An Appreciation of Doug Sahm, or, How to Get in the Tex-Mex Groove
Family, friends and filmmakers recently gathered at the Cinefamily Theatre on Fairfax in Los Angeles for Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove — the long-anticipated documentary about the under-appreciated Doug Sahm, produced by Joe Nick Patoski, author of books on Stevie Ray Vaughan, Selena, and Willie Nelson.
Turns out, Doug Sahm was a musical polygamist. country, rock, Western swing, Tex-Mex, polka, R&B, jazz, and blues were all part of Sahm’s serial music affairs. He was married to roots music, and Americana was his mistress.
After seeing his life story unfold on-screen, you may also want to label him the patriarch of the genre. In his 58 years, Sahm managed to influence a broad spectrum of music, from Tex-Mex to R&B, but had few breakthrough hits. Some of his contemporaries, like Willie Nelson, went on to star status and general acclaim while Sahm continued to experiment with fresh and innovative musical approaches — perhaps to his detriment.
The general consensus of his biographers is that the same genius and frenetic energy that produced classics like “Mendocino” and “She’s about a Mover” also caused him to abandon those successes in search of his next great project. He never developed a broader fan base, as audiences could never catch up to him and get comfortable with his style, so constantly was it evolving.
The filmmakers thoroughly explore his wild life story, starting with extraordinary images and narrative about his youth in San Antonio, where he was greatly influenced by Texas-style Western swing as well as blues artists of the 1940s like T-Bone Walker.
“Little Doug” Sahm took up the pedal steel guitar and became a key member of several regional bands, performing to great acclaim … at the age of 7. The ’50s found the prodigy playing onstage at local blues clubs. By high school, Sahm was a regional superstar, with an Elvis-like following of hysterical teens, as he played guitar and led a band named the MarKays. Authorities threatened to close the curtains on one concert if the young man “wiggled” during his rock and roll performance, and when he uncompromisingly did, an actual riot ensued.
Not content with regional success, the enigmatic musician and his band were booked onto the ’60s TV show Hullaballoo as the Sir Douglas Quintet, which included his life-long bandmate, keyboardist Augie Meyers. The band made a huge splash, creating the aura of a British Invasion band, with its Hispanic band members.
Capitalizing on that success, the Quintet had a Top 20 U.S. hit with “She’s about a Mover” and a lesser hit with “The Rains Came.” That band broke up after a bust for marijuana possession in Corpus Christi, Texas.
In 1969, Sahm, aka the Groover, appeared on the innovative TV show, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy after Dark to play Mendocino for all the “beautiful people.” See this most interesting appearance here:
You may have been aware that when Sahm moved to Austin, Texas in the ’70s, his “Groover” music and laid-back hippie lifestyle greatly influenced the musical ambience it enjoys today. More on that later.
Few music fans knew that he spent many years as a successful concert act in Scandinavia in the ’80s, formatting songs tailored to Norway and Swedish landmarks, and backed by Meyers and the Sir Douglas Quintet. The single “Meet Me in Stockholm,” from the band’s Midnight Sun LP went platinum and was one of the biggest selling records ever in Scandinavia.
Meyers, always squarely in the picture on all Sahm projects, would invariably threaten after every crazy tour that it would definitely be his last.
Returning from Scandinavia, Sahm and Meyers co-founded the Texas Tornados with Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez, and recorded seven albums of innovative Tex-Mex music, capping their brilliant career with a decidedly unique flourish. Then Sahm quietly passed away, in a motel room in Taos, NM, in 1999.
Throughout the film, the producers inject pathos, humor, and irony. Their deft editing contributes to sight gags, inside jokes, and a rollicking good time for viewers. They make good use of Sahm’s striking daughter, Dawn, and sons Shawn and Shandon to illustrate what Sahm’s communal-style home life was like, following their loving but oft-absent daddy from San Francisco to Austin and beyond.
Sahm’s reputation and musical influence as a “Groover” was a catalytic step to Austin becoming the party capital of Texas, where it was estimated that a third of the population were Groovers in the 70s. His move to what was then a quiet, sleepy art town of Austin early in that decade helped turn it into a musical mecca. His music was in heavy rotation on the local KOKE-FM radio station along with Willie Nelson and many others.
Dawn Johnson was asked, “What do you think Austin would be like without Doug’s time spent there?” Her answer was, “More affordable.” That speaks volumes, as Doug Sahm not only sparked the Austin music scene, but the whole Groove that Austin is today.
Why Sahm never enjoyed a hit as big as that first Sir Douglas Quintet song in the ’60s is mainly a result of his constantly chasing the next big project. Considered an innovator, a prodigy, and a visionary, lauded as a musician who could play every song ever recorded, it was Sahm’s own genius that ultimately left his legacy spread so thin it was hard to follow.
Sahm once said, “I’m a part of Willie Nelson’s world and at the same time I’m a part of the Grateful Dead’s. I don’t ever stay in one bag.” He was constantly reinventing himself.
In summing up the story of Sahm’s eclectic life, producer Tony Ortega conjectures that, “If Doug had only one-third the talent that he had possessed, he might have become a much bigger success.”
Today, one of Sahm’s sons, Shawn Sahm, continues in his father’s footsteps as the leader of Shawn Sahm & The Tex Mex Experience. Young Sahm also appears with the Texas Tornados, including both Jimenez and Meyers, on special occasions. Fender passed away in 2006.
The family has recently completed a Kickstarter campaign to secure music rights for the film as they seek wider release, as well as campaigning to get Sahm into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Kickstarter website also has a petition urging Sahm’s nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Even if you don’t contribute, you can add your name to the petition.
You cannot purchase the DVD quite yet, but family members are working on getting it ready for sale.
Meantime, if you ever catch the Texas Tornados live and onstage, you will feel the energy, enthusiasm and groove that Doug Sahm dedicated his life to sharing. Watch for a West Coast tour in early 2016.
by Christopher Burkhardt
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