The sound

August 26, 2010


By Michael Swanger


Hats off to Stevie for all the love he passed our way


August 27, 1990, is firmly planted in my memory.

I was at home that morning preparing to drive to Cedar Falls to start classes at the University of Northern Iowa when I turned on MTV and heard Kurt Loder break in with the tragic news that Stevie Ray Vaughan had died before 1 a.m. in a helicopter crash in East Troy, Wis. The Bell 206B Jet Ranger, one of four helicopters waiting backstage, took off in fog shortly after Stevie played an encore jam of “Sweet Home Chicago” at Alpine Valley Music Theater with brother Jimmie Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and Robert Cray in front of a sold-out crowd of 30,000 people, then moments later slammed into a ski slope killing Vaughan and four others onboard.

The news stopped me dead in my tracks and hit me in the gut. “King Tone” was gone and the blues, which he lifted up during his brief, yet stellar recording career, lost one of its greatest ambassadors.

The drive to Cedar Falls that day was a somber one, with me blasting “Live Alive” on cassette through the speakers of my 1981 Nissan 200SX, playing the prophetic “Life Without You” over and over. It felt like a funeral procession.

Later that day, Bob Dylan was quoted as saying that Stevie’s death reminded him of when President John Kennedy died. That’s the impact the Texan had on those who loved his passionate music, appreciated his respect for musicians before him, and were inspired by his newfound sobriety following a lengthy battle with drug and alcohol addiction.

Like his hero, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie was about to embark on a new musical chapter, when he died 36 days before his 36th birthday, making his untimely death all the more tragic. Though the door to Stevie’s time in this world closed, another one opened as his influence and legacy would grow exponentially over the years to near-mythical proportions, changing the sound of modern blues and rock guitar.

“Stevie was such a tremendous player that he could take blues music and bring it to the masses,” Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule told me. “He could take all his favorite guitar players and blend them together and it came out sounding like Stevie Ray Vaughan. The world really needed that at the time.”

Twenty years later, the world could use someone like Stevie again. Not one of these “hat ‘n’ Strat” imitators or teenage prodigies who think that Stevie’s music is merely a testosterone-fueled mix of six-string speed and volume, but someone to genuinely re-ignite interest in the blues and put popular music back in touch with its roots.

Nonetheless, I’m not holding my breath. You’re lucky if someone like Stevie comes along once in a lifetime.

I saw Stevie perform on May 8, 1987, at the Civic Center in Des Moines. His voice was shot that night, but his guitar playing was spectacular. I was 18 years old and already a fan. After that, I became a student of the blues.

Other than his music, perhaps Stevie’s greatest legacy is his ability to spread the gospel of the blues to generations of fans and musicians 20 years after his death. He inspired me to dig deeper into the blues, setting the course for a musical journey that continues today.

For that, I owe him a debt of gratitude, just as I do for the friendships that I’ve made over the years with those who knew him well or who were also fans.

On Friday, Aug. 27, a handful of undisclosed local guitar players will pay tribute to Stevie during a concert at People’s Court, starting at 9 p.m. No doubt each one of them will have his own story to tell about how he influenced them.

That same day, as fate would have it, I’ll be driving the same stretch of road that I drove exactly 20 years ago after I heard the awful news about Stevie’s death. This time though, I’ll be reflecting on the all the good things that Stevie unknowingly passed my way. CV


Caption: A lineup of local guitar players will perform at the “Stevie Ray Vaughan Tribute” on Friday, Aug. 27 at 9 p.m. at People’s Court. Admission is $10.


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