Americana Bedrock: Doug Sahm

Here in Texas it’s easy to throw around the term ‘icon’ at our homegrown musicians from a host of different styles of music.  Willie Nelson – icon.  Lyle Lovett – icon.  Lightnin’ Hopkins – icon.  T-Bone Walker, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ornette Coleman, Beyonce, Janis Joplin, Erykah Badu, Van Cliburn, Waylon Jennings. Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Selena Gomez, Townes Van Zandt, Leadbelly, Kris Kristofferson. All iconic.

The state has produced so many great musicians there are now internet sites listing the top 100 and they cross all musical genres. Admittedly, many are more iconic within our state lines than beyond, but all are part of the panoply of talent that falls under the rubric ‘Texana’.  You could argue that it would take a couple of listening lifetimes to take in all of what the state has produced.

But few of these greats have criss-crossed across so many different types of Texas music as the one and only Sir Douglas, aka Doug Saldana, the Cosmic Cowboy himself: The inimitable, irreplaceable Doug Sahm.

I distinctly remember picking up my first Sir Douglas Quintet LP ‘Mendocino’ in 1965, not long after ‘She’s About A Mover’ started to get airtime on local AM radio. 1965 was the beginning of a very fertile couple of years of music, with new recordings showing up in stores almost every week. Those were the days when there was so much new and interesting music coming out a trip to the record store could result in buying an album based solely on its cover. Everyone was hungry for new listening experiences.

Sir Doug’s LP also included the single ‘Mendocino’, and those sounded totally mid-60s. But the other songs on that LP distanced themselves distinctly from what was coming from the Bay Area, New York and Los Angeles.  Song titles like ‘Texas Me’, ‘Lawd I’m Just A Country Boy In This Great Big Freakin’ City’ and ‘I Wanna Be Your Mama Again’ were unusual for sure, as were the musical influences they hinted at, were a different, not the sounds of rock band. Farfisa driven, with little guitar histrionics, the songs have tinges of folk, Bob Wills, blues, country ballads, evidence these guys were coming from a very different place. And what about those fiddles?

Of course it was totally danceable. As all good Texas music is. Unlike the great 1965 recordings issued by Otis Reading, Dylan, the Byrds, Beach Boys, Kinks and Stones there are no direct clues as to the many influences on ‘Mendocino’.  Then the band was anointed by Bob Dylan in a 1965 interview and Hugh Hefner (Playboy After Dark, on youTube) and things really got interesting for the Quintet. But before we go there, a note on Doug and his bonafides:  Musical family, grandfather an accordion polka player. Childhood prodigy, playing steel guitar and gigging before he was 10. Sitting in with Hank Thompson and Hank Williams (!!). Grows up on the Latino west side of San Antonio, plays all over Texas as a kid, sometimes in three bands at once. Heavily influenced by the blues, r&b and Texas swing touring acts he would hear playing at a relative’s nightclub as well as the Tex-Mex and conjunto dance halls in the Spanish speaking clubs of San Antonio. Plays fluently by ear. Adds fiddle and guitar to his arsenal. First regional hit in 1960.

Dylan’s accolades were made around the time the Quintet’s name was getting known, and about that time the band relocated to San Francisco, part of the Texas migration that included Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, Boz Scaggs, and Steve Miller. The band was frequently on television – Hullabaloo in particular and Hefner’s show, and were touring with everyone from the Beach Boys and Stones to James Brown. But the hippie scene left them homesick, and by 1971 the band was back in Austin, where Doug would hole up for years, rarely playing outside of Texas but developing a huge fan base. Through the ‘70s he would release a bunch of albums, playing with the Dead, Dylan, and others on theirs. Become the defacto leader of the burgeoning Austin hippie and music scenes. All the while letting his Texas music influences shine. (And in case you missed it, the cowboy hat was ever-present as a reminder of where he came from.)

Doug’s musical journey was ever evolving and hit another high point when he formed the Texas Tornados, a pure Texas ensemble featuring Quintet member Augie Meyers, the famous accordion player Flaco Jiminez and Freddie Fender, Texas country royalty (Doug’s kids played drums and guitar).  This group became massively famous playing a cocktail of pure Texas styles – sung in English and Spanish – and crossed over to country-rock, always exemplifying the musical richness of the Lone Star State. Grammy Awards, movie soundtracks, etc. would come. And while this was going on Doug formed The Last Real Texas Blues Band and joined Latino supergroup Los Super Seven. Lots of albums document the depth of his creativity during this period. There are lots of YouTube videos out there to add depth to his legend.

For a more complete rendering, find Joe Nick Patoski’s film Sir Doug And The Genuine Cosmic Groove, with some up close and personal conversations and performances that will give you a taste of the genius of this legend, as well as reveal what a real Texas character he was. Let’s take a look at the recording I’d suggest for first time listeners who want a starting place to dive into all things Sahm.

The Return Of Wayne Douglas, issued posthumously after Doug died unexpectedly in 1999, sounds like the great comeback album Doug deserved. Expertly produced by Sahm and Tommy Detamore, under the watch of Bill Bentley (another Texas icon), the music would fall into the traditional/classic country category today, but when it was issued it sounded like Texas dancehall music to me. Dripping with Detamore’s steel and Bobby Flores’ fiddle, there’s a two steppin’ quality that is distinctly Sahm, although you can hear the influences of Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Freddy Fender, George Jones and Mickey Gilley.

Doug was never shy about reworking his earlier material, and some of his classic tunes get a redo, all for the good. ‘Beautiful Texas Sunshine’, the closest thing Texas has to a state song, opens and the fiddle/steel instrumentation frames the sound of what will follow. ‘Oh No Not Another One’ complains about the phony commercialism of ‘new country’ happening at that time, excoriating it’s lack of respect or relationship to Hank Williams, Faron Young, Lefty Frizell, etc.;  it’s much like Steely Dan’s ‘Hey Nineteen’ in tone.  Dylan’s ‘Love Minus Zero’ very different from the version on ‘Mendocino’ 35 years earlier. Hank Williams’ 1950 hit ‘They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me’ comes complete with a spoken intro about Texas songwriter Leon Payne. ‘Dallas Alice’ is full of longing with a great vocal and set of very interesting chord changes, the kind that made so many of Doug’s songs different from those around him. Of course the album closes with ‘Texas Me’ Doug’s great tale of longing for his home state.

I suggest this as an entry point with some reservations. There are other great Sahm recordings – ‘Doug Sahm and Band’, ‘JukeBox Music’ and ‘The Last Real Texas Blues Band’ that show different sides of his musical personality, especially r&b and Texas blues. Great Texas musicians featured on each. Listen to all of them!

The last time I saw Doug was in Dallas, a few years before his death.  He had pulled Roy Head out of retirement in Houston to open (‘Treat Her Right’ his big single) and was clearly proud to have him on tour (Both were veterans of Huey Meaux’s record company.) After Roy’s set I joined a group with Doug backstage where he entertained us with story after story. After 30 minutes or so the owner stuck his head in and reminded Doug he had a gig to play tonite and the crowd was ready. The band had fiddle, trumpet, steel. Roy came back up to sing backup and a few more tunes. The dance floor was packed. There were old folks, kids, yuppies, hippies, city and country folk. The music was joyous. The place was happening. Everyone under Doug’s spell. We folks here in Texas still are.

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