At first glance, Woodstock and Carnegie Hall would seem to have little in common beyond the fact that both are considered renowned music venues in the state of New York. But they loom as twin colossi in the career of Texas bassist Tommy Shannon, signaling landmark performances decades apart with Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan, respectively. And while your GPS may tell you that it’s roughly a hundred miles from Woodstock to Carnegie Hall, the trip is a whole lot longer and harder when you travel the blues highway … just ask Tommy.
Growing up in west Texas, the future bass legend launched his music career in the usual fashion, playing guitar in local cover bands during his high school years. Relocating to Dallas after graduation, however, he changed both his instrument and his direction, switching to bass and cutting his first professional recordings of soul music with drummer Uncle John Turner. Uncle John eventually ended up in Houston drumming for Johnny Winter, and when the band came through Dallas to play at The Fog, Tommy went out to visit his old friend. Their reunion took a momentous turn when Johnny Winter decided to make it a permanent one … by inviting Tommy to join Unc in his band. It was right then and there that Tommy Shannon first set foot on that blues highway whose fast lane would be his home for decades to come, carrying him around the world and back home again time after time.
When Johnny Winter, described by Tommy as “an encyclopedia of the blues,” invited Shannon to join his band, he used his own vast record collection to immerse his new bassist in all things blues. Recalls Tommy, “After I … listened to all that stuff, all the way back to the beginning, when I picked up my bass and started playing the blues, it was just the most natural thing I’d ever done.” Class over, Johnny then took his student on the ultimate field trip … the road. Long days and longer nights of driving, going hungry, and playing for little or no money eventually paid off, culminating in that historic appearance at Woodstock in 1969.
In 1970, cruising the blues highway at full throttle, Tommy never saw the detour coming: Johnny Winter joined a band with Rick Derringer, leaving his rhythm section behind. So Uncle John and Tommy joined Bruce Bowland in San Francisco that summer to form the band Krackerjack, which would later become a Texas legend featuring an aspiring young guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan, whom Tommy had first seen at The Fog mere months earlier.
But Tommy’s work with Stevie was still many miles down the highway. Another detour for a long cycle of drug abuse, jail, rehab, and probation almost took Tommy off the road permanently. He went from laying down bass riffs to laying bricks for a living when the terms of one probation prohibited his involvement in the drug-riddled atmosphere of the local music scene. But by the late ’70s, with his legal obligations finally fulfilled, he again resumed his music career. While living in Houston, he read that Stevie Ray Vaughan, that “real awkward looking, scrawny 14-year-old kid” he remembered from years ago at The Fog, was playing at Rockefeller’s and decided to go check him out. “I remember I walked in and it was like a revelation. Something just hit me right between the eyes, and I knew that’s where I belonged.” He told Stevie, “I belong in this band with you.” And Stevie, who had long idolized the bass player who had befriended him back in his early teens, agreed; two weeks later Tommy was half of the Double Trouble rhythm section.
The story of Tommy’s time with Stevie is well known: the musical highs of sold-out concerts all over the world (including that magical Carnegie Hall gig), the multiple Grammys, the gold and platinum records … and then the personal lows of drug and alcohol addiction, which eventually led the two best friends to enter rehab facilities on the same day in October, 1986. Emerging clean, sober, and profoundly thankful for a second chance, the brother-in-arms picked up their axes and began making some of the best music of their careers. Vaughan’s unthinkable passing in a tragic helicopter crash in 1990 was a devastating personal and professional loss to Tommy, in one horrific event robbing him of both his closest friend and his desire to make music.
In the months that followed, while Tommy struggled to reconnect with the music that now “made about as much sense to [him] as a chainsaw,” his Double Trouble partner, Chris Layton, and Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton, who had both enjoyed Stevie’s babysitting services as children, also mourned their fallen friend, each pursuing his own project at the Austin Rehearsal Complex (ARC). Commiserating over their common loss, they reached out to Tommy and formed the Arc Angels as a side project intended as a distraction and for live jams only. But when the foursome began attracting a serious following at their impromptu appearances, the project took on a life of its own. Heralded as a Texas supergroup, the band recorded one highly successful, critically acclaimed album before living up to its name and crashing to earth almost as quickly as it had arisen.
In the midst of the fallout from the Arc Angels’ demise, Tommy was asked to audition for Bill Wyman’s spot in the Rolling Stones. Although he left the 50-minute New York audition feeling that he had gotten the gig, it was not to be, and the blues highway carried him home once more, this time to yet another date with destiny. In Austin Tommy and Chris joined celebrated soul singer Malford Milligan, along with David Grissom and David Holt, to found Storyville, touted as the consummate Austin supergroup. The band released its first album in 1994, winning nine Austin Music Awards. Storyville went on to record two albums for Atlantic Records before breaking up in 1998.
In his post-Storyville years, Tommy returned to the songwriting he’d left behind in his teens. “That period when I started writing again was the happiest time of my life,” he says. “It was like being reborn.” Armed with new material, he and Chris at last focused on a recording project of their own. Released in 2001, Been a Long Time featured Double Trouble and a stellar list of guest artists, including Willie Nelson, Dr. John, Jimmie Vaughan, Eric Johnson, Susan Tedeschi, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Reese Wynans, and members of the Arc Angels and Storyville. An Austin City Limits taping and accompanying Austin Music Hall all star extravaganza billed as “Double Trouble and Friends” introduced the recording to an enthusiastic and welcoming fanbase.
As Art Tipaldi observed, “Since he plucked his first bass note with Johnny Winter, Tommy Shannon has been blessed with the task of interpreting the music of the legends he has hooked vibes with for three decades. New fans who’ll never witness the pure power surge of Stevie can still behold the magic through Shannon’s spirit.”
Tommy Shannon as a bridge on the blues highway between the players of the past and the listeners of the present? It’s an image that seems particularly fitting, especially when you consider how he views his own role in the musical landscape: “I feel like ultimately that’s what a bass player’s role is, to be the bridge between the drums and [the guitar]. I don’t play all these real fast licks because there is nothing that feels as good as to just find that pulse. When you find that, you flow with it, and when the whole band is doin’ it, it feels wonderful. Like a sweet spot in time, and it doesn’t matter if you’re playing one note or a thousand, as long as you’re there.”
Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan would both tell you that’s what made Tommy Shannon the legendary bass player he is: you could always count on him to be there.
– Donna Johnston