Behind the guitar: A new collection of artifacts paints a more nuanced picture of Stevie Ray Vaughan
From Texas Standard:
Stevie Ray Vaughan was an icon of the Texas blues music scene. He was a guitar legend with an unmistakable sound. Now, some of the most important artifacts of Vaughan's life and career have been acquired by the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos. Items range from clothing to music, to song lyrics.
Hector Saldana is music curator at the Wittliff Collections. He says the items in the new collection represent three important themes in Vaughan's life: songwriting, recovery and his relationship with brother and fellow musician, Jimmie Vaughan. Listen to the full interview in the audio player above.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: in his short time recording, Stevie Ray Vaughan really made a huge impact. How would you describe him as a sort of a touchstone in Texas music? What made him that way?
Hector Saldana: I think it was the passion that he brought to it and also the willingness to paint outside the lines. In other words, he drew his inspiration from the Texas blues. But he also brought his own take, which was heavily influenced by [Jimi] Hendrix. So you're talking about really bending those strings to the outer parts of the galaxy and then also just he went for it. And I think that set him apart.
I believe he was 35 years old when he died. Tell us a little bit more about why he made such an impact and his untimely death in that helicopter crash.
Well, for all of us here in Texas, especially, we feel like we grew up with him. We watched him grow up – very young. He was playing in the bars and, we knew about his brother, Jimmy. So there was this family feel. And then we saw him go from sort of a bar band like a lot of bands to regional status. And then, he’s recording with David Bowie and suddenly, touring around the world and having hits on the radio. So not only did we sort of watch him blossom, but we sort of shared in his success and in a certain way, and had a lot of pride that he came from Texas.
What about this collection you've acquired? Tell us a little bit more about some of the artifacts and how you came about them.
This was a private sale from a seller who wanted to remain anonymous but was a very close part of the inner circle. And it’s materials that we were very interested here at the Wittliff Collections because they gave another view beyond the guitar god, with the hat and the guitar and the strap.
Yeah, he had a definite visual style. No question,
I felt these materials got at three main areas where we could learn more about him as a songwriter, which I think sometimes gets lost in the conversation, the importance of his recovery, sobriety, even spirituality in his life, especially at the end. And to get it, it helps us understand a little bit better the complicated relationship with his brother, Jimmy, so I felt that the materials could add to more of a portrait of the man rather than only the legend.
Say a little bit more about the songwriting and the lyrical content, and how that's shown some light on the artist as opposed to the guitar player alone.
When you're actually looking at the materials in his own writing, you get a sense of how we approached it. When you're looking at the lyric boards that are written down in hand – how they were done in the studio, but also some of the unpublished snippets and lyrics that we have showed that he was trying to come to grips with that idea of being clean, coming clean, sort of, and also moving beyond fame. You can see that in the notes, in the lyrics. Sometimes, here's a man that that wants more than just being boxed in as this guitar god.
There's something that seems to be sort of common, especially in some of the greatest talents that we've seen in pop music, certainly over the past half century. Once you reach a certain point in your stardom, your fame – and certainly Stevie Ray Vaughan had reached if not a pinnacles, definitely a high point at the time of his death – there is a reach for a kind of an authenticity – him sort of wanting to get past all the trappings of stardom really resonates here.
If we think about it, even that last festival that he was playing – Stevie Ray playing with all these other guitar heroes. So he's going to be that guitar hero. But there was a vulnerability to him. There was a sense of humor to him when he was, planning the record with Jimmy, “Family Style.” They were both a little bit worried, because there was an expectations game.
In assessing him, how would you describe him? He was known to be fairly open to his fans and had a lot of friends, certainly in his adopted hometown of Austin and definitely up in Dallas, where he grew up. What more would you say about what you learned?
Something that jumped out at me as a longtime music journalist, is that, it shows Stevie Ray as a music fan. We have a lot of his books, his personal library, and he'd sometimes highlight things in there. So like in that book by David Henderson, ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky” about Jimi Hendrix. He highlights passages in there that he's obviously drawing some connection. some inspiration from that. And it's passages that are about how to make his surroundings reflect his art and vice versa, how to show some growth. You see a man that's still evolving. We have some very personal items, where he's writing about his addictions sobriety. You get a little closer. You're inside his head.
He was known as the master of the Stratocaster. Do you have any of his guitars in the collection by any chance?
No, we don't. We do have some unusual items. We have his hat, we have lyrics, we have his buckskin boots that as soon as you see them, you'll recognize them with the fringe. We have some moccasins of his and some unusual items like a hand-carved pipe that he had. And from back when he was drinking, his very ornate flask. And so, again, it gives us a sense of his sense of style, and a little bit of what he cherished and some things that he abandoned.
Will the public have a chance to view some of this collection? Do you have an exhibition planned?
In mid-April, we're opening a new exhibition called “The Songwriters Sung and Unsung: Heroes of the Collections.” And we're teasing out some of the Stevie Ray stuff. And so fans that come to that exhibit will be able to see some of the items that we're talking about. We are planning to put more items on display, but for now, they'll get at least a good sampling.