When considering the performance of his 2011 debut album, V — a record that serves a roots-savvy menu of traditional country, Americana and more — Kenny Vaughan offers a kind of conditional optimism: "It's done quite well for an unknown guy like me."
If you were to gauge Vaughan's success with mainstream audiences only by name recognition, such an appraisal might seem spot-on. But chances are good that you have heard his expert guitar playing whether you know it or not.
For more than a decade, Vaughan has been one of the Fabulous Superlatives, the white-hot band that backs country star Marty Stuart. Before that, he toured extensively with Lucinda Williams as she promoted her career-defining album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. And if you were a regular at the defunct Lynagh's Music Club during its alt-country heyday, you might have caught Vaughan supporting soon-to-be songwriter celebs Allison Moorer and Kim Richey.
"I wanted my record to be versatile, but I also didn't want it to get too far outside of something your average Marty Stuart autograph-table customer might like," he said. "I didn't want them to take it home, put it in the player and go, 'Whoa, what is this?' And that could have easily happened.
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"Marty has been on me for a while to do this. He said. 'You're losing money by not putting out your own CD. They could be flying off the (concession) tables at the shows.' So that's why I made a conscious effort to keep Marty's audience in mind a little bit and not stray too far out of my comfort zone with the record."
Still, the music on V — which features Stuart and the other Fabulous Superlatives (bassist Paul Martin and drummer Harry Stinson as the core band) covers a lot of country ground. The opening Country Music Got a Hold on Me is rife with the Bakersfield, Calif., accent of Buck Owens; the instrumental Wagon Ride recalls the great Byrds guitarist Clarence White; and Mysterium, another instrumental, sounds like Merle Travis sitting in after hours with soul maestros Booker T and the MGs.
Such inspirations represent only a fraction of the sounds Vaughan, an Oklahoma native who grew up in Denver, was exposed to as a youth. From his dad's record collection, he picked up on jazz. Through TV, he heard The Beatles. Through records by the likes of The Rolling Stones, he gained an appreciation of the blues. And when it came to furthering his own guitar abilities, Vaughan had the benefit of a teacher who, in short order, would go on to become one of the country's great guitar innovators: Bill Frisell.
"I remember walking into my local music store and there was this guy playing guitar in the corner," Vaughan said. "I walked up to the owner and said, 'Man, who is that guy? He sounds great.' And the owner said, 'Oh, that's Bill, my new guitar teacher.' I said, 'Sign me up now.'"
But it would be Williams who would give audiences their first serious dose of Vaughan's guitar abilities. And for Vaughan, it was the three-year stretch he spent on the road with the Grammy-winning songwriter that gave him his most far-reaching touring experience.
"I knew Lucinda before I worked with her. And I was also familiar with her guitar player back then, Gurf Morlix. He was like her Keith Richards. When Lucinda first called me to work for her, I was fortunately not available. I say that only because I didn't want to be the guy who replaced Gurf. But then she called six months later.
"While I was with Lucinda, she went from playing to a small cult to a large cult. That was because of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. We wound up doing shows with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. It was incredibly fun to be in that world and work with someone so intently devoted to their own songs. She was such a strong artist with that record."
With the Williams tenure behind him and a reputation mounting as one of Nashville's most in-demand session guitarists, the call came to play quartet country with Stuart.
"I didn't know what that was going to lead to," Vaughan said. "Turned out to be the greatest thing I've ever been involved in. We're just a four-piece band, but the whole thing is so incredibly rich musically. Marty is as much a fan of country music as he is a performer. And he's one hell of a performer.
"What I do on my own is a side project, really, compared to what I do with Marty. That's the top priority of everyone in the band. We're firmly committed to being Fabulous Superlatives."