Happy 30th Anniversary to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s fourth & final studio album In Step, originally released June 6, 1989.
In Step is Stevie Ray Vaughan's final studio album with Double Trouble. He died in a helicopter crash less than 15 months after its release. It's commonly considered his "sober" album, with the title a not particularly anonymized reference to Alcoholic Anonymous' 12 steps.
Anyone who has ever gotten themselves together mentally, whether it's getting sober or recovering from a trauma, will tell you the biggest fear is regressing back to your old, unhealthy ways. Dreams are filled with images of slipping because, at the beginning, the new-found health feels fragile, like it could be stolen from you at any moment. The tragic beauty of In Step is hearing Vaughan working his way through his relatively new-found sobriety, struggling not just to understand it, but to make others understand it, and knowing that he never really had the chance to enjoy what he had worked toward.
In Step features some of Vaughan's best songwriting. Double Trouble keyboardist Reese Wynans went so far as to say it wasn't much of a blues album, telling Vaughan biographer Craig Hopkins (Stevie Ray Vaughan: Day by Day, Night After Night, His Final Years), "There was not much blues on [In Step]. It was more original material and groove oriented." Of course, there was plenty of blues on In Step, but it was supported by more expansive rhythms. And while the music might not have been traditional, straight-ahead blues, lyrically, Vaughan found a place as stark and as honest as any blues singer.
Part of this is because of his extensive collaboration with Austin music fixture and old Vaughan friend Doyle Bramhall. Bramhall had collaborated with Vaughan going as far back as Texas Flood (1983), Double Trouble's debut, but on In Step, Bramhall co-wrote four of the seven original tracks. Bramhall was also newly sober and the two spent the weeks leading up to recording working up songs. Despite the seriousness of the topic, though, In Step is a fun, energizing album. Vaughan took his sobriety seriously, but never ventured into Smiths-inspired humorlessness. The irony of the blues is that, while it's rooted in a certain sadness, it requires humor and life, or it's just depressing.
A great example of this balance is "Wall of Denial." The title is intense. It sounds more like a psychological diagnosis than a blues rock song. You can almost imagine an emo artist acoustically performing a song with that title in a dimly-lit coffee shop, perhaps pausing just long enough to weep, before going into the eighth verse of what, of course, would be a song without a chorus. Vaughan's version is the opposite of that. It begins with an effortlessly intricate guitar riff that launches the song into one of the grooves mentioned by Wynans. Vaughan's voice surfs over waves of Wynans' keyboard and his own guitar. It's funk, with blues guitar and rock drums, perhaps the purest synthesis of Vaughan's many influences. Lyrically, he and Bramhall dig deep, "We've all had our demons from the garden of white lies / Dressed them, amused them, pulling wool over our eyes."
While Vaughan is known for his guitar work, his In Steps vocals are strong, especially given the complexity of many of the rhythms. However the vocals were another challenge for Vaughan on In Step. Vaughan was freaked out by his voice, having never recorded vocals sober, producer Jim Gaines told Guitar World in 1994. Listening to the album, one doesn't detect Vaughan’s trepidation, though. His vocals sound strong and confident throughout the album, even if Vaughan didn't feel that way.
In Step also featured the first Double Trouble composition, the hard-charging "Crossfire," which would eventually hit number one on the Billboard mainstream rock chart. It's another testament to Vaughan's confidence, with a killer riff built upon piano and organ, and with Vaughan's guitar providing stabs of energy, hearkening back to his supporting guitar work on David Bowie's Let's Dance.
The In Step sessions had a certain surreal mysticism to them. Blues legend Albert King, a major Vaughan influence, hung around the recording studio. According to Hopkins, much of King's time in the studio was spent either teasing Vaughan or borrowing money. There is also the iconic story of the recording of "Riviera Paradise," the jazzy instrumental concluding the album. As Gaines recalled to Guitar World, Vaughan and Double Trouble launched into the track with very little tape left on the recording spool. The band locked into an incredible performance as they slowly ran out of tape. Gaines signaled for the band to wrap up the song, so he could capture a complete performance, but Vaughan had his back to everyone. Drummer Chris Layton eventually caught Vaughan's eye and Vaughan wrapped up the song, with tape running out just as the song finished.
The album's cover art also has a mystic air to it. Vaughan is kneeling against a gray backdrop, drenched in a poncho, acoustic guitar in hand, his head bowed down, with Vaughan's face completely obscured by his trademark gambler's hat. Vaughan appears to be captured in the midst of a prayer, or perhaps surrendering to a higher power. The drab plaid poncho gives him the appearance of a monk. There's a serenity and modesty to the image that is decidedly un-Vaughan-like. This isn't to suggest Vaughan somehow suspected the end was near, nor that he was anything less than optimistic about the future. Rather it's more reminiscent of how great blues artists, like Robert Johnson, are often followed by a cloud of otherworldly energy.
Vaughan's final studio albums would be Family Style, recorded with his brother, Jimmy, and released in September 1990 and The Sky is Crying, a posthumously assembled album featuring unreleased tracks. One of those Sky tracks, "Life by the Drop," was written and recorded for In Step, but ultimately left off the album. Written by Bramhall and his wife, Barbara Logan, it's intimate, featuring Vaughan and a 12-string acoustic guitar. Musically, the song is way too delicate for In Step, but thematically it's a perfect fit for the album (in fact, I often mistakenly attribute the song to In Step): "You're living out dreams of you on top / My mind is aching, oh Lord it won't stop / That's how it happened, living life by the drop."
You know an album is special when the conversation turns to the great songs that didn't fit on it. Part of what makes In Step so special is how it fits into the end of Vaughan's life—the tragedy of a great artist saving himself, living to not just tell about it, but to make great music out of the experience, only to die in a helicopter accident. But even without Vaughan's death, this is still a triumphant, important, high-quality album. Vaughan, aided by Bramhall, managed to reflect on mistakes and successes without degenerating into navel-gazing. It's not easy to create an album that's muscularly meditative and Vaughan, Double Trouble, and Bramhall managed to do it. I'm not sure anyone else could have pulled off a feat like In Step.