportedly came together in a couple of days, and it sounds like it. This isn’t due to any flaws or shortcuts in the duo’s approach, but just because it sounds like they had so much fun making the record. Dykes’ gravelly voice sounds for all the world like Howlin’ Wolf, and Vaughan’s fluid, playful guitar style evokes the fun vibe of Reed’s originals. Dykes and Vaughan obviously didn’t set out to create carbon copies of Reed’s songs, but they still managed to capture the spirit.
Since pretty much the entire blues world owes Reed a debt, it’s no surprise that Dykes and Vaughan get a little help, and certainly no surprise that much of that help comes from Austin, Texas. Lou Ann Barton (who played in Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Triple Threat before forging her own successful solo career) offers Dykes some sass on “Jimmy Reed Highway” and “Good Lover”. James Cotton lends his classic harmonica style to “Caress Me Baby”. Kim Wilson, Vaughan’s Fabulous Thunderbirds co-founder, reunites with Vaughan on “Baby What You Want Me to Do/Bright Lights Big City” and “You Upset My Mind” (these tracks probably felt like even more of a Thunderbirds reunion, since former members Wes Starr and Ronnie James make up the album’s rhythm section). Delbert McClinton shares vocals with Dykes on “Hush Hush”, as well as contributing harmonica.
On the two original tracks, Dykes and Vaughan stick to the Reed sound. “Jimmy Reed Highway” kicks off the album as an introduction to Reed, laying out his influence on folks like Lightnin’ Slim, Lazy Lester, and Slim Harpo. “You Made Me Laugh”, the album’s closer, is Dykes’ Reed-styled tribute to his wife who recently passed away.
As tributes go, Dykes and Vaughan may have crafted the most fitting type: one that proves that Reed’s music is being played night after night. Dykes and Vaughan certainly have Reed in their blood, but they’ve also found their own identities, so they don’t seem to worry about whether there’s too much Reed, too much Dykes, or too much Vaughan. This is a record where two blues veterans merge their own substantial experience with the music that started them down that highway in the first place.