On paper, the Milligan Vaughan Project makes a lot of sense: Malford Milligan, one of Austin’s most spectacular singers since the 1980s who formerly worked with Double Trouble after their Stevie Ray Vaughan days, teams up with guitarist Tyrone Vaughan, Stevie’s nephew and the son of blues-rock guitar great Jimmie Vaughan.
Turns out it works quite well onstage and in the studio, too. “MVP,” the duo’s cleverly monogrammed first album, came out last week on manager Mark Proct’s Mark One Records and delivers a solid punch of straight-ahead rockin’ blues. A handful of original tunes complement covers from the likes of blues master Buddy Guy and gospel great James Cleveland, plus a couple of bonus tracks that capture the energy of the band’s live shows.
But if their partnership seems natural in retrospect, it wasn’t necessarily destined. Two years ago, both were busy with other projects. Milligan had just formed the group Big Cat with a cast of local ace instrumentalists, and Vaughan was touring with Neville Brothers mainstay Cyril Neville in the Royal Southern Brotherhood.
“Before I got that job, I reached out to Malford, but the timing wasn’t right,” Vaughan said. “So after I got off the road with Cyril, then I just reached back out to him.”
Milligan remembers it well. “I was at the Saxon Pub listening to John Gaar, and I got a call from Tyrone,” he recounts. “And he said, ‘Hey man, you want to put asses in seats?’ And I said, ‘I do, actually! I really do.’”
Milligan’s foray with Big Cat had resulted in an album but not much more, in part because its members often had many other irons the fire. Vaughan’s vision involved more live shows, even though it meant he’d be commuting from McAllen, where he’s been living with his wife and children for the past few years.
“I was persistent,” Vaughan says. “Malford’s been one of the better singers around town for a long time now. He can sing anything.”
Milligan’s resume attests to that. Though best-known for the blues-rock he made with Storyville — a local supergroup of sorts that included Double Trouble’s Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon as well as guitar stars David Grissom and David Holt — the 58-year-old powerhouse vocalist has recorded with everyone from country star Hal Ketchum to eclectic Americana artist Alejandro Escovedo to prog-jazz rocker Eric Johnson.
With Vaughan, though, it was all about honing in on the bond the two of them shared most deeply.
“I really felt like with Tyrone, we needed to make a record that was easy to understand right off the bat,” Milligan says. “It was a blues record. I didn’t want it to be that eclectic. We both wanted something that was dead-set on that.”
The stakes were raised when Grissom expressed interest in becoming involved, as both a producer and a songwriting contributor. Two tracks he co-wrote with Davey Knowles made the album, and one of the two live bonus tracks is a Grissom tune from the Storyville era.
“He had a couple of songs we really liked that he wanted to give us,” Vaughan says. “That’s kind of all you had to say, was that David Grissom wants to get in there.”
“MVP” ended up being a co-production of Grissom, who did four songs with the band at Arlyn Studios, and Omar Vallejo of the Austin rock band Vallejo, who tracked five more cuts at his 512 Studios. For Milligan, the sessions at Arlyn were especially meaningful because of a formative experience he’d had there in the 1980s with Stick People, his first band.
“I remember hearing my voice over the huge speakers,” he says. “It wasn’t perfect, but I almost cried, because I knew exactly that this is what I was supposed to be doing. That’s what I thought about when I was back in the big room at Arlyn with Grissom.”
Stick People was an unlikely launching pad for Milligan’s career. Hired after an audition with guitarist Craig Ross, drummer Thor Harris and bassist Tawnya Lorae Palmquist, Milligan quickly became one of the most captivating performers in Austin, fronting an adventurous group that was much more plugged into the city’s alternative-rock underground than to its roots/blues scene.
Milligan had come to Austin to attend the University of Texas after growing up in Elgin in what he describes as “abject poverty,” with parents who worked laborer jobs at a brickyard and in cotton fields. Malford and his three siblings did their time chopping cotton when they were young as well.
“I had a historian tell me one time, ‘Well, you know, chopping cotton and working in the field is not that bad.’ I almost slapped that man,” Milligan says. “It was very hard work.”
At UT, he studied sociology and psychology and initially didn’t go out to hear music much. “I was pretty shy. Being a black albino, too, on top of that, you just get stared at,” he says. “I don’t meet people like me walking up and down the street.”
When he joined Stick People, he realized the upside of his physical appearance. “That’s when it worked,” he says. “As an everyday person, it was not all that cool, but as a performer, it was perfect.”
Stick People didn’t last, though its legacy still looms large over Austin music. Harris is now a nationally renowned drummer, working with bands such as the Swans and Shearwater, while Ross went on to become an acclaimed producer for Patty Griffin and others.
Ross was actually a charter member of Storyville in the early 1990s, but his departure led to producer Stephen Bruton recruiting an all-star crew of backers for the first Storyville record, “The Bluest Eyes,” in 1994. That record’s cast largely became the foundation for the band that subsequently made two albums for Atlantic Records before splitting in 2000.
Milligan came of age as a performer in those years. “In Storyville, if I didn’t start to own that stage, those guys were going to run right over me!” he says with a hearty laugh. “They taught me how to be a frontman. It was a great experience.”
Concurrently, Vaughan was making his first forays into music in Austin. A 1991 graduate of McCallum High School, he was a member of the mid- to late ’90s rock group Breedlove along with singer Dan Dyer, who co-wrote the “MVP” track “Devil’s Breath.” A 1999 album titled “Reach Out” was their lone release.
More recently, Vaughan gave country music a try. “I didn’t know I could sing country,” he says, “but my grandfather on my mom’s side sang country and had his own band.”
He spent time in Nashville making an album called “Downtime” for Kick It Up Records, an indie upstart that ultimately “fell hard and fast,” he says. “The country career kind of crashed and burned, so I came back home and started doing bluesy stuff.”
That ultimately inspired his fateful call to Milligan, who’s not exclusively a blues singer but knows the territory well. “The one thing I had to learn about when I sing the blues is to be quiet,” Milligan says, “There’s just so much not to say. Do the line and shut up, and let something happen.”
Much of what makes “MVP” work is the material. Both Milligan and Vaughan agree that choosing the right songs for the project was more important than advancing their own songwriting agendas. Though the two have written more than a half-dozen songs together, only one, “Driving You,” is on the album. (Another tune, “Little Bit of Heaven,” Vaughan wrote on his own.)
“I definitely wanted my songs to make it on the record, but it was more important that we found songs that worked for both of us, and worked for the album,” Milligan says. Vaughan echoes that sentiment: “If I write 10 songs and a couple of them make the record, that’s pretty cool.”
The duo — backed by guitarist Jorge Castillo, bassist Jeff Hayes and drummer Nico Leophonte — has been hitting Austin hard lately. On Saturday they played shows at both Antone’s and the Saxon Pub; Wednesday finds them doing Sun Radio’s “Texas Radio Live” broadcast at Guero’s, followed by an in-store performance at Waterloo Records on Thursday.
The endgame, though, is to take MVP well beyond their home base. “People always talk about the Austin music scene, but the goal of the Austin music scene is to get some traction so you can get out of town,” Milligan says. “You want to go play Houston and San Antonio, and then you want to go farther than that. It’s not just staying in Austin.
“I really want to take this band and do some touring while I’m still in good health,” he continues. “I’m 58; it’s not like I’m going to die tomorrow, but it’s not like being 38 and going on the road. It’s a whole different animal. But I want to make another good 10-year run and be out there.”