I didn’t get into Stevie Ray Vaughan until I learned to play his work on the guitar. When I was a sophomore in college, I roomed with my friend Andrew, who has a Fender Stratocaster. He let me play it whenever I wanted, and I jumped at the chance. I had always wanted to learn and it was a real oversight on my part that I never had pushed myself harder to pick up the guitar, so I dove headlong down the rabbit hole, playing almost every day. (I found out days before the year ended that I drove the people below us absolutely nuts.) Andrew’s a blues purist, and he taught me all sorts of tricks, ones that I still rely on. I was mostly into classic rock at the time, and after just a little while under his tutelage I was cranking out easy riffs like “Smoke on the Water” and “Iron Man” with no trouble at all.
But it was Andrew’s dedication to the blues that left a gigantic impression on me. My absorption of classic rock was nearing an end, having listened to it for about three or four years at that point. I decided I wanted to go back even further, to learn what influenced classic rock. I wanted to learn the roots, and I knew that path would inevitably lead me to the blues. I think I really just wanted to learn how everything works, and I figured if I learned how the blues worked, I could learn how everything worked. Unfortunately, the blues is a fairly difficult beast to tackle, both from a playing and a listening perspective. Music that precedes the rock & roll years can sometimes be very inaccessible, and it can be quite laboring to force your way through music you just don’t like that much. I did notice a particular tendency: I found that newer artists would modernize old favorites in a more articulate and digestible form.
For example, Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues Singers is a classic work, a compilation of some of his recordings that Eric Clapton and Keith Richards frequently stole from when in need of inspiration. (Examples: Cream’s “Crossroads” and the Rolling Stones’ “Love in Vain.”) Clapton would even release an entire album of Robert Johnson covers in 2004 called Me and Mr. Johnson, which is an honorable mention. I happen to prefer the updated takes rather than the classics themselves, usually because the recording quality is much worse on the older versions. It has been an interesting process, educating myself on the evolution of the blues. But the most interesting part lies in the story of Stevie Ray Vaughan, who happens to be my favorite guitarist.
Vaughan came out of nowhere, seemingly, to revitalize the blues with his 1983 debut Texas Flood, which is an absolute tour de force. Stevie Ray elevated the blues to another level, not just with his soloing but with his songwriting craftsmanship, resulting in a highly evolved, articulate sound. I had heard about Stevie Ray Vaughan for a few years — he’s sort of on the fringe of classic rock — and I had heard of his guitar prowess, but I had never believed the hype. But once Andrew opened the door to the blues for me, my perspective was completely different. Couldn’t Stand the Weather was the first Stevie Ray Vaughan record I ever bought. I saw it in the University of Miami bookstore when I was selling back my books at the end of my sophomore year — roughly eight months after I started playing guitar — and I figured I’d buy it so I could listen to it on the long drive home.
The first time I ever listened to it was at night in the car as we arrived at a place called Jensen Beach a few hours north of Miami. (We stayed there overnight.) It was this resort kind of town with little to no corporate presence. I have never been able to separate the experience of listening to Couldn’t Stand the Weather to being there in that town. The long, winding solos from the late Texas blues man seemed to fit the muggy Florida heat rather well.