Listen to this track by Austin Texas blues-honky-tonk-rock trio Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble. It’s “Cold Shot” a hit single from their 1984 record Couldn’t Stand The Weather, their second as a band. Along with performing well chartwise, the video for it received heavy rotation as well, noted for its humour.
The song was written by W.C Clark, a local Austin blues legend, although by the early to mid-80s, Vaughn had made a name for himself in his own right. Vaughan had been a student of the blues since he was a kid, along with his older brother Jimmie Vaughan. This tune was one of several cover songs on the record, with other songs written by Guitar Slim, Jimmy Reed, and Jimi Hendrix. The blues in these primordial traditions was on the wane in many ways by the early 1980s as far as mainstream audiences went.
So, given that, how did Stevie Ray Vaughan get so big in that era? And, what does this tune represent in the middle of all of that?
I think the main reason for Stevie Ray Vaughan’s success, beyond his obvious skills as a guitarist and interpreter, is that he could see the threads between electric blues, rock music, and country music. Understanding that on an academic level is one thing. I mean, everyone who knows at least a little bit about the history of pop music knows that these streams are connected. But, I imagine its quite another to actually make music that acknowledges and even embodies that connection, and even more difficult to make music that does justice to all of those individual traditions at the same time while also not getting in the way of the songs.
That’s how this one works so well. It has the edge of rock music, the swagger of the blues, and the virtuoso precision of country playing all in one. Yet, it doesn’t feel like some kind of play. It sounds like the culmination of influences expressed by musicians who have integrated them into their playing and presentation. I’m talking about Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar work, of course. But, drummer Chris “Whipper” Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon are totally sympathetic to this as well, with a loping bassline and slow shuffle that provides the vital groundwork for Vaughan’s mournful guitar to flourish.
And what about the lyrics? To me this is a classic unreliable narrator tune, full of self regard and a sense of being a victim, with a dark hint of oppressive behaviour underneath. “Remember the way that you loved me/do anything I say.” That’s kind of iffy, right? And yet on the surface, this really does sound like a justified case of the blues, in a relationship with a cold-hearted person prone to cold shots to the heart. It can certainly be read that way too, of course. Yet that same hint of narcissism can be found in the lines “I really meant I was sorry for ever causing you pain/you showed your appreciation by walking out anyway.” How many times does this scenario get played out in real relationships, with the act of making an apology also being an obligation imposed on the one to whom it was made to accept it?
But, that’s a big part of the blues in any case. It deals in raw feelings, human flaws, and in other dark corners of human experience. In this sense, whether the narrator is reliable or not is beside the point. It is very common to find ourselves in situations where our own perceptions fool us into thinking we’re the hero in a story, when in fact we may be the villain, or at least the antagonist in a conflict. Sometimes, when we’ve got the blues, it doesn’t matter what role we’re playing. Right or wrong, this song reflects all of that, and can be read in more than one way. In all of its simplicity, it acknowledges the thematic complexities it deals in, too. That’s good writing. And Stevie Ray Vaughan’s delivery reminds us of how supple the blues can be around these kinds of themes, and how easily they can be integrated musically into any given context by musicians who know how to deliver the goods .
Vaughan’s work with Double Trouble from the late 1970s and through out the 1980s reminded many of this fact. And as a result, electric blues playing was given a jump start during a period when it really seemed to be outdated in the mainstream, both as a genre and as an ingredient to place into other kinds of music. The band had a great deal of success commercially speaking as well as artistically, gaining admiration all over the world. This was particularly true of Vaughan himself, who was admired by David Bowie (for whom Vaughan played the distinctive guitar solo on the hit single “Let’s Dance”), Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Joe Cocker. He would help to sow the musical seeds for people like Robert Cray, Jonny Lang, Jeff Healey, Susan Tedeschi, and many others who sought to create amalgams of electrified roots music in the late 1980s and into 1990s. Sadly, Vaughan himself would not see the totality of his influence in this regard, dying in a helicopter accident in the summer of 1990.
After that, Double Trouble – Shannon and Layton – would continue as a duo, working in bands like Arcangels with fellow Austin-based guitarist Charlie Sexton, and as a rhythm section with solo acts ranging from Dr. John to Lou Ann Barton. You can learn about what they’re up to by trundling along to tommyshannon.com, where among other things you can learn about the band’s upcoming induction into the rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame this year.
For more about Stevie Ray Vaughn, take a wander over to srvofficial.com for histories, more music, and other assorted stuff.