North and South

Tranquil Canada flavors San Antonian Doug Sahm's rustic music

Trademarks from throughout Sahm's musical life abound on the set: the oom-pah-flavored Vox Continental triplets of Augie Meyers from the Quintet, the soulful accents of the San Antonio Horns from the Last Real Texas Blues Band, and the soaring and swooping country steel guitar of former Ray Price steel player Tommy Detamore (with whom Sahm is cutting a straight-ahead classic country album for release later this year).

Add to that the mellifluous accordion of Flaco Jimenez and Freddy Fender's heartbreakingly affecting tenor on "I Don't Want to be Lonely" and Fender's classic hit "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," and you've got the spiciest and most appetizing pot of blue ribbon musical chili ever cooked up south of the Red River.

It's an album Sahm is so justly stoked about that he's actually returning from the cooler climes of Canada to the furnace of Texas in August for some select gigs across the state (where the Tornados enjoy such popularity that they hold the attendance record for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo at the Astrodome).

Clamor for Doug Sahm (far right) and his Texas Tornados moves the band to reunite and record every so often.
Clamor for Doug Sahm (far right) and his Texas Tornados moves the band to reunite and record every so often.

"Luckily, all the shows are going to be indoors," says Sahm, whose aversion to the high summer temperatures here is nearly equal to his love for his home state. "But I'm still not sure how I'm gonna take it. Maybe I'll just play from inside an air conditioned pod, like Mr. Freeze from Batman."

No need for that. Sahm's own self-generated sense of cool will no doubt get him through. And to understand Sahm's enduring musical coolness, take a trip back in time to his younger days in San Antonio, a city whose unique mix of white Texans, African-Americans and Chicanos, fed by the influx of servicemen from across the country at local military bases, captured his musical imagination with a diversity that has never let go. "It's probably the soulfulest, funkiest town on the planet," Sahm says proudly of his hometown.

"Man, you were exposed to all that stuff," he says. "I mean, when I was a kid, the Eastwood Country Club was a mile from my house, I could walk through the field and sit there outside the place and hear T-Bone Walker and Little Willie John doing 'Fever.'

"And then my dad worked part time over at a place called The Barn where Hank Williams would play. I used to watch Hank as a little kid, you know. He'd be up there, and I'd watch people watch the face of this guy, and I'd just go, 'Look at this, man, they just stand there spellbound.' And I'd be spellbound, too, as he was singing 'Lovesick Blues.' It was like watching the Stones do 'Satisfaction' or watching the Beatles, you know? It was like this hypnotic trance.

"He was the biggest thing in the world at that time. And man, we talked, and he said, 'Boy, you can really play that steel. Don't ever quit.'"

The San Antonio of Sahm's youth was as varied a melting pot as any other city in America, a place where the American South and West came cheek to jowl with nearby Mexico. Weaned on border radio and what were then called "race records," Sahm learned his most valuable lessons in the business of making music one's life work. He learned to do that in the places where the most magical sounds could be found, the clubs, cantinas, and country dance halls where he heard and played a cornucopia of styles. "I don't care how good the studio is, you gotta deliver on your instrument," Sahm insists.

The fact that Sahm remains a somewhat peripheral pop music figure baffles some of those who know his music well. "I still don't get why guys like Delbert [McClinton] and Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan got so big back in the late '70s and the '80s, and Doug didn't," ponders Speedy Sparks, the bassist for the Tornados and the latter day Quintet who Sahm calls "the Grand Poobah" for his perspicacious sense of true musical greatness. "What he was doing back then just seemed so much cooler than anything they were all doing."

But since it takes a signature sound to truly hit the big time, Sahm's creative wanderlust and musical eclecticism all but compel him to juggle a variety of stylistic balls. "It seems like I have to do all of it, not just one thing," he admits. "I think what keeps me rolling is that I know I can go from project from project. I think my restlessness is what keeps me reinventing new things all the time. I'm just not satisfied with doing the same thing over and over, even if it's a hit record. I can't keep doing it every day."

As a result, the Tornados have followed an intermittent career trajectory. From 1990 through '93, the band released three well-received albums that scored on the country charts, established themselves as a popular live attraction, won a Grammy and then went separate ways.

"We had a great run," Sahm says. "It was really a beautiful thing. But I got to the point where I didn't want to repeat myself. Whereas for the money, everyone would have kept going. I would have, too, maybe. But I got to the point where I wanted to cash in for a while. And it was a little weird for the guys. One person shouldn't make the decisions. But since then, I've told Freddy and Flaco, 'Hey man, if I made a hasty decision, I'm sorry, but that's the way I felt it.' And I think artistically, in the long run, I made the right decision."

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