It’s common knowledge what a breeding ground for great music Austin, Texas is. So it’s no surprise that Tyrone Vaughan has been gaining attention for his guitar playing and singing, starting with his group Breedlove, through Royal Southern Brotherhood and now with the Milligan Vaughan Project.
While RSB is laying low, Vaughan decided it was a good time to do some music on his own. At the suggestion of his manager, Mark Proct, he was hooked up with Storyville singer Malford Milligan, whose voice sizzles like a blues/rock/vintage scotch rebel rouser. Getting together to write some songs early this year, a new record started to take shape and this past June the fruits of their labor appeared in the shape of their self-titled eleven song record.
Some songs drip slow blues soul (“Leave My Girl Alone”) while others hum with a good rocking blues surge (“Soul Satisfaction”); “Here I Am” has a southern country base, “Compared To What” feels a New Orleans groove and “Two Wings” swings on just Milligan’s scratchy voice and Vaughan’s simple guitar. If this is only the tip of the MVP iceberg, then more good things are sure to come.
Although Vaughan was a late-comer to playing guitar, it didn’t take long for his genes to kick in. As the son of former Fabulous Thunderbirds guitar player Jimmie Vaughan and nephew of the legendary Stevie Ray Vaughan, it was almost inevitable that the younger Vaughan would have a rapport with the six-string. And replacing Devon Allman in RSB was an almost perfect fit, since he was already packing that Texas swing that gelled so well with the New Orleans funk that Cyril Neville brought to the band.
But Vaughan has a lot to say on his guitar and with MVP, that Austin pizazz ignites up and their live shows can be a hot ticket. Vaughan hopes the rest of the country will soon pick up on what they have to offer and that requires more touring. As for the day of our interview, Vaughan is being more of a domestic at home and feeling thankful that Hurricane Harvey didn’t do any damage to his hometown. “It missed us by about a hundred miles north,” he told me.
Since you and Malford are both Austin guys, when did you first meet?
We’ve known each other for quite a while. I’m from Austin and he’s from Elgin, just outside of Austin. He was in Storyville and I was in a band called Breedlove and we played quite a few shows together. That was the first time we met.
Whose idea was it to put you two together in a band?
After Royal Southern Brotherhood started to slow down, I figured I should get together with another singer or start doing my own stuff. I reached out to Malford and the timing was right. He was ready to do something. Mark Proct, the manager, played a big role in all this too so I guess last January was when we first started writing for this record.
Had you and Malford played together before all this started happening?
No, we hadn’t really. We had just been in the same scene, blues rock, and we had a love for the blues.
What was it like writing songs together?
Well, I had a bunch of guitar riffs. I’m always trying to write songs. Then we got together and wrote songs right off the bat. We didn’t really jam or anything like that. I just showed him some riffs and he came up with some lyrics and some melodies and we probably did that on about seven or eight songs over about a month. So that was kind of our starting point, just to write some songs. Then David Grissom from Storyville got involved. He had songs and he wanted to produce some of the record, which was great. So we just kind of went from there, put together a band in Austin, started at SXSW and been playing around the Austin area, some Dallas, some Houston, San Antonio, just in Texas really. Now that the record is out we’re trying to get outside of Texas.
What was one of the first songs that came together for this record?
It was “Driving You,” a blues that me and Malford wrote.
You said it only took about a month.
Yeah, it took about a month to write some songs but only a few stuck for the record so we had to collect a bunch of songs, some from other writers and we did some covers and a couple of my original songs that I had before. To put together the record it took another couple of months. We started in January and about April we were in the studio and it didn’t take long to cut the record. We had a couple of different producers on it and maybe spent about two to three weeks cutting the record.
Are you one of these guys who likes to be in the studio?
Yeah, I guess when the time is right you start itching to get off the road and go record and at the end of the recording process you’re so burnt out on the studio, you can’t wait to get out and play live (laughs).
“Little Bit Of Heaven” is credited to just you. What can you tell us about it?
That was a song that I wrote a couple of years ago and I’ve been playing it live. Then David Grissom heard it and liked it and he arranged it a little differently than the way I had it. So the new arrangement made the record and it’s pretty cool. But yeah, it’s just a fun song, nothing serious (laughs).
You do such a great rendition of Buddy Guy’s “Leave My Girl Alone.” It just drips blues, it’s slower than other versions I’ve heard. Who picked that particular song to go on the record?
That was Mark Proct. He came to us and said, “Hey, you might want to look at doing a blues song,” and he brought that one to the table. We’ve always loved it and we started playing it live and we cut that one live in the studio. It wasn’t produced at all and that was a live take and I guess everybody liked the way it came out so we kept it.
With a song like that, that other people have covered, and I’ve heard your uncle do it, what is the hardest part about taking a classic song and doing it yourself?
That’s a good question. Like I said, Mark Proct brought it to the table. I don’t know if that was anything I would ever cover but it was brought to my attention by Mark. He said, “Hey, I think you guys could do a good job on this.” We were open-minded and we gave it a shot, meaning I felt pretty good about it because Malford is such a good singer. I figured he could pull the vocals off. You know, Stevie’s version is so good. He made that song pretty much famous and that’s why we love that tune; but I don’t think I would have done it on my own. When you have someone like Malford singing it, it feels authentic and it feels good. Me playing the guitar parts, Buddy Guy is one of my favorite guitar players ever. He’s the first guy I got really hooked on playing guitar. So to me, it’s that inspiration of Buddy Guy and my uncle. Anytime you’re playing, giving a nod to any old blues, you’ve just got to take a deep breath and say a little prayer (laughs). You just got to go in there and play your best guitar. Like I said, people enjoyed the final product and me and Malford looked at each other and did the thumbs up on it.
You’ve already been playing some shows together. Are you noticing that any of these songs on the record are changing or evolving the more that you play them live?
We did a good job in the studio but then it takes time for them to come together live. They may change a little bit but not too drastically and I think really they’re just getting where they are supposed to be and sound finished or polished, full-grown, mature.
When you’re playing a song, do you go off into much improvisation with it?
I think that the structure of the songs are going to stay the same. I think each night I have an opportunity to play maybe a different lead. When I write the lead in the studio, usually it’s a good place to be or a good place to start. So sometimes I will start the lead in the same spot and maybe I’ll end the lead in the same spot, but in the middle I’ve got room to change it. I usually do that for me or for my bandmates. You know, we’re playing the same songs each night so I try to, not outdo myself from the night before, but I’ll try to like keep myself entertained as far as the leads go.
On “Compared To What,” it has that nice little New Orleans groove showing up in there. When did New Orleans music come on your radar?
It was when I was a kid. The Neville Brothers would come through, The Meters would come through. In our record collection we had the Neville Brothers, Yellow Moon and all those Neville Brothers records, and that was from when I was a kid. And it’s a neighbor to Texas so growing up you’d hear a lot about New Orleans style and flavor and sure enough when you get a little older you realize that New Orleans, and Louisiana itself, is probably one of the most special, cooler places on the Earth.
What did you get from playing with Cyril in RSB?
Well Cyril is just a walking encyclopedia of music in general. And he is such a fan, such a lover. He’s been around for so long. He’s been on the road since 1965 and has played with everybody and their dog, twice (laughs). He’s seen it all from a really interesting perspective, from an interesting stance. He’s just ungodly talented, one of the best singers still around. To work with him, he’s pretty much a master at what he does so I got to be around greatness for a couple of years, over two hundred gigs.
To play live with him is unbelievable. The energy you get, the style, the flavor. I already had the Texas swing going and that fit right in with the New Orleans stuff. Royal Southern Brotherhood was more a blues band, and we played a lot of the blues circuit and festivals, but we were really more of a funk band. When I say that, it’s really danceable, upbeat tempos and he had the percussion outfit every night so we played a lot of New Orleans type music. I got to play the Neville Brothers stuff. But just being around him is a special deal. He’s one of the greats that are still hanging out. There’s not a lot of them. He was sixty-seven and he kind of showed me what it’s like to play music your whole life.
Did you only use your Strat to record the new songs?
I just used the Strat on it
Why is the Strat your favorite guitar?
I guess it’s what I learned on and what felt comfortable. I think it looks good but it’s the easiest to play for me.
When did you start playing guitar?
I was about nineteen. I started late but it came pretty quick.
What was the hardest thing to get the hang of when you started?
You’re just so excited to be playing that you just try and get your fingers to work. You’re trying to get them to catch up and I remember just trying to learn licks and listening to blues. A lot of my friends around me were playing and it was exciting to see what they could do on guitar. But yeah, you just keep messing with it and before you know it, you get better. Every time you go back to the guitar, or whatever instrument it is you choose to play, you get better and better and better, and that was a good feeling to be able to progress in it. And you get hooked on it, the feeling and the way it sounds.
Yeah, you never really know. I wanted to play baseball and I played baseball but I realized in high school you’ve got to be really, really good. As far as music, that was always there. I was always a music fan too, you know. I was a music lover before I was a musician. I picked it up pretty quick and it was pretty natural. People wanted to see me play. It was a good feeling but my dad told me not to play so maybe that helped (laughs).
You also sing. Are you really comfortable doing that or would you rather just play guitar?
It’s fun to just sit there and play guitar if you’ve got a really good singer in your band. Otherwise, I like to sing. Backups are fun, I like to do duets. Me and Bart Walker would sing some in Royal Southern Brotherhood but I don’t know why when you’ve got Cyril (laughs). I like to sing. I’m going to do some more of it. I’m sure I’ll do a couple of records after this and I’ll be singing.
What was your first big I can’t believe I’m here moment?
It was early on, in my twenties, and my band Breedlove was pretty successful in Texas. When you’ve got six or seven hundred people in a club just to see you it’s an amazing feeling. We’d pack out Antone’s, put eight hundred people in Antone’s, and it was just unbelievable. I saw my uncle play when I was about sixteen at a big stadium and that was unbelievable. He was so loud, it took everybody a minute to get used to it, the sound, but that was really good. As far as my own career, I would say like, I got to sit in with my dad and Billy Gibbons on New Year’s Eve in New Orleans, House Of Blues, 2001. I got to record a couple of records with Cyril Neville and I got to write songs with Cyril. Those were huge moments. I got to play with John Popper with Blues Traveler. I got to play with Pinetop Perkins. I got to play with Double Trouble, Doyle Bramhall Jr, local Austin heroes.
But when you get to do that, it probably feels amazing and you wonder, how did this happen to little ole me?
(laughs) Exactly. But you’ve got to go through it, go through the ranks, and before you know it you’re sitting up there playing guitar with Billy Gibbons. It’s a trip, it’s fast, it’s a whirlwind. And that’s why you’re always practicing cause you want to be ready when these opportunities come. You have these defining moments and now I’m working with David Grissom, playing with Malford – some good things are happening.
So what can happen with this band next?
It’s doing as well as I was hoping it would but as far as radio picking it up and the blues internet, the blues world in general needs to know about this project. We need to go national with it, we need to go over to Europe, we need to go on the road for two to five years and really put this thing out there as a blues group, a blues rock group from Texas that’s as far as I’m concerned a really good project right now. It’s got all the elements that I like to hear in a band – blues to rock to funky stuff. It’s all right there. Malford is a very dynamic singer. Me and him both run the stage very well. We’ve got a lot of presence up there. And we’ve got a natural thing that we do. So it’s a good band to come see. If you come see us, you’d enjoy it. But I hope we get our shot out there and play some festivals, be on the road for a couple of years and see how far we can take it.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough; portrait by Stan Martin