25 Years Ago: ‘The Sky Is Crying’ Posthumously Celebrates Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughan’s death shocked the music world. With his incredible and fluid playing style, the Texas picker had burst upon the blues scene, become the acknowledged heir to legends from B.B. King to Buddy Guy and brought roots music back to the mainstream – most notably with the multi-platinum In Step album in 1989.
After only a few years in the spotlight and a handful of studio LPs, Vaughan died in a Wisconsin helicopter accident on Aug. 27, 1990. He was mourned by friends, family and music royalty, perhaps none more so than his older brother Jimmie. A guitar star in his own right, Jimmie Vaughan was the guy who first turned his kid brother onto the blues and taught Stevie Ray to play. Stevie would often cite Jimmie as his biggest influence, and the two even teamed up for a record, Family Style, made shortly before Stevie died.
In the wake of his brother’s accident, Jimmie wanted to find a way to pay appropriate tribute to Stevie. After finding a version of “The Sky Is Crying,” an Elmore James tune recorded by SRV and Double Trouble in 1985, Jimmie planned to sift through years of other “leftover” tracks in an effort to compile a full-blown album of posthumous performances.
“At first, when I started listening to all the stuff, I didn’t know whether or not... I didn’t really know if there was even gonna be a record, I mean, if there was enough suitable stuff for a studio record,” Jimmie said in 1991. “’Cause from my experience with recording – I’ve put out a few albums – you usually put out the stuff that’s good enough to put out. You put it out! You know, I don’t know too many people that have a lot of great stuff just sittin’ around, you know?”
Jimmie compared his months of searching to detective work, indicating how important it was to only select tracks that lived up to his brother’s legacy. At the end of his process, he selected 10 tracks, nine of which hadn’t appeared in any form on a previous SRV studio album. The record would be named for the first forgotten track Jimmie had discovered, the appropriately named The Sky Is Crying.
Because the recordings spanned five years (1984-89), four different studios (from New York to Los Angeles) and multiple producers, Jimmie served as a sort of final producer, mixing the tracks so that they 10 selections would feel at home on the same album. He tried to have as light a touch as possible to preserve the integrity of the original performances, although Double Trouble’s Tommy Shannon had to re-cut the bass part on “Chitlins Con Carne,” which dated from ’85.
More than any of Stevie Ray and Double Trouble’s previous records, The Sky is Crying relied on cover versions, including the Chicago blues of Willie Dixon’s “Close to You” and a jazzy instrumental version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” The latter has since become one more enshrined example of SRV’s greatness.
“This song reminds me of Stevie’s tenderness, and friendliness and everything,” Jimmie said. “He starts out … he does the intro, you know, pretty much like Hendrix, and then he goes off... I don’t know whether this is jazz, blues, or... I don't know what this is, you know? I don’t know what kind of music you would call this, ’cause it’s got every one of those things in it. There’s some really great, sensitive, guitar playing on here. It’s like he’s talkin’!”
Another cover was a song written during the In Step sessions for Stevie by his sometimes songwriting partner Doyle Bramhall. Vaughan had recorded “Life by the Drop” on his own, playing acoustic guitar, possibly because of how the lyrics hit home for a man who had overcome his substance abuse problems.
“He told them he didn’t want to do it with the band,” Jimmie said. “He wanted to do it by himself, ’cause it was personal.”
The Sky is Crying was released by Epic Records on Nov. 5, 1991, about 14 months after Stevie Ray Vaughan’s death. The album was received enthusiastically both by fans, who made it his highest-charting album at No. 10, and critics who praised how it displayed the guitarist's virtuosity and versatility.
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