Forty years on, Doug Sahm continues to deliver his supreme blend of American music
By Michael McCall
DECEMBER 14, 1998: Not long ago, Doug Sahm received a phone call from a new radio station in Austin, Texas, where he has lived since 1971. The station was playing songs from Sahm's long and varied musical career, but the deejays didn't know much about him. Could he send them a bio?
"I don't have one," Sahm replied.
"Yes, I think so," the woman said. "How long will it take?"
"Oh, about 40 years."
Sahm relates the incident in his characteristically upbeat manner, with barely a pause as he changes subjects. Constantly on the move, he's the type who'll regale anyone with his colorful stream-of-consciousness stories. To listen to Sahm is to hear a mouth constantly trying to keep up with a rapidly moving mind. He can be exhausting company, and yet it's clear he is a man in love with life.
First and foremost, Doug Sahm talks about music--about making it, about listening to it, about living it. With a résumé that goes back four decades, this San Antonio native may be the most important Texas musician you've never heard of.
Or maybe you've stumbled across his music at some point. Maybe you've grooved to The Sir Douglas Quintet, a great '60s band that mixed Lone Star rhythms and British Invasion rock. The group's most famous song, "She's About a Mover," features organist Augie Meyers using a Farfisa to imitate the rollicking sound of a Tex-Mex accordion. Along with Sam the Sham's "Woolly Bully" and ? and the Mysterians' "96 Tears," "She's About a Mover" helped integrate the organ into garage rock. It's a sound that has aged well, popping up notably in Elvis Costello & the Attractions' late-'70s recordings and, more recently, in Stereolab's blissfully drony oeuvre.
Or maybe you've heard the Texas Tornados, the rag-tag Tex Mex supergroup of sorts that featured Sahm, longtime partner Meyers, country singer Freddy Fender, and legendary Tejano accordionist Flaco Jimenez. The band's first single, "Who Were You Thinking Of," stands as one of the most entertaining country radio hits of the '90s.
But that's just a smidgen of the great music Sahm has forged since he began recording rock 'n' roll as a high-schooler in the mid-'50s. At his best, Sahm blends everything good about Texas music--be it country, R&B, rock 'n' roll, or Norteņo--into a simple yet spicy blend. Being a restless sort, he goes through collaborators like an adventurer crisscrossing the world. Above all, though, the primary goal is to have a good time, to spread some cheer, and to get along with one another while speaking and playing freely.
Sahm's musical sweep continues to be as vast as ever. In the '90s, besides four Texas Tornados albums, he has recorded stinging hard rock with his son Shawn Sahm (on the newly revived Sir Douglas Quintet's Day Dreaming at Midnight album); an outstanding big-band blues album (The Last Real Texas Blues Album); and the brand new S.D.Q. '98, which features backing by a popular Austin band, The Gourds, along with Augie Meyers on Vox organ and accordion.
Throughout, the unifying elements are looseness, spontaneity, and an emphasis on rollicking grooves and good-time fun. You can just imagine the musicians in the studio: the bandleader counting off a beat--"one, two, wahoo..."--and off they go. In that sense, Sahm may be described as the anti-Garth: For him, it really is about the music.
On the wonderful S.D.Q. '98, Sahm has found ideal musical partners in The Gourds, a well-regarded Austin band known for its raucous, absurdist take on traditional music. With the added presence of Meyers, the band hits a groove that often emulates the ecstatic sound of the Sir Douglas Quintet in its '60s heyday.
The album's opener, "Get a Life," seems destined to become an Austin theme song--even as it criticizes what the city has become. "When you're down and confused/And you're tired of payin' dues/Come on down to Austin town/And get a life," the song starts, bouncing along to a catchy groove. Later, Sahm invokes road rage, drug abuse, and career-driven computer industry workers--all aspects of modern Austin culture that he disdains--while encouraging everyone to relax and find better ways to enjoy themselves.
The raucous "Get a Life," with its message of hedonism cut with humanism, sets the tone for the rest of S.D.Q. '98. Steeped in steel guitar, organ, accordion, and good-time rhythms, the album is Sahm's loosest and most uncontrived collection of the '90s. It doesn't own the soaring high points of his recent blues album, but it also avoids the inconsistencies of the later Texas Tornados albums. He delves deeper into country music than usual, bringing a large dose of rollicking rhythm to Tom Russell's "St. Olav's Gate" and to a sprightly cover of Roger Miller's "Invitation to the Blues" (a song made famous by Ray Price).
But the best cuts are in the driving, melodic Sir Douglas mold, as he offers a tribute to two of the world's most liberated and tolerant cities ("Goodbye San Francisco--Hello Amsterdam") and a true-life tale about the joys of performing in Sweden ("Malmo Mama"). He also offers a trilogy of Alamo-related songs, the best of which is a toast to the legendary "Louis Riel" and the corniest of which is a remake of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett." There are also a couple of Cajun rockers, including a soul-deep remake of Bobby Charles' "On Bended Knee."
For the most part, this is Sahm at his barroom best, melding a myriad of rootsy influences and making them all sound as natural as talking. This is the music he's done all his life.
Gram Parsons used to say that he strove to create "Cosmic American Music." But for all of his aspirations to merge country and R&B, his sound mostly stayed rooted in the music of the Southeast, where country, bluegrass, and gospel have struggled with the difficult propositions of guilt, loneliness, and retribution. Sahm, on the other hand, has for years created exuberant music that blends the sweep of traditional Southwestern sounds--those of blacks, whites, Chicanos, and Cajuns--into something that truly is cosmic.
For his part, both on record and in his unpredictable stage shows, Sahm will continue to provide a role model for a life well lived. "Good songs, good times, man," he says. "I've been lucky 'cause I've always been able to hook up with people who love music as much as I do. I've been real fortunate that way."
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