Doug Sahm: 1941 to 1999
“Now a song written by the great Freddy Fender — Freddy, this is for you, wherever you are,” said Doug Sahm, introducing not only “Wasted Days And Wasted Nights” but the almost mythic expanse of Texas music to rock fans weaned on Top 40. The year was 1971, the album was titled The Return Of Doug Saldana, and its ear-opening revelations changed my life.
Doug’s death on Nov. 18 from a heart attack may not necessarily spell the end of an era — an era the 58-year-old Sahm felt was long gone once computer chips replaced guitar picks as Austin’s cultural currency — but it most definitely diminishes the world of musical possibility. Not only was Doug a larger-than-life character — a world-class talker and self-mythologizer — but nobody better understood that categories are for small minds rather than big hearts, and that all Texas music emanates from a common source. Sahm seemed to have his own private pipeline into that source, and no single artist better embodied all of its various tributaries.
His soul was sufficiently oversized to encompass infinite musical incarnations: child prodigy, high-school rocker, stoned hippie, psychedelic raver, new waver, blues revivalist, country traditionalist, Tejano expansionist, and, ultimately, Renaissance man of the Texas roadhouse. Whatever the context, his smoked brisket of a voice, in tandem with the Vox telegraph keyboard of perennial sidekick Augie Meyers, could never be misidentified as anyone but Doug. He didn’t mimic all these multiple musical influences; he channeled them into something uniquely his own.
Almost 20 years after The Return Of Doug Saldana, that album’s achievement seems all the more visionary. Not only does it sound as fresh and energized today as it did when he recorded it, it anticipated all the elements that would soon distinguish Austin as an oasis of regional vitality amid the cultural homogeneity of the nation at large. For that alone, Doug deserves induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though a quality CD-reissue series of his countless releases would show that his talent was just too large to be confined within such a spurious institution.
Let’s put that one album in context, or at least suggest what little context there was at the time. Austin had yet to establish itself as a music mecca; it was a place people left to establish a musical career, or returned to in order to recover from one. Willie Nelson was an obscure country songwriter and failed recording artist. Jerry Jeff Walker was the folk circuit’s “Mr. Bojangles”. Freddy Fender was little-known beyond the Rio Grande Valley, where he had billed himself as El Bebop Kid, enjoyed a regional hit with “Wasted Days And Wasted Nights” in 1959, and saw his career all but ended by a marijuana bust.
Cosmic cowboyism was still a few years down the road. Gram Parsons and the Burritos were doing their best to make redneck soul fashionable for rock fans, yet those hippie boys in their Nudie suits would have been laughed out of the chicken-wire joints that Sahm’s music evoked. As for the Sir Douglas Quintet, the band’s string of radio hits — “She’s About A Mover”, “Mendocino” and the like — had given scant indication of the musical riches that were calling Doug back home.
Five years of exile in psychedelic San Francisco, watching as the Summer of Love became a season of discontent, had plainly given him a whole new take on his native state. His homesickness had already inspired two of the great Lone Star anthems: “At The Crossroads” — with Sahm’s signature line, “You just can’t live in Texas if you don’t have a lot of soul” — and “Texas Me”. By the time he returned to San Antonio, he hungered for the music as if he couldn’t remember the last time he’d tasted a great burrito.
Texas music would never be the same. Neither would Austin, the hippie town where the hippie Sahm inevitably relocated, around the same time that Willie had returned to lick his Nashville wounds and Jerry Jeff was transforming himself from East Coast troubadour into Lone Star buckaroo. Sahm dubbed Austin Groover’s Paradise in his 1974 album of that title — a fantasyland where marijuana joints and Lone Star beer shared the Armadillo’s dance floor, and where a freewheeling, anything-goes spirit combined with a reverence for musical roots that grew deep in the heart of Texas.
Jerry Wexler, whose production credits include Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, once said that he’s never worked with a more talented musician than Sahm. Yet nowhere did the legend of Doug Sahm loom larger than in the mind of Doug Sahm. Perhaps paradoxically, his relentless self-promotion made it all the harder for him to receive the credit he knew he was due, at least until the tributes started flowing in the wake of his death.
As one of my journalist friends in Austin once said, he always enjoyed receiving a phone call from Doug — for the first 20 minutes. Doug could talk for hours, and one of the stories he often repeated in my presence was how he was responsible for my moving from Chicago to Austin. The way he told it, we two baseball fanatics were sitting in the Wrigley Field grandstand (which we did, whenever his vagabonding brought him to my hometown), talking about everything under the sun, when he told me that he was thinking of forming the Texas Tornados and I told him I was thinking of leaving the Sun-Times for the rock critic’s job at the Austin paper. And he convinced me to do it, told me how great Austin was and how much fun we’d have.
It didn’t happen that way, couldn’t have happened that way. The Tornados had yet to move to the front burner of Sahm’s free-ranging consciousness, and every time we’d talked of Austin he’d complain that it was no longer the paradise it had been. As was so often the case with Doug, however, his small embellishments conveyed larger truths, because I never would have moved to Texas if it hadn’t been for Sir Doug. The Austin that attracted me, the music that was drawing me there, was unthinkable without his influence. So, yeah, of course he made me move there.
And once I was there, it seemed like Austin and Sahm were like an old married couple who took each other for granted. He wasn’t venerated like Willie or the memory of Stevie Ray; his over-the-top personality lent itself too easily to caricature. Even so, whenever I’d see Doug play in Austin, in whatever incarnation, I’d be reminded that it just doesn’t get any better than this.
I’d see him in his Ray Price mode at the Broken Spoke, and I’d think that this was honky-tonk heaven. Then I’d see him in his Bobby Bland/Junior Parker mode at Antone’s, with the sophisticated brass of the Rocky Morales and the West Side Horns behind him, and I’d think, no, this evocation of the Duke/Peacock era was as good as it gets. Then I’d see him with the Texas Mavericks at the Hole in the Wall, and it was as if this ’60s-style garage band were God’s own jukebox.
Between Texas Tornados reunions and Sir Douglas Quintet revivals, you’d wonder how one guy could master so much musical expanse, as if every bit of it were his birthright. And you’d have to conclude that this one cat had at least nine musical lives.
After nine years, we left Austin to return to the Midwest this past fall. I’d convinced myself that the move would be good for our family, an escape from professional frustrations and that (just like Doug said) Austin was no longer what it had been. While we were cleaning our Austin house in preparation for the move, my wife put on a Texas Tornados CD, and it felt just like a little death, once it really hit home how much we’d be missing.
Two months later, the call came that Doug had died.
Sir Douglas, this one’s for you, wherever you are.