Bob Dylan’s guitarist discusses cutting his blues chops with the Vaughan brothers, his latest guitar finds, producing records, and his recent film role as Townes Van Zandt.
As a kid growing up in Texas, Charlie Sexton had an unlikely babysitter in none other than Stevie Ray Vaughan. A family friend to Sexton’s single mother, the story goes that SRV played Hendrix records for young Charlie and his brother, Will, to keep them occupied while their mom was at work. As Sexton got older and started frequenting the tiny clubs in Austin’s blues circuit, SRV trusted budding guitarist “Little Charlie” to fill in for him onstage.
This is but a minor footnote in the musical life of Sexton, who is well known as Bob Dylan’s lead guitarist. (Sexton first joined Dylan’s band in 1999, and still tours and plays on his studio albums.) Charlie grew up playing the blues with the Vaughan brothers and, by age 12, was slinging licks and learning the ropes with other Austin legends like W.C. Clark and Joe Ely. At the ripe age of 16, Charlie scored a solo record deal and a hit, in 1985, with “Beat’s So Lonely,” a song from his first album, Pictures for Pleasure. At the time, The New York Times described him as a teen heartthrob in the vein of David Bowie, another icon who Sexton ended up working with later.
Sexton was in his late teens when high-profile artists started calling on him to play guitar on their sessions. “The first year I started doing anything professionally, one session was with Sparks, and then it was Don Henley, and then it was Keith Richards and Ron Wood,” Sexton remembers. “Shortly after that it was David Bowie and Dylan, so that’s a pretty crazy combo. That’s like a year-and-a half of my life, 40 years ago or something [laughs].”
All the while, he was playing in his own bands: most notably the Arc Angels with Double Trouble’s rhythm session and Doyle Bramhall II. Because Sexton could play styles running the gamut from his blues beginnings to pop, country, rock or whatever in between, it was hard to place him in a specific niche. He refers to his sphere of influences as a “triangle thing.”
“There’s this confusion of what I do and who I am or whatever,” Sexton says. “It’s also based on my own listening habits, which I think are shared with a lot of people. I call it the Wednesday-Saturday-Sunday thing. I listen to some records on Wednesday, some on Saturday, and on Sunday it’s something completely different. That’s where that triangle thing comes from.”
Dynamic is an understatement for Sexton, who plays many instruments besides guitar, including piano, drums, bass, and orchestral strings. He’s in his element when providing the atmosphere and musical glue for a kaleidoscope of projects. In addition to working with Dylan and making his own solo recordings, he’s produced albums for Jimmie Vaughan, Lucinda Williams, Edie Brickell, and Ryan Bingham. He just wrapped a stint playing on the Bowie Celebration tour, and holds a lifetime position as musical director for Austin’s Music Awards.
In 2018, he starred as Townes Van Zandt in the Ethan Hawke film Blaze, a biopic about unsung Texas outlaw troubadour Blaze Foley, who is played in the movie by actor-musician Ben Dickey. Sexton’s portrayal of the real-life icon provides the vehicle for telling the story of Foley’s life, through a series of flashbacks. Van Zandt, who also came to a tragic end, was one of Foley’s closest friends. Sexton (who also oversaw the movie’s musical production) is mesmerizing onscreen. His performance captivates with haunting authenticity—it feels like Sexton is Van Zandt.
Blaze is based on the memoir Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley by Sybil Rosen, who was Foley’s muse and a firsthand witness to the songwriter’s life. The entire Blaze project had a synergy fueled by a love for music, and Hawke, Sexton, and Dickey’s onscreen partnership and real-life friendships continued after the film wrapped. Sexton and Hawke recently launched a record label with Louis Black, called SexHawkeBlack, and Sexton produced Dickey’s new record, A Glimmer on the Outskirts, which is the first release for the label.
In real life, Blaze Foley was known for being drunk and violent, but his tender side is revealed through the lens of his lover, Rosen. The film’s raw telling of the tortured artist’s struggle and demise ain’t pretty, but it’s a testament to the idea that no one is definable by one quality—a sentiment Sexton has embodied in his decades-long career.
In this interview, Sexton discusses how he started, the guitarists who greatly influenced his own playing (“meeting Jimmie Vaughan was like meeting Elvis”), working with Dylan, details of his favorite guitars, and how he learned to produce. Throughout the conversation, he reveals nuggets of wisdom about the bigger picture of music.
You’ve been playing guitar since you were a toddler. Can you recall an “aha” moment, where something clicked and you thought, “This is what I’m gonna do for the rest of my life.”
That happened really quick. When I was really little I would watch The Johnny Cash Show religiously with my grandparents. I remember being at a family reunion at 7 or 8 years old with all my aunts and granny at the VFW, and at the end of it, my uncles got up and played country or gospel tunes or whatever. What it did to them was really powerful.
TIDBIT: While playing the role of Townes Van Zandt in Blaze, Charlie Sexton also oversaw the musical production of the film. The soundtrack includes Blaze Foley’s most popular tunes like “Clay Pigeons,” performed by Ben Dickey, as well as one Van Zandt song, “Marie,” performed by Sexton.
Johnny Cash was an idol of yours. Who else?
That was pre-teen. I grew up with the records my mom was listening to: the Beatles, the Stones, Arlo Guthrie was in the house, random ’60s music-machine stuff, the birth of garage psychedelia. I started hanging out and getting close to the Vaughans when I was really young. Jimmie Vaughan was probably the real guitar hero I was obsessed with.
Me and my brother, we opened for the Clash, who we met through Joe Ely, who gave me my first break. That was my first real, real gig. I came up playing mostly blues. That was the vehicle to play. Once I heard the Sex Pistols, I was like, what the hell is this? And then I became obsessed with Gang of Four and Andy Gill. I was seeking and searching out other things that weren’t immediately in front of me.
Is it true that SRV babysat you?
Yeah. I rarely ever played with Stevie, because he’d see me walk in and he’d hand me his guitar and take a break. He was going to get a drink, and he liked me. He was super, super, super sweet. I met Stevie before I met Jimmie, and then I met Jimmie and that was kind of like meeting Elvis.
Who would you say taught you the most about guitar in that time period?
For me, the point by which it all comes out of, like, if you made a map with a pin-drop and it goes out from there, it starts with Jimmie Vaughan. There’s something about Jimmie, who could play half the speed of his brother, but the tonal thing that he achieves, even on that first record [1979’s The Fabulous Thunderbirds]. I always refer to it as his brother is a really fast car, and Jimmie’s like a really fine car, like a beautiful old Cadillac with all the right stuff and it’s just kinda cruising.
That’s where it all comes from, and then I go to back to where he was getting the blues: Jimmy Reed, Freddie King, Albert Collins, Albert King, B.B. King. But then it goes into Frippian land and Earl Slick/Bowie stuff. The main record I tried to teach myself to play guitar to was Magical Mystery Tour, which was a nightmare. It’s not like the first Beatles album, where you can play the chords. Nothing stays the same within one track. That was exhausting at 9 years old with a crappy acoustic guitar. Guitar in general is pretty frustrating. It’s a terrible instrument. It’s not supposed to play in tune and nothing is laid out easily like on the piano.