In the rich history of American blues, some names ring out as the form’s most influential practitioners. Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King were among the greatest pioneers, along with dozens of others, but it was Mississippi bluesman Jimmy Reed who had hit records on the charts.
Reed’s blues records sold, reaching an audience that might not have otherwise heard any blues music. Like Waters and several others, Reed injected electricity into the sound, paving the way for rock and roll as we know it. But Reed had another secret weapon that would break the blues out far beyond the segregated black American culture: the melodic hook. Jimmy Reed wrote songs with a good beat you could dance to, and that’s how they made it onto mainstream radio.
That radio signal reached at least two white kids who would dedicate the rest of their lives to keeping the electric blues alive and well. And 40 years after hearing Reed’s “Big Boss Man” and “Baby What You Want Me To Do” crackling through the airwaves, they decided to honor his songs by taking a blues trip together down the Jimmy Reed Highway.
Kent “Omar” Dykes is a big man with a big, full, growling blues sound. By contrast, the brand of blues of his old pal, Jimmie Vaughan, has long been as sleek, smooth and understated as his slicked-back hair and easygoing manner.
Together, they represent the best of the living blues in America. And together, they remember the songs of Jimmy Reed, as they pay tribute to him in a new album that has his name right there in the title.
“I was 12 years old when I got hip to you/‘Bright Lights, Big City,’/‘Baby What You Want Me To Do.’/You got me busy, and now I sing the blues.”
That’s how Dykes opens the album, with his own song as the title track, “Jimmy Reed Highway,” and he means every word of it. “That is absolutely the truth, 12 years old,” he says. “I probably couldn’t tell you that it was Jimmy Reed playing ‘Big Boss Man.’ I knew the song, and I knew ‘Baby, What You Want Me To Do.’ I may not have known who he was until much later, but I knew he was supposed to go ‘ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk.’ I knew that much!”
By the time he was 13, Kent — he’d wait until he was grown to become Omar — was doing his own ka-chunking on a blues guitar. Dykes, originally from Reed’s native Mississippi, made his way to Austin, Texas, in the mid-’70s, where his swampy, fiery brand of blues-fused rock ‘n’ roll found a musical home. Austin’s still home, but Omar and the Howlers have been on the road 30 years now, finding huge audiences in Europe, where such authentic American roots music is revered and celebrated.
“Jimmy Reed was big in Dallas; he was on the radio,” remembers Jimmie Vaughan. “They were playing him on KLIF, which was Top 40. I’d go to my dime dance in my junior high — on Mondays and Fridays they had a 10-cent dance — and they’d play him there. There was a silly little after-school dance [television] show in Dallas called ‘Something Else,’ and they would play Jimmy Reed on there.”
Vaughan was a Dallas kid fascinated with the blues and the guitar. In 1970, as a young man of 18, he, too, headed to Austin. It was a music town like no other — the home of country music, psychedelic rock, redneck rock and all variations of hippie music. There would clearly be plenty of room for a bluesman. Vaughan and his fellow Fabulous Thunderbirds eventually became the house band of Austin’s blues club, Antone’s, backing up everyone from Muddy Waters to Buddy Guy. Jimmie quickly developed a r