Keith Ferguson's "Thunderbird Blues"

May 22, 2014
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En route to a string of gigs in the Texas Panhandle, I can't help but think about the great blues tradition in the Lone Star State. With a history that encompasses Blind Lemon Jefferson, the fabled recordings of Robert Johnson (made in San Antonio and Dallas), T-Bone Walker, Freddie King, Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan, not to mention a seemingly endless list of innovators and legends, Texas has been—and continues to be—a rich environment for this great form of American music.

Austin, Texas, is also well known for its contribution to the blues, and while the scene may not be as energized as it was during the Stevie Ray Vaughan days, there is still a dedicated talent pool performing locally, and filling tour slots with major blues artists around the world. One of the best-known bands to come from Austin is the Fabulous Thunderbirds, who in spite of their cheesy ’80s hit “Tuff Enough,” created some of the most rockin’ Texas blues ever heard. While frontman Kim Wilson is still touring with a group of young lions under the T-Bird name, most people refer back to the classic lineup of Wilson on vocals and harp, Jimmie Vaughan on guitar, Mike Buck or Fran Christina on drums, and the man we’ll focus on this month, bassist Keith Ferguson.

The Houston native played an integral part in the burgeoning Texas blues revival of the late ’60s to early ’70s, performing with Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan (pre-Double Trouble), and co-founding the Fabulous Thunderbirds. The T-Birds were once described as “the first white blues band that didn’t look or sound like hippies,” and their first four albums feature Ferguson laying down thick slabs of bottom, with unapologetic authority. Post-Thunderbirds, Keith was a founding member of the Tail Gators, and appeared on Carlos Santana’s Havana Moon. He spent his remaining years in Austin, passing away in 1997.

This month’s example is the 12-bar intro chorus Keith played on “Tell Me Why,” a stomper from the T-Birds’ Butt Rockin’ album [Benchmark Recordings, 1981]. Keith’s ’52 Fender Precision has a burnished growl, and his lines unobtrusively support while stoking the flames with rhythm section mate Fran Christina. (In response to several reader questions regarding my use of key signatures: Although A7 is the I chord for a blues progression in A, the song is not in the key of A major. To make the key signature reflect the tonality of the I chord, I use the key signature of D major, as A7 is its V chord.) Because this example is a “double stroker,” I’ve used the shuffle eighth-note indicator in the upper left corner. This makes for less visual clutter in the measure—simply interpret the eighth-notes with a shuffle feel.

The line itself is a straightforward triad-based part, but Ferguson starts on the octave in bar 1, dropping to the low A in bar 2. Whether it was deliberate or not, bars 3 and 4 are a mirror image of that phrase. In bar 5, Keith simply stamps out the root on the IV chord, which makes this boogie-shuffle kind of funky. A quick chromatic triplet takes us back to the I chord, followed by a classic chromatic ascending pattern to the V chord that peaks on the octave of the V chord in bar 9. Keith quickly drops down to the low E and builds his way back up, spicing up the IV chord with a triplet on the F#, a motif he repeats on the I chord in bar 11. The track struts and smolders for 2:26, with Ferguson building his lines dynamically throughout, though never straying far from the beaten path.

If you’re a blues fan, Butt Rockin’ is a must-have CD—Jimmie Vaughan is lean and mean, Wilson’s vocals and harp work are exemplary, and Keith Ferguson and Fran Christina are the epitome of a top-shelf blues rhythm section.

Ed “the Bass Whisperer” Friedland plays, writes, and teaches out of his bass base in Austin, Texas. Visit Ed here.

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