When the single from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s posthumous 1991 album, “The Sky is Crying,” first came out, there was much pre-internet speculation as to its meaning.
“Life By the Drop” was about Vaughan’s struggle with addiction, virtually every radio DJ told us at the time. Clean and sober since 1986, Vaughan lived the last years of his life in recovery from addiction until he died in a plane crash in 1990.
Hello there my old friend
Not so long ago it was till the end
We played outside in the pourin’ rain
On our way up the road we started over again
But those DJs didn’t have the whole story. The song’s meaning is more straightforward than they guessed.
Vaughan didn’t even write it. Another neighborhood kid, Doyle Bramhall, did. Bramhall was born and raised in West Dallas and grew up with Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan. They were high school buddies who played in bands together in Dallas and Austin. He wrote “Life by the Drop” about his friendship with Vaughan.
Up and down that road in our worn out shoes
Talkin’ ‘bout good things and singin’ the blues
You went your way and I stayed behind
We both knew it was just a matter of time
Bramhall died of congestive heart failure at age 62 in 2011. His widow, Barbara Logan, told Texas Monthly in 2015 that although both men had drug problems, the song was about living day-by-day, “one drop at a time.”
While Vaughan was out playing stadium tours and putting down guitar licks for David Bowie in the ’80s, Bramhall never reached that level of stardom.
“Doyle wasn’t jealous,” Logan told Texas Monthly. “He was proud of Stevie. It was a dream they had both had, and now Stevie was living it.”
Brahmhall, a drummer and singer, co-wrote some of Vaughan’s best-known songs, including “The House is Rockin’” and “Tightrope” on Vaughan’s 1989 album “In Step.”
Bramhall also wrote “Lookin’ Out the Window” and “Change It” from Vaughan’s album “Soul to Soul.”
He recorded an album with the Vaughan Brothers, “Family Style.”
And he had two successful solo albums. The first was “Bird Nest on the Ground,” titled after his cover of a Muddy Waters tune and released in 1994.
Here’s how the Fort Worth Star-Telegram described Bramhall’s upbringing in a story that year:
“Bramhall spent his early childhood in what was virtually a family neighborhood in west Dallas, a closely organized community of Bramhall’s who worked for the most part at a nearby cement plant. So involved were Bramhall and his siblings in making music that formal lessons proved beside the point. Nor has Bramhall considered any career outside music.”
Brahmall told the newspaper that his mom worked in a West Dallas grocery store, where many cultures mixed: “On one side of the store, Mexican music was playing; on the other, R&B; and in the meat market, country and western.”
Photo by Kirby Warnock
Bramhall and Jimmie Vaughan played together, with Beatles haircuts and matching suits, in Dallas party band The Chessmen in the late ’60s. They opened for Jimi Hendrix when he played Dallas in 1968. Bramhall later played drums for Freddie King and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
He moved to Austin around the same time as the Vaughan brothers and formed a band called the Nightcrawlers, which had Stevie on guitar. That’s when they wrote their first song together, “Dirty Pool,” which Vaughan later recorded on his album “Texas Flood.”
“To me, Stevie stood alone. There was no one like him. He left room in his music for his honesty and his soul to come through, and I think that’s what people picked up on,” Bramhall told Guitar World before his death. “He was just completely dedicated and loved what he was doing. I had great admiration for him as a musician and a person because he always lived life to the fullest. Every time you were around him was a constant reminder that today is all we have.”
No waste of time we’re allowed today
Churnin’ up the past, there’s no easier way
Times been between us, a means to an end
God its good to be here walkin’ together my friend
Photo by Kirby Warnock
Bramhall’s wife says “Life By the Drop” wasn’t quite finished when Vaughan told them he wanted to record it in 1988. Although she’d never written a song before, Barbara Logan told Texas Monthly, she added a couple of lines about friendship that completed it.
“It speaks to so many people in so many ways,” she told the magazine. “Songs are like that — that’s something I learned from Doyle. Everybody hears songs in their own way.”
The Bramhall music legacy lives on with son Doyle Bramhall II, a prolific left-handed guitarist whose list of credits wouldn’t fit on the length of your arm.
The younger Bramhall spoke about Vaughan in an interview with My Global Mind earlier this year.
“It was just such a different thing because a year before he made it, so to speak, he was staying with his band in my step grandmother’s house,” he told the website. “All just sleeping on the floor and just hanging out, so he was just our buddy. It was pretty amazing to see the transition from that into what he would become, one of the most iconic blues guitarists of all times.”