The Kentucky native’s music is stripped down, rooted in the country/folk/blues fusion we call Americana. It swells majestically when saturated with Vaughan’s storyteller’s voice, which rings with yearning and passion. The poetic lyrics reveal truths gained from experience; at times, recalling Joni Mitchell’s intimacy and lyrical incisiveness and Loretta Lynn’s plain-spoken directness. His delivery has also the truth-telling conviction that typified Johnny Cash’s best work. It’s like we’re eavesdropping on a man’s conversations, his internal dialogue and struggles or reading an emotionally raw diary that cuts through the BS, right to the bone of his truth.
On his recently-released fourth album, Desires Shape (Commonwealth Artist), Vaughan captures the I’m OK/I’m not OK reality of a breakup, nowhere more believably than on the bone-chilling “Weather in Kentucky”: Snow falls on the pines/And softly finds its place/Covers up the way you feel/Until it melts away. And there’s this: The good things that we are/Always carry on/So when I think of you here’s the truth/I’m glad that you’ve been gone.
Happiness is something to be fought for … it is not without struggle. On “Put It Back Together,” a couple comes back from the brink: Failure drives the driven man/To face the things he doesn’t understand. Making the effort to understand bears insight: You put it back together/And you will love like you have never loved before.
Perhaps the album’s finest song, “So Righteous,” speaks of love as it touches the bigger picture of social/political realities: Born together we’ve been torn apart/Something must break just to change our hearts/River’s rising and it won’t be long/The dam is weak and we’ll be dead and gone.
There’s a depth of intelligence in the writing and the singing that should touch anyone who loves great songwriting. Vaughan is in a rarefied class of writers, including John Prine, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and Mitchell. Maybe Fiona Apple, too. It is the work of a man who apparently has studied himself and his actions/reactions and, clear-eyed, recognizes there’s still work to be done as he navigates the sometimes rocky emotional landscapes of relationships with lovers, friends and himself. This all plays out in a simple setting of guitar, piano and harmonica that supports the singer and his songs beautifully. His struggles can feel like our own.
You may not have heard of Vaughan, but he has toured with John Mellencamp, James McMurtry and Marty Stuart; his music has been featured on TV series including True Blood, Friday Night Lights and The Office. Vaughan has also worked with the Allman Betts Band on their debut album and its forthcoming follow-up.
According to his website, Vaughan says his new album’s title is about “being in a continual conversation regarding people, God, and the fears we carry around — and how music interplays with everything emotionally and spiritually.”