AUSTIN, TEX. -- At dusk Monday, this city's hottest day of the year at 106 degrees, thousands of Austinites converged on a soccer field in the middle of Zilker Park not far from a massive limestone outcropping known as Rock Island. They traipsed across the darkening landscape carrying radios, coolers of beer, blankets, banners, posters and candles.
The crowd's diversity was as remarkable as its size. Here was the full range of Austin lifestyles -- old hippies, young real estate hustlers, Hispanic teenagers, middle-aged black professionals, underachieving writers and musicians known around town as "slackers," college students, mothers with children, truck-driving good ol' boys.
They came to eulogize Stevie Ray Vaughan, the rhythm and blues guitarist who had died early in the day when a helicopter crashed into a ski slope in southern Wisconsin. Vaughan, 35, was reared in Dallas and died in the upper Midwest, but Austin was his spiritual and musical home and it was here that news of his death evoked a spontaneous expression of grief, love and celebration.
In a tribute yesterday , Michael Point, music critic of the Austin American-Statesman, wrote, "Austinites always thought of him as one of their own. More as a supremely talented but always approachable neighbor than as a reigning rock star."
That was the essence of Vaughan's profound connection with Austin -- the thousands of self-styled music critics here considered him one of the few talents who maintained his style and personality while becoming a star.
For this day and night, the world stopped for much of Austin. Momentous events in Washington and the Middle East seemed ephemeral, distant, almost shallow, compared with the eternal meaning behind every lick of Vaughan's hot Texas guitar.
People elsewhere might think of Willie Nelson and country when they think of Austin music, but that is more perception than reality. The real Austin, one of the great music cities of the United States, is closer to Stevie Ray Vaughan, mixing extraordinary technical skill with a raw, bluesy, experimental, freewheeling style.
"Austin music is kind of unique," said Jane Ayers, a local music scribe who recently interviewed Vaughan for a book that she is writing. "We don't care about a lot of commercial stuff. We want the real stuff. Stevie Ray always gave the real stuff."
Austinites are sensitive to the slightest hint of commercialism. The music columns often resemble premature obituary pages, with singers and pickers buried alive for selling out in Los Angeles and Nashville, forgoing the sincerity of their Austin beginnings in pursuit of bucks and stardom. Vaughan hit the charts without abandoning what might be called the Austin ideal, and for that reason, along with his obvious talent, he was honored earlier this year as the Austin musician of the decade.
Like dozens of musicians before and after him, Vaughan left his hometown of Dallas as a young man and headed south to Austin to refine his craft. He played in most of the little clubs along Sixth Street and Riverside, but his mecca was Antone's, the dark, smoke-filled blues hangout where the great blues players from around the country -- B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins -- paid regular visits. Long before he made the big time, Vaughan won the hearts and respect of the blues legends, who often invited him onstage to play.
Their bond transcended race and background and held strong throughout the years. When Vaughan started to make money, beginning with his highly praised "Couldn't Stand the Weather" album in 1984, he constantly reminded himself and his fans that he was merely a protege of the true blues giants. Eventually, Vaughan, Bonnie Raitt and Vaughan's older brother, Jimmie, a prominent musician in his own right who played with the roadhouse rock and blues group The Fabulous Thunderbirds, helped to establish the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, whose purpose was to provide funds for struggling old blues musicians.
Buddy Guy was on stage with Vaughan at the Alpine Valley resort in Wisconsin only hours before the helicopter crash. Guy mourned the loss of his friend, saying: "He put the blues over, and then he came back and got us. People would tell him how great he was, and then he'd come and get you and say: 'You is what it is' . . . . He was definitely one of the white cats who could keep the blues alive."
Among the thousands of mourners at the memorial in the park was Bill Goode, a black Austin blues singer who now runs a posthole-digging company. As Vaughan's music flooded the park from oversized speakers atop two KLBJ-FM radio vans, Goode spoke of his lost friend with a mixture of pride and sadness.
"He was a people's man," Goode said. "He loved everybody, didn't matter what creed, color or race. He wanted to play something to make you feel good. My daughters all grew up on Stevie Ray. These are girls who love black music, soul music, but with Stevie Ray it was not just another white boy playing black music. He played music, and it was beautiful."
As often happens in life, Vaughan eventually had to leave the place he loved in order to survive. In late 1986, after years of increasing drug and alcohol abuse, he had a breakdown in Europe. He went to a rehabilitation center in Georgia, then packed his belongings from Austin, where he had spent most of the previous 15 years, and moved back to Dallas.
"He needed to break the patterns he'd established in Austin," said Ayers, whose first interview with Vaughan came right after his return from rehabilitation.
"He loved Austin but had to leave, and the people here understood. We were proud about how he got his life back together. When he'd come back for concerts, he'd always say how thankful he was for finding a second chance. He'd say the point of music was to blow away the boundaries so you can be free.
"His message to youth and others was that you can be drug free and alcohol free and still have extreme freedom of mind and expression. The music can take you there. He tried, really tried, to straighten out and reach that place of freedom. He left with a clean slate. I think that's beautiful."