On Aug. 27, 1990, when Stevie Ray Vaughan‘s helicopter crashed into a mountain near East Troy, Wisconsin, killing the Texas guitar hero and four others, the hole he left was immeasurable: “I was so numbed out from emotion that there are a lot of blank spaces in my memory,” Tommy Shannon, bassist in Vaughan’s band Double Trouble, tells Alan Paul and Andy Aledort in their new book, Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Shannon lost a friend, the world lost perhaps its greatest living guitarist and there was something more — Vaughan, at 35, had been sober for four years after nearly killing himself with alcohol and cocaine, and was an inspiration to other recovering addicts. “Somebody asked me, ‘If you could go back and have one conversation with Stevie Ray Vaughan right now, what would you ask him?'” Paul tells Billboard, days after Texas Flood hit No. 12 on the New York Times bestseller list. “I said, ‘I don’t think I would ask him anything musical — I would tell him that, 30 years later, people are still inspired by him to change their lives.'”
Paul and Aledort, longtime Guitar World writers, pulled together the oral history from more than 100 interviews, including Aledort’s conversations with Vaughan throughout the ’80s, as well as interviews with Vaughan’s older brother, Jimmie, and members of Double Trouble, all of whom had never previously participated in biographies on the iconic artist.
Paul, 52, is my former Michigan Daily colleague; before visiting his son at the University of Colorado, he dropped by my home in Denver for an hourlong interview about the book.
Let’s talk about our mutual background discovering the blues at Rick’s American Café in Ann Arbor in the ’80s. What led you there and who did you see?
I completely stumbled into a job as a busboy at Rick’s in my first two weeks at school. I decided very consciously not to work at the Daily, at first. I’d been really involved in journalism in high school and my idea was try some other stuff and make sure I really wanted to do it. I didn’t expect I’d spend a ton of time working at a bar. It really upset my parents. My dad, especially: [If] I was going to be spending my time working, not at school, he thought it should be at the newspaper. But that time at Rick’s turned out to be surprisingly influential because I did see a ton of blues guys. Many weekends they had the Chicago circuit there — Koko Taylor, Son Seals, Lonnie Brooks, but also Albert Collins, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Johnny Copeland. In a weird way, it did turn out to be very influential. So, you know, take that, Dad!
Another blues guitar great, the late Albert King, is a constant presence in Texas Flood. My favorite line is when someone says Bon Jovi invites him to perform at a show, but instead he goes to Arkansas to play cards with his girlfriend.
The quotes from Albert came from an interview I did with him in 1991. He was such a presence in Stevie’s life. Andy was supposed to interview him one time — he told Andy to go fuck himself. I was terrified he was going to do that to me. I saw him do all kinds of crazy shit onstage. He walked offstage at the Beacon [Theatre in New York] because his guitar wasn’t working. He fired a sax player on stage at the Lone Star Roadhouse [in Dallas] when I was there one time. I called the manager/booking agent, who had set up the interview, right before I left, and I said, “Hey, I want to make sure things are all set for this interview.” He said, “Oh yeah, I told Albert about it, hopefully he’ll remember and feel like doing it.” It was just luck of the draw that when I got there he did remember and he did feel like doing it.
You wrote previous books One Way Out: The Inside Story of the Allman Brothers Band and Big in China on your own. Why did you decide to co-write with Andy?
Andy and I have worked together at Guitar World since about 1993. We became friends because we love the same music and so we went to a lot of the same shows. Andy interviewed [Vaughan] four or five times and the interviews are really, really good — a big part of the reason was Stevie related to Andy as a guitar player. The very first time Andy interviewed Stevie, it was in December 1986, right before [Vaughan’s] eighth sober show and it was very raw and fresh but hadn’t really been discussed, and he talked about sobriety in a very real raw way. Once I decided I was really focused in on Stevie Ray, I called Andy and said, “I want to do a biography, I need all your material, I’m open to do a co-write if you want to do half the work, or I’d be willing to pay you or give you credit.” He said he wanted to do it.
At what point did you realize this was a story about addiction and recovery as much as it was about music?
While writing the book, someone along the way, who was married to a family member, a toddler when Stevie Ray died, responded with great enthusiasm: “Well, I like his music, but I’m a recovering alcoholic and I’m in AA and Stevie is an icon of recovery and the program and we talk about him a lot and we listen to some recordings of his talks.” That was really powerful. I called Andy and said, “I know this is a part of the story, but I think it’s a bigger story than we realized and we need to at least explore that.”
So, you doubled back and emphasized that in the interviews?
We were pretty deep into the process. We went back to some people and sought out some other people. [Singer-songwriter] Ray Wylie Hubbard attributes his sobriety to Stevie and he’s very passionate about it. I talked to Ray and, in all the years I’ve done this, it’s the only time the interview got so emotional that I started crying and Ray was crying — sobbing, completely choked up, neither of us could really speak. It was like I saw the light.
His death was tragic for so many reasons, but one was that he and Double Trouble struggled for so many years and were finally clean and sober and doing good business.
He didn’t even have any money when he died because he was so far into debt. He was just starting to make some money. To really create great art, you have to have that drive. You do what you have to do [and] it leads to years of poverty because you’re not taking the easy route.
You’ve been writing about guitar players a long time, but how challenging is it to describe how Stevie Ray Vaughan plays in a book this length without repeating yourself?
I’ve been working on that for almost 40 years. I feel like I have some vocabulary to do it. And there were two interviews that really helped. One was B.B. King, [who] compares him to Charlie Christian and Charlie Parker. And Bonnie Raitt says, “He was probably the most fierce of the bluesmen I’ve ever heard. He had a furnace in his heart, and was the epitome of all that is dark and sexy, brooding and passionate.” She’s not saying he was a good bluesman for a rock player, or something, she’s saying, “He had a furnace in his heart.” What Bonnie Raitt and B.B. King did was put Stevie in this framework of all-time greats. That really gets at the essence that he deserved to have a book that treated him in the same way you would write a book about Charlie Parker.