August 8, 2020

THE TRUE STORY OF THE LEGENDARY SAM’S BAR-B-QUE: Tracing the history of the East Austin institution, which has survived two fires, a gentrification buyout offer, and Midland.

Lost forever in the fire, though, was memorabilia from the joint’s most famous customer. Autographed photos from legendary guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan were destroyed in the blaze (although Mays has a few at home). [Business owner Brian Mays], who was a pallbearer at Vaughan’s funeral after the fatal 1990 helicopter crash, says that his mother, Erma Mays, had made Vaughan—a Dallas native—a part of their Austin family. “She adopted Stevie Ray as her son. Not by blood, but by love,” Mays recalls.

Vaughan chose Sam’s as a frequent backdrop for band photos and even had Sam’s barbecue delivered to a New York recording studio while he was working on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album in 1982. As Edi Johnson, who worked for Vaughan’s management company, remembers in the book Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan, “Stevie called me and said, ‘We need some real barbecue here. Go over to Sam’s and send it up.’ They packed it in dry ice, and I drove it to the airport.” A few years later, Vaughan was interviewed at the Lone Star Cafe in New York. “Sam’s Bar-B-Que is the most incredible barbecue in the world,” he says to the camera before saying hello to Erma Mays. Vaughan’s advocacy for the place certainly helped raise the profile for Sam’s, which was the subject of a 1982 story in the Statesman and was given a two-and-a-half star review the same year by restaurant critic Mark Hanna. He wrote that Sam’s “is not a place to go before the symphony. It is simply a bit of Americana which offers no modern-day frills and a lot of old-time flavor.” Little has changed about Sam’s charm.

Vaughan’s connection to the place made the recent controversy between Sam’s and the band Midland even more of a head-scratcher. Musicians claiming allegiance to Texas should crave the association with the legendary barbecue joint, but in a band photo taken outside Sam’s, the label replaced “Sam’s” on the sign with the title of one of Midland’s songs. Mays said they’ve since come to an agreement. “We’re all right,” he said, referring to the payment he received from the band as part of Midland’s public apology.

Here’s the image that Midland Photoshopped out Sam’s name — and the Washington Post ran to accompany their profile of the band in their magazine section last month.

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