Kenny Vaughan's interview
For the first time Coluna Blues Rock will post an interview entirely in English. The idea was to translate another conversation with an American musician, but Kenny Vaughan gave a testimony of the history of American music. it would be sacrilegious to lose the original content through a silly translation by an imbecile editor who thought he knew something about American music.
He simply played with everyone, from country to rock, from rockabilly to punk. He's a damn legend! "I recorded some songs with Johnny Cash one afternoon around 20 years ago. What a great, funny guy he was! I’m lucky to have worked closely with 3 of his band mates. The stories I’ve heard are priceless!", Kenny told.
Do I need to say something more? Damn, read this fucking interview. I swear to you, I'm speechless so far. He gave me no choice but to fly to Nashville and watch a show. Seriously, Kenny Vaughan, I seriously consider tattooing you next to my arm's Motorhead!
Ugo Medeiros – What was it like growing up in Denver? Could you talk about the city itself?
Kenny Vaughan - I grew up in Littleton Colorado. I was born in Oklahoma in 1954, and my Father, Mother, and I moved back to my Father’s hometown, Littleton, in 1957. Littleton was a suburb of Denver, where I could catch a city bus and be downtown Denver in 45 minutes. We lived across the street from the Arapahoe County Fair Grounds, where I attended the fair, watched equestrian events and stock car racing. My father was a visual artist that collected Jazz records. I listened to Frank Sinatra, Sara Vaughan, Jimmy Smith (I could hum Kenny Burrell’s guitar solo on Organ Grinder’s Swing before I’d ever touched a guitar), Miles Davis, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Chico Hamilton, Tony Mottola, Bill Doggett, Ray Charles, Mose Allison, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, and Blossom Dearie from the time I can remember. My mom listened to the local pop radio station during the day, and I discovered Country Music on radio station KLAK. I was especially intrigued by Ernest Tubb. My transistor radio was set to KIMN, the local Top 40 station, where I dug Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. Littleton was a great place to grow up at that time. I saw my first live rock band, Gary Stites And His Satellites, playing an evening outdoor dance around 1959. It was the first time that I saw a Fender Stratocaster close up. It looked like it was made of some sort of space age material to me. My dad was an avid snow skier, and we went on regular weekend skiing trips throughout the 1960s, back when it was inexpensive and relatively uncrowded.
UM – And what was the music scene like? Is it a city with a major style or does it have a little of everything?
KV - The music scene in Denver was great in the 50s and 60s. There was a healthy nightclub scene that supported Jazz artists, Country entertainers, and a booming teenage Rock n Roll band explosion. My father was friends with Charles Burrell, who played the string bass with the Denver Symphony and in a small jazz quartet at night. He was also friends with jazz guitarist Johnny Smith, who had moved to Colorado Springs, where he operated a music store. He drove to Denver every Saturday night to perform at Shaner’s nightclub with The Neil Bridge Trio. When the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan show in February 1964, I went guitar crazy. I was obsessed with guitars, and especially the Beatles, Kinks, Rolling Stones, Animals, The Byrds, Lovin’ Spoonful, Ventures, Beach Boys, Kingsmen, Trashmen, The Sonics, Dick Dale, and The Yardbirds. I had a cheap little nylon string guitar by 1965, and started taking lessons from Denny Fria, who played lead guitar in a local band called The Catalinas, in 1966. Denny showed me how to play simple Rolling Stones tunes, and gave me a copy of Mickey Baker’s “How To Play Jazz and Hot Guitar Book 1”, which I still use! I had a job delivering newspapers at that time and managed to save up some money. My father had been taking me to watch Johnny Smith perform, and one night he made an appointment to meet Johnny at his music store. I had wanted to buy a Fender Jaguar, but my teacher talked me into buying a Telecaster instead. He convinced me when he pointed out the fact that Jeff Beck had been using an Esquire (a Telecaster with one pickup ) in the Yardbirds. We drove to Colorado Springs that week and traded in my nylon string guitar and $ 160.00 for a brand new Fender Telecaster. Johnny gave me a few heavyweight Gibson Jazz picks and a few tips about how to position my hands when playing. I was set! That evening I entertained my neighbor, Ted Moser, with a few rudimentary Luther Perkins guitar licks off of some Johnny Cash songs. He kept saying “do that again!” I was hooked. Ted’s father had a Merle Haggard album, a few Johnny Cash records, and a Buck Owens album. We used to listen to those when I was hanging out at his house. We really liked them. I found that the Johnny Cash songs were easy and fun to play. A neighbor of ours, Doug Heath, played the electric bass. He was 3 years older than I and played well. He would have me over on Saturdays and we’d play songs together. We were doing stuff like Mustang Sally, In The Midnight Hour, Gloria, Louie Louie, Pipeline, and Walk,Don’t Run. That winter, we got a little band together with 3 other guys on our block. I played my first paying gig with them in February of 1967. That band stayed together for 3 years, covering a lot of material and playing a lot of gigs. I was exposed to a lot of great guitar players during that time. In 1969 we opened shows for a band from Boulder called Zephyr, which had a great guitarist named Tommy Bolin. Tommy was a great guy, and I was lucky to have him show me some licks. He was a big influence on my playing and my sound.
By 1967, Denver and Boulder had a massive invasion of “Hippies”, and Chet Helms opened an all ages venue, “The Family Dog”. My friend’s older sister was dating the guy who ran the light show there, and we were able to get in to a lot of shows for free. I saw The Doors, Cream, Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band, Country Joe And The Fish, Howlin Wolf, Big Brother And The Holding Company (Janis Joplin), The Grateful Dead (I saw them many times in the Denver/Boulder area between 1968-1971. I was, and remain, a huge Jerry Garcia fan!), and Moby Grape there. Other bands that I saw in the area during that period were Jimi Hendrix (3 different times!), Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Buck Owens And His Buckaroos, The Soft Machine, Roland Kirk, Stan Getz, Gabor Szabo, Procul Harum, Joe Cocker and The Grease Band, Free, The Jefferson Airplane, Sonny Rollins, John Mayall, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin’s first American show, where they opened for Spirit and Vanilla Fudge, The Who, King Crimson, Allman Brothers, Merle Haggard And The Strangers, The Quicksilver Messenger Service, Gary Burton, Brother Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith, Deep Purple, many Frank Zappa shows, Buddy Rich, John McLaughlin, The Sons Of Champlain, and Pink Floyd. I continued to occasionally see Johnny Smith, who was always accommodating and helpful with his vast knowledge, although I never formally studied with him.
My friend Chuck Morris ran a small, intimate listening room in Denver called Ebbets Field. I saw countless shows there. John McLaughlin, John Abercrombie, Tony Williams, The Ramones, Little Feat, Roy Buchanan, The New York Dolls, The Runaways, Mink DeVille, Flo and Eddie, McCoy Tyner, Robin Trower, Ralph Towner, Chick Corea, Pat Metheney, Elvin Jones, Dr John, and Tom Waits!The 70s music scene was wide open. I was listening to The Velvet Underground, Iggy and The Stooges, Lee Dorsey, Johnny Winter, Weather Report, Frank Zappa, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, early Yes( the first 4 albums), Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Kraftwerk, Dr Feelgood, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel era Genesis, Eddie And The Hotrods, Mott The Hoople, Roxy Music, Wings, Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers, Eno, Nick Lowe, George Benson, Tony Rice, Graham Parker, Cecil Taylor, Paco de Lucia, Wendy Carlos, Keith Jarret, James Brown, Sly Stone, Tower Of Power, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Elvis Costello, The Meters, ZZ Top, and Anthony Braxton. It was such a great time to buy records.
UM – When you started playing guitar you had an interest in jazz, right? Could you talk about this phase? What kind of jazz did you listen to? Which artists?
KV - In 1972, I walked into my local music store, Melody Music, and there was a young fellow playing some beautiful guitar over in the corner. I asked the owner, Gordon Close, “Who is that guy?” He said “that’s our new guitar teacher, Bill Frissell.” I said “Sign me up!” Bill had been studying with Jim Hall in New York, and had recently returned to Denver. He didn’t have much going on, and didn’t know what direction to move with his music. He didn’t want to be just another traditional jazz player, but he did want to play jazz. I studied with him for a few months until he moved back to New York. He taught me a whole lot about music theory and guitar, and I was able to continue to apply his lessons for many years. What a great fellow.
I played in an “Art/Prog” band around this time that wrote all of their own music. They were called “Little Brown’s Electric Band” and had managed to write a good bit of material. They rehearsed regularly, and were quite good. We were humorously booked to back up Bo Diddley for a sold out show opening for Chuck Berry. It fell on me to go around the rehearsal room and teach each player how to play Bo’s music, which was deceptive in its simplicity. It was actually a real challenge when you put it under the microscope, as the players on his records were Chicago’s finest. We did well, and just as he had predicted when we were walking onstage, got an encore.
The 70s were a fantastic time in Denver. The Oxford Hotel was a rundown place by the train station downtown with a show room that was home to Colorado’s folk scene. Rambling Jack Elliott, Fred Niel, Dan Fogleberg, Leo Kotke, John Prine, Chuck Pyle, Jimmy Ibotsen, John McKewen, Jim Kweskin, Rachael Farrow, David Bromberg, Judy Collins, and lots of local folk artists hung out there. It was informal and loose, like being in someone’s living room party. I used to back up Chuck Pyle there. It was such a great scene. The Jazz scene was still happening as well. I saw Weather Report 5 times in as many years, including their first lineup. There was a local jazz guitarist named Dale Bruning who had taught Bill, and I used to go catch his shows when I had a chance. I was playing in a blues band at a cowboy bar one night in 1976 when Willie Nelson walked in and sat in with us for 90 minutes! We went and hung out on his bus and talked music afterwards. I was impressed by his attitude about playing, and I dug his unorthodox, original style. He politely laughed at the notion of playing within the confines of any one particular genre.
I continued to work on my jazz chops, and maintained a progressive jazz quartet that played a forward leaning repertoire for several years. It was me on guitar with a horn player, bass and drums, so I had to up my game on my chord knowledge, as I was the only instrument covering that part. I remember that we played several Carla Bley tunes, as well as Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul tunes. We worked very little, as we weren’t interested in playing standards, but managed to play some cool shows and rehearse a lot.
UM – Did you have a punk band? That's cool, I love a lot of those bands! Which bans did you (do you) listen to the most?
KV - I had some friends that played in a “party band”. They did old Rock n Roll dance stuff, R&B, and Soul. They recruited me. The drummer and I started writing songs. We’d slip them into our set list for fun. Eventually, we had written maybe twenty good ones and another twenty throwaways. We started to play parties for the local indie record store, Wax Trax, and that led to us becoming more serious. We called ourselves The Jonny III and started playing around town and making money. The punk rock crowd that hung out at Wax Trax started coming to every single gig we played. Some of them were trouble makers, but most of them were music lovers and record collectors. I guess that is how we were branded as being a “punk band”, something that we clearly were not. There was an English record collector at Wax Trax named Mike Smythe who played rare Rockabilly records for us. We would include some of those tunes in our repertoire. When Wax Trax moved to Chicago, we were soon imported to play their parties, and we wound up working the club scene there, and all around the Great Lakes area, Cleveland, Detroit and on into NYC. We opened for The Cramps, Ramones, Johnny Thunders, Elvin Bishop, Joe Jackson, The Scorpions, The Buzzcocks, The Gang Of Four, Destroy All Monsters, Devo, Pere Ubu, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Simple Minds, 999, and The Tuff Darts. The band eventually folded in a haze of drug use, alcohol and partying. I continued writing songs with the drummer, but I’m the only one that continued on in the music biz.
UM – I found you on youtube, I don't remember how I got to you (LoL). But when I heard your sound it became clear country, rock and a bit of rockabilly. How was jazz and punk moved to this country-rock sound?
KV - Meanwhile, while all of this was going on, I had to make money. My parents had moved to Kansas in 1973, and I wasn’t about to get a job. I found a Country band comprised of guys that were at least twice my age playing at a tavern down the street. I found that I could work 6 nights a week with them and never have to leave the part of town I lived in. I could walk there. They played 50s & 60s Country, and they were really good. They adopted me and kept an eye on me, as my appearance greatly annoyed some of the patrons. The great thing about playing with them, in addition to their expertise, was that they’d let me off of the hook whenever my jazz group or rock group had a gig. I also played a lot of gigs with Gene Chalk, who always maintained a great band that played to big crowds, doing country rock, Buddy Holly, Willie Nelson, and Everly Brothers stuff. By the beginning of the 80s I knew all of the key performers in the Denver country music scene. I began to get calls for recording sessions, and that led to meeting and playing with a lot of great players. Most of the recording was either backing singer/songwriters or doing music for local radio and TV commercials. I continued to write songs, play gigs, do recording sessions and study guitar. I occasionally worked with brothers Jim and Bob Swanson, who had a rocking little combo called The Rock Advocates. They wrote and recorded their own songs, and they had fantastic sibling harmonies, similar to the Everly Brothers. That was a fun gig, always a wild scene. It’s a pity that we never took that band to L.A., New York or Nashville. They had such great potential. Great songs! In 1987, I received a call from a friend who had recently moved to Nashville from L.A. He was working with a duo from L.A. called The Sweethearts Of The Rodeo that had a few songs on the Country charts, and they needed a guitar player immediately. They were sisters, and had a Country/Rockabilly type of style. They also had a hint of Bluegrass in their sound. I jumped in my car and drove to Nashville.
I’d never entertained the notion of visiting Nashville, and I’d never been to the South. I’d been to L.A., Chicago, and NYC, but never experienced the South. It was a bit of a culture shock. I was glad to be working with people that were experiencing it in the same manner that I was. The scene in Nashville knocked me out. The Country music that I liked was all but dead and gone, but there were some great people there. I seemed to have met half of the town the first week there. The players were incredible, and there were so many. We rehearsed for two days, played 4 gigs in Nashville, then departed for a three week tour opening for Alabama, who were still quite popular at the time. I found the Country Music establishment and most of the performers quite odd. It seemed like it was mostly a put on, and a lot of the recent performers were one dimensional with nothing much to say.
It was like they existed in an alternate universe or something. Little did I know that I was landing there in the middle of what would eventually be known as “The Great Credibility Scare”, where people like Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, The O’Kanes, Nancy Griffith, Dwight Yoakum, and Ricky Skaggs were actually having hit records on Country Radio! I was in the middle of all of that. How incredibly lucky. The Sweethearts were good people. They were kind, stylish, fun, put on a good show, and were easy to travel and perform with. They gave me plenty of space to play, and the money was great. I ended up working with them for 5 years.
We played at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville on the fourth night that I was in town, our second show after two rehearsals, where I became friends with the owner of the place. She and her staff would let me in the back door for free, and they’d let me hang out after hours. I remember nights sitting at the bar until all hours with Steve Earle, Fred Knobloch, David Olney, Townes Van Zandt, Mark Germino, and John Prine. They used to book national touring acts there. I saw some cool shows, including rockabilly great Joe Clay (Don’t Mess With My Ducktail). I soon discovered that there was a great Rock scene in Nashville. There were at least 10 bands that had good songs and large followings. There were a few great places to play, and you could always find some interesting shows to see.
One thing about Nashville is you become a better player and songwriter by just hanging around. You can’t help being influenced by all of the great talent that you stumble across every day. I know one thing for certain, and that is that I will, in the next month or so, come across some player or writer I’ve never heard of that will blow my mind. After working with The Sweethearts, I moved on to Patty Loveless, Rodney Crowell, Kim Ritchie, and Marshal Chapman. In 1994, when I wasn’t on the road, I worked weekends with the great Greg Garing, one of the most talented performers I’ve worked with. The best!
UM – Did you play a good time with Marty Stuart's Fabulous Superlatives? He's a country legend! Could you talk about him and the period with the band?
KV - By 2000, I was working in the studio all of the time. Most of it was nothing that I’d play for my friends, and most of it I’ve never listened to. The money was good. A friend once described session work in Nashville thusly. “Really great players, working with really great engineers in a really great studio recording really mediocre music.” That about says it. Fortunately, every now and then I get to work with someone who’s really good, and that makes it all worth it.
In 2001 I got a call from Marty Stuart. I’d been a fan of his since the mid 80s, and I’d met him in passing a few times. He was wanting to put a band together to go out and play shows with and asked me if I’d be up for it. I was. I was pleased that, with the exception of Greg Garing, he knew more about the old country music that I liked than anyone I’d encountered. He showed me his vast collection of Country Music memorabilia (now in a warehouse in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where there will be a museum with over 20,000 of his items), and even had me try on the suit that Hank Williams died in. It fit. I was excited to stand beside him while he played Clarence White’s Telecaster with the original Parsons/White B Bender, and knocked out by his mandolin playing. Harry Stinson joined on drums and vocal, and we first had Bryan Glenn on bass and vocal, who was then replaced by Paul Martin, and then, for the last 5 years, the great Chris Scruggs, who, in addition to bass and vocal, also plays steel guitar and guitar. We are out on tour as I write this. Our band has well over 100 songs that we can perform, and no two shows are ever the same. We’re in the fun business, and if we’re not having fun, we aren’t doing our job. It’s great working with 3 people that are as, if not more, obsessed with music as I am. We have a Surf instrumental album recorded with 20 original compositions that hopefully will be released in 2020.
UM – Have you ever played with Johnny Cash bassist? Damn, what an honor!
KV - In the last ten years, I’ve worked on some cool records with The Pretenders, Dan Auerbach, Ray LaMontogne, Nikki Lane, Lana Del Rey, and Porter Wagoner.I’m currently producing Danny Frazier, and a record of my wife, the beautiful and wildly talented Carmella Ramsey. She is a multi instrumentalist and singer/songwriter that has worked with James Taylor, Allison Krause, Olivia Newton John, Reba, and Patty Loveless. Her songs are epic. We just recorded one with Sonny Landreth on slide guitar.
I’ve had a band with Dave Roe since 1999. Dave played the bass for Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Three for over 10 years, as well as working for Verne Gosdin, Dwight Yoakum, Mel Tillis, and Jerry Reed. We have a trio, The SloBeats, with Pete Abbott on drums. We are currently working on recording a 10 song album of our tunes for the Plowboy label. It’s not at all Country or Rockabilly. Definitely funky and rocking.I play every Sunday night in Nashville (provided we’re in town) at a place called the Local with Chris Scruggs And The Stone Fox Five. We play Nashville style Country music from the 1946-1956 era. Chris does Lefty Frizell, Hank Williams, Little Jimmy Dickens, Carl Smith, Johnny and Jack, Red Foley, Bob Wills, Webb Pierce, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Ray Price and Faron Young. When people request George Jones, we politely inform them that we don’t do “that new country stuff.” We have period correct instrumentation, no drums. The upright bass, fiddle, archtop guitar and flat top guitar are all on microphones, no pickups. Only the steel guitar (non pedal double neck) and my archtop electric go through old amps. It’s extremely entertaining, complete with matching cowboy outfits. Our fiddle player, Billy Contreras, is the best in the world. For real!I’ve also had a blues trio for many years with Jeffery Clemons on drums and vocal, Dave Roe on upright bass, and myself. We are extremely old school, and try to play our instruments like it’s 1959, as if loud music had never happened. Jeffrey is the quietest drummer I’ve ever worked with, and he’s a fabulous blues singer. It’s an entertaining show, and extremely informal. We tend to perform more in the Winter.
And yes, I recorded some songs with Johnny Cash one afternoon around 20 years ago. What a great, funny guy he was! I’m lucky to have worked closely with 3 of his band mates. The stories I’ve heard are priceless!
UM – You toured with Lucinda Williams. Could you talk about the experience and about Lucinda?
KV - It was at his gig that I met Lucinda Williams, who was at many of those shows. She was finishing her Car Wheels On A Gravel Road record with Ray Kennedy and Steve Earle and getting ready to do some touring. I eventually wound up playing in her band from 1997-2000, touring non stop. We headlined, and also opened for The Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Tom Petty, whom we did over 30 shows with. I’ve never worked with an artist that is as much invested in their songwriting as Lucinda. Every one of her songs is about something that has happened in her life. She gets to the very core of the song when she performs. It’s very real. There’s no one quite like her.Another great artist that I met through Greg Garing is Knoxville poet, playwright, and singer/songwriter RB Morris. I played on his first album, produced by the great RS Field. Working with those guys was so great. Some of the most fun that I’ve ever had. I ended up working with them together, as well as separately for many years. I’ve made 3 records with RB Morris, and countless others with RS Field.
UM – I saw that you received an award from the Americana Music Association. This is an endless discussion, but I love it: how would you define AMERICANA?
KV - Regarding your “how do you define Americana” question, I really don’t know. It seems to have changed a lot in 20 years. I used to tell people to go listen to The Band’s first two albums and you’ll have your answer. I know way too much about the people that run The Americana Music Association and the politics/money involved. I’ll decline further comment. I really am not interested in the music that you hear on awards shows of any kind. I’m lucky if I hear one thing that I like on those things.I like The Punch Brothers!!! If they aren’t on an American music award show of any kind, then it’s not legitimate!