Saturday, November 05, 2016

The Late, Great Stevie Ray's Final Album

Stevie Ray Vaughan had been deceased for more than a year on this day in 1991 when an album of 10 of his previously unreleased recordings was released.

(Well, actually, one of the songs had been released on an album when Vaughan was alive, but the recording of the song that was used in the posthumous album was a different version.)

Called "The Sky Is Crying," the album was a bittersweet reminder of how much we lost when Stevie Ray died in a helicopter crash in Wisconsin in August 1990. It was a collection of pieces written mostly by other artists, like Jimi Hendrix, Howlin' Wolf and Elmore James, but there were a couple of songs penned by Vaughan.

And there was one song, "Life by the Drop," that was written by Doyle Bramhall, one of Vaughan's friends.

Bramhall clearly knew Stevie Ray's style. I always thought the song was perfect for him. It captured his style in a way that none of the other songs did.

The title track was written by James, but Albert King probably recorded the most widely recognized version of it.

Much of the album was the hard–driving blues for which Vaughan was known, but it was really a showcase for Stevie Ray's diverse (if unheralded) guitar styles. They were all influenced to a certain extent by the blues, of course — but the influence was not exclusive.

My favorite track has always been an instrumental piece called "Chitlins Con Carne." That one really was different for Stevie Ray. I have often wondered why he recorded it. Did he just do it as a lark with no intention of releasing it?

Perhaps. I haven't heard any other songs that could have been used on an album with it. But surely these weren't the only outtakes in Stevie Ray's portfolio.

"Chitlins Con Carne" was written by jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, and it offered a glimpse into the jazzy side of Vaughan's musical personality, which was an intriguing departure. Stevie Ray was a great guitarist, one of the best who ever lived, but he seldom seemed to stray from what made his reputation. Most of the time that is a good strategy. Dance with who brung you, Texas football coach Darrell Royal used to say, and it was advice that Texas–born Stevie Ray Vaughan seemed to take to heart.

But the tracks on "The Sky Is Crying" allowed Stevie Ray to step out of his comfort zone — from the grave, if you will.

Hendrix's "Little Wing" was a rare opportunity to hear Stevie Ray doing blues rock. Stevie Ray's style was more blues than anything else.

The songs on "The Sky Is Crying" were recorded in sessions from 1984 to 1989. For reasons that may have been known only to Stevie Ray, they weren't included on albums from 1984's "Couldn't Stand the Weather" to 1989's "In Step."

It all worked out in the end, though. The 10 tracks combined to form what may have been Stevie Ray's best studio album — perhaps even better than "In Step."

The 25th anniversary of the release of "The Sky Is Crying" is a reminder of what we lost, and it revives questions I heard asked when "The Sky Is Crying" was released.

How many other unreleased Stevie Ray recordings are there? And when will we get to hear them?