Stevie Ray Vaughan’s final album with his longtime band remains a testament to the late guitarist’s talents as a musician and songwriter
It’s been just over thirty years since the release of In Step, the fourth studio album recorded by Stevie Ray Vaughan and the hard-hitting Double Trouble. Met by critical acclaim and now considered a career-defining record, In Step marked the return of Vaughan to the music world post-rehab, introducing a man with a new lease on life but the same old love for the blues.
Tragically, however, it would be the last album that Stevie Ray Vaughan would record with Double Trouble, followed by his tragic death at 35. At once an opening and a closing, In Step is powerful, infused with the blues from top to bottom, showcasing Vaughan’s clean, precise playing set to Double Trouble’s tight, grooving backdrop. While it would be easy to craft a 2,000 word think-piece on the mastery found within the ten-track, forty-minute offering to the gods of rock ’n roll, there’s no better way to tell the story of In Step than by sitting down with one of the few who were not only able to bear witness to Vaughan’s prowess but to play along with him.
Reese Wynans, the keyboardist for Double Trouble, has had an impressive career in his own right. Besides playing alongside Vaughan for five years, he brought on the rise of Outlaw Country in Austin, Texas with Jerry Jeff Walker, toured with country and blues legends Willie Nelson, Box Scaggs, and Joe Bonamassa, and added his musical thumbprint to the works of artists ranging from Buddy Guy to Martina McBride. Despite a resume that reads like a rock ’n roll history book, Wynans will be the first to admit that his life changed forever when he was drafted into Double Trouble by none other than Stevie Ray Vaughan himself.
You’ve played with pretty much everyone that I grew up listening to, which is incredible, but when you were growing up in Sarasota, did you have any idea that you would play on the stages you’ve played on and with the people you’ve played with?
Oh, no. As a kid, I had aspirations to teach. My favorite teachers were the music teachers, and I went to college thinking I would be a teacher or a professor of music. That was my plan. Up at Florida State at that time — and we’re talking about quite a while ago — they had a classical training that you could have, and they had some jazz training. Jazz was sort of the rock ’n roll of the day. I mean, nobody talked about the blues, nobody talked about rock music, nobody talked about soul music or anything else. It was classical or jazz.
I had been playing classical music for years, but I didn’t really want to make my living as a classical musician. What changed my life was being asked to be in a band that played fraternity parties. I never really had been in a rock band before. In college was the first rock band I was ever in, and I thought it would be a lot of fun, but I seem to remember saying to somebody, “Oh, I won’t be doing this by the time I’m 30.”
You’ve got quite the blues background, too. How did you get into blues music in the first place?
I had been playing with a couple of different bands out of the Austin, Texas area, you know, Jerry Jeff Walker. I’d done some touring with Joe Heely and Carole King and some of the other singer-songwriters down there, but there was this nightclub in Austin called Anton’s. At this particular club, they would bring in big-named blues artists from Chicago and all over America, and a lot of times they would have their own bands with them, but a lot of times, the house band — Anton’s house band — would back them up. It was kind of an education to go over there and hear these gentleman play the blues. I always loved the feeling of the blues. I never really considered myself an expert, but it was just something that I liked.
At what point do you feel like that changed?
Well, I had gotten to where I was more and more interested in the blues, as I had quit Jerry Jeff Walker and joined this blues band, a singer named Delbert McClinton, and we toured for about five years. That’s when I started becoming more and more infused with the blues, listening to the blues, playing the blues every night. That’s what I wanted to do. At the same time, when I was not touring with Delbert, I was sitting in over there at Anton’s, the home of the blues. I was just sort of all wrapped up in. I couldn’t get enough of it. Of course, when I got the chance to join Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, I couldn’t pass it up.
What was it like to play with Double Trouble and Stevie Ray Vaughan for five years?
It was fantastic. Stevie was just a master of all different kinds of styles on the guitar: Freddie King, Albert King, Jimi Hendrix, Hubert Sumlin. He could play all different kinds of blues on the guitar. The thing about Stevie was he was just so passionate about it, as if every song meant the world to him. All four of us in the band — Tommy Shannon, Chris Layton, Stevie and myself — we just felt like we were all on the same page when it came to the music we played. It was just like we pushed each other, you know?
It’s been about thirty years since In Step was recorded. Can you tell us about the writing and recording process of the record?
Well, as far as the writing, I can’t tell you a lot about it. Stevie went off to write with Doyle Bramhall. They wrote most of the songs with just those two, and Chris and Tommy and I got together with a songwriter in Austin named Bill Carter and his wife, Ruth, and we wrote a couple of songs, too. One that made it on this particular project was called “Crossfire.” It was a real fun song to write. Tommy came up with this great bass line and we thought it would be kinda like a soul tune, like a Sam and Dave style song. Bill and Ruth wrote some fantastic lyrics, and the next thing you know, we had a really cool song. I didn’t think Stevie would wanna play it, but he kinda liked it, and the first couple of times we played it, the crowds were going wild. They loved it, and it ended up being the biggest hit we ever had.
What was it like to hear a rough version of the song come to life in the studio would you would all play it together?
Well, he went off to write with Doyle and he came back, and we did some pretty serious pre-production, if I remember right. We would sit down and work the songs and kind of figure out what kind of feel and what the arrangement would be like. We went through these songs pretty extensively. At this time, Stevie had recently just been going through some drug and alcohol rehab, so he was very clean and sober for the first time for a recording project. We wanted to make sure everything was exactly right, so we went over and over and over it again.
We went to New York to record this at Power Station up there. We spent a couple days or a week or something up there, and just couldn’t get it going. It just didn’t seem quite right up there. We moved the whole project to Memphis, and we got Jim Gaines to come and engineer it, and the next thing you know, it was working out great.
What was it like to be in studio with a newly sober Stevie Ray Vaughan?
Well, it was less wild, and a little bit — I don’t wanna say frustrating, but usually things took a little longer. I mean, for example, Stevie would come in about noon and start fooling around with this sound and his amps and his guitar and sometimes he would fool around with that for two or three or four hours. You know, he felt like there was something wrong with this speaker or that, and by the time were tracking the first song, we were almost tired out. He would just play the same song over and over and over again, which was not really what we were used to doing. For example, a simple song like “The House Is Rockin’,” basically a 1-4-5 rock ’n roll song, nothing too difficult about it. We must’ve played that song twenty-five times. We wanted Stevie to be happy about it, so we were all just, “Whatever you need, Stevie. We’re gonna make this right.”
It was a difficulty, trying to keep a solid energy going for that many takes in a row, but the finished product more than made up for all the delays. Jim Gaines did a great job. I thought Tommy Shannon played particularly well on this record, and so did Chris Layton. I thought the whole band was pretty much on fire.
Yeah, that record is on fire from top to bottom.
And you know what I liked about the record? We thought it was pretty good after we’d done it. We thought maybe this would turn out pretty good. I remember hearing it the first time the stations here in Austin played a couple tracks over the radio, and it just seemed to jump out of the radio every time. It just seemed so clear and so true, and I think it was our best record by far. I was honored to be on it We thought there would be many more records after this, and it turned out this was really our last real studio project, but it was a great record and I was really proud to be part of it.
Are they any moments during the recording that stand out to you?
Well, there was one song that we didn’t have to play twenty or twenty-five times. That was “Riviera Paradise,” and that song we only played once.
VIDEO: SRV “Riviera Paradise” Live from Austin, TX
So that’s the only track on the record that was done in one take?
Yeah, we only played it once and we didn’t even get set up for it. We had just finished some loud, raucous tune — I forget which one it was — and Stevie says, “Let’s do “Riviera Paradise” now.” Jim Gaines was trying to get the tape rolling in there and hoping that there was enough tape left on the reel. Our headphones were not really set right for a quiet ballad like this, but it was unbelievable. I guess that’s the word that I would have to say. That song actually came together. I think everyone played beautifully on it, but that’s the moment I remember as the, “Oh shit, can we really pull this off.” I thought we really did.
Stevie’s life ended very abruptly, and way too soon. How do you come back from that kind of loss and move forward and keep making music?
I was totally at a loss at that point. Life was basically just over, I thought. I didn’t really know what to do. I didn’t really want to play music much anymore, and basically fell into a deep, dark depression. Took me quite a while to get out of it.
Next thing I did is I went on tour with Joe Heely after about two years and had some fun doing that. then I decided what I needed was to get away from Austin and away from all this, because I just wasn’t happy there anymore. I relocated to Nashville and started a new career as a studio musician. That’s how I dealt with it.
You just released your first solo record, Sweet Release, after almost five decades of being in a band. What was it like?
That was the strangest thing. It really took some getting used to. I had a wonderful cast of friends and musicians around that were so supportive. It’s like everybody wanted to play on this record, and I really appreciated having them there. Chris and Tommy were both there. We got Kenny Wayne Shepherd to come in with their singer, Noah [Hunt], and we did a nice tribute to Stevie, I thought, with a couple of our old tunes. Then we got Jimmy Hall and Bonnie Bramlett, Doyle Bramhall, Warren Haynes, and Keb’ Mo’, Mike Farris — I’m sure I’m leaving someone out. It was very much a group effort and I was, like I said, honored that there were so many people there, but I felt like I played well and I did what I wanted.
I have to give credit to my producer as well, Joe Bonamassa. It was the first time for me as an artist, but it was also the first time for him as a producer, so we weren’t sure what we were doing. I’m sure we made some mistakes along the way, but all in all, I think that it turned out pretty well, and I’m very happy with it.
It’s a great record with a seriously amazing lineup of musicians. Do you prefer to be more collaborative in the studio?
I like having a producer in the studio. I’m not a very good singer and I like it when there’s a good singer there. I like it when there are other musicians there who are gonna support what I want to do. I don’t mind taking the lead and I don’t mind being in a supportive role. I feel like I can do both things and be just as comfortable.
What inspired you to make the record after almost fifty years in music?
Well, you know, it’s hard to say. I mean, you wonder how long you can do something and still be at the peak of your prowess. I felt like I was playing pretty well, and one of the reasons I went that kinda road was Joe Bonamassa, because I wanted to take a lap around, to play live again. I was really enjoying that and people really seemed to appreciate that I was there; they knew who I was. I thought that having a record out would be a nice thing, you know what I mean? Having a record with my name on it. That turned out so well, I’m pretty sure I’m gonna do another one next year. This one will be more original material; it won’t be so many cover songs.
You’ve got quite the roster of blues legends on Sweet Release. Why do you think it’s so important to keep the blues tradition alive in a time where music feels more and more like a disposable and mass-produced product?
Well, there is a lot of mass-produced or disposable music in the pop world, but if you look in the blues world, it’s still pretty vital. There’s a lot of people playing really good music these days, and I’m thinking that’s one of the reasons that blues is so popular, or so vital, right now. It’s more of a reflection of real things, of the real thing, the real feeling. Of course, it’s an American art form, but it’s just a feeling, and if you can get that, you can capture that feeling in music. You’re not really gonna get there if you have a lot of click tracks and loops.
For most of the blues, it’s people sitting in a room playing music together, looking at each other. If I do the drum track over here and then I send it out to you to do the bass, then we’re gonna send it over to somebody else to get percussion done, and then we add some keyboards later on, and you don’t even know what the melody is gonna be like or anything…there’s a lot of mass-produced music going on, but I don’t think there’s much of that going on in the blues world. I think that’s what’s important about it.
What was it like to return to some of the songs you played with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble on this record?
You know, that was one of the greatest things about it. I asked Chris and Tommy if they would come out and play, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Noah, and we all got in the studio and we hit “Say What!” and we hit “Crossfire,” and it felt so right to do those old songs again. I probably did too many Stevie songs on this record, but I just love them, man. I think the opportunity to play those songs one more time with Chris and Tommy and Kenny Wayne and Joe and have it sounds so good…it was an unbelievable feeling.
This is my last question, and it’s super quick. Is there a particular song on Sweet Release that you would consider your favorite?
Yeah, I like quite a few of the songs. I almost like all of them. I really loved the Doyle [Bramhall] version of “You’re Killing My Love.” I love Jimmy Hall and Bonnie Bramlett singing together on the Stevie and Jimmie song [“Hard to Be”]. But my favorite is the title track, “Sweet Release.” I just thought that’s a great song. I wrote the story on the liner notes, as I used to play that song with Boz back in the late 60s, early 70s. It was one of my favorite songs back then, and it was just this great song that nobody had ever covered. I felt like we did a nice job on it. That’s my favorite.
AUDIO: In Step (Full Album)