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North and South

Tranquil Canada flavors San Antonian Doug Sahm's rustic music

One might imagine that Doug Sahm came up with the idea of forming the Texas Tornados — his Tex-Mex supergroup with Chicano country crooner Freddy Fender, conjunto music legend Flaco Jimenez and Sahm's Sir Douglas Quintet compadre Augie Meyers — while sipping Corona con lima in a rustic cantina south of the border. The true story, however, finds Sahm on the other side of a very different national boundary.

"I really conceived it in Canada," Sahm says.

As the Texas summer settles in for its extended stay and the mercury starts creeping into the '90s, the man known as the Texas Tornado (as well as Sir Doug, Samm Dogg or Wayne Douglas) escapes the heat at his secluded getaway near the Pacific coast of British Columbia. "When you get up there with very little TV, your whole life changes, and you just spend a lot of time thinking in the beautiful woods. My mind just takes off. I could write symphonies, you know."

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.

Symphonies are just about the only thing Douglas Wayne Sahm hasn't yet touched on in his 50 years or so of making music. Even before he hit the national scene in 1965 as the leader of the original Sir Douglas Quintet with "She's About a Mover" ™ still his biggest pop hit, recorded in Houston with legendary producer Huey Meaux ™ Sahm had already become a local legend in his native San Antonio.

Born November 6, 1942, Sahm started his musical career at the age of six as a country-western prodigy. By the time he was ten, Sahm had mastered the guitar, steel guitar, mandolin and other instruments, all by ear. Known as "Little Doug," he wrote and recorded his own songs, sat in with Webb Pierce, Hank Thompson, Faron Young and other C&W stars, appeared on "The Louisiana Hayride" and "The Big D Jamboree," and was being scouted by the Grand Ole Opry. As a teen, Sahm played in some of San Antonio's top bands, scoring hit records on local radio and mixing with the rock and rollers, bluesmen, soul stars and Chicanos like a brother to them all.

In the nearly 40 years since "She's About A Mover," Sahm has proven himself to be the most phenomenally versatile, resilient and prolific musician to emerge from the Lone Star State, if not from anywhere on the planet.

Ever since the Tex-Mex polka-pop sound of the Quintet ironically lumped the San Antonio-based band in with the British Invasion, Sahm has ridden successive wave after wave of varied musical movements with nary a hint of contradiction.

The Quintet migrated in the late 1960s to the San Francisco Bay Area to add their Tex-Mex musical caldo to the West Coast hippie scene. By the early 1970s, Sahm headed back to Texas to become a standard-bearer of the "great progressive country scare" with Waylon, Willie and the boys.

When new wave music hit at the end of that decade, he revived the Quintet to surf that trend as a revered elder statesman. As country music went big time in the early 1990s, and Tejano music began its ascent to international prominence, Sahm gathered the Texas Tornados together for his most successful commercial venture to date. And just last fall, his song "Get a Life," recorded with the Gourds, topped the Gavin trade paper's Americana chart, which tracks the burgeoning "alternative country" movement. Along the way, Doug Sahm has become a compadre to such legends as Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, The Grateful Dead, Willie Nelson, Dr. John and Atlantic Records co-founder Jerry Wexler to name but a few, and even played the part of a speed-rapping pot dealer and musician in Kris Kristofferson's 1971 movie debut, Cisco Pike.

To date, Sahm has cut scores of records in a variety of solo and band configurations, playing rock and roll, country, blues, soul, swamp pop, western swing, psychedelia, Texas-German polka, hard rock and Tex-Mex (to name many but hardly all the styles he's dabbled in) as well as combinations and variations thereof.

In just the last year or so, he's appeared onstage with the reunited Tornados, the latest incarnation of the Quintet (which now includes such second generation players as Doug's son Shawn Sahm on guitar and Augie's son Clay Meyers on drums), his Last Real Texas Blues Band (a blues and soul big band in the T-Bone Walker tradition), and his bar band, the Texas Mavericks (with longtime Austin country hero Alvin Crow), as well as jamming with the Gourds and Los Super Seven, and playing steel guitar at Crow's country gigs and with Austin's Cornell Hurd Band.

If platinum records were awarded on the basis of sheer output, merit and soulfulness rather than sales, Sahm would surely be in the running for Michael Jackson's self-anointed title of "King of Pop." And if you had to define the broad rubric of "Texas music" for, say, a visiting Martian, Sahm's 1991 boxed set on Rhino, The Best of Doug Sahm (1968-1975), would handily do the trick. Or for a more shorthanded overview of the Lone Star State's musical ethos, give a spin to the just-released fifth album by the Tornados, Live from the Limo, Volume 1, recorded over two magical nights late last year at Antone's nightclub in Austin. Live from the Limo may just be Sahm's finest musical moment. Drenched with the pungent sweatiness of live performance, its grooves run as strong and deep as the various rivers that course through the hills and plains of Texas, all of it finally flowing into a proverbial Gulf of Mexico where the coastal and borderland sounds and styles that make up Texas music unite as one.

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).

"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."

Four years later, the group reunited for another album, 4 Aces, and soon after took a second hiatus that lasted until the recent live recordings.

"There's something about the chemistry of the four of us," Sahm says. "We've always been a great live band. So after this deal and that deal, it was like, let's do something that's really us."

But even this latest outing by the Tornados can't distract Sahm from his many other interests. He's started an independent label, Tornado Records, with Reprise Records publicity veep and expatriate Texan Bill Bentley. First up for the new venture will be an album by Dallas country singer and songwriter Ed Burleson, after which Sahm will offer his own country set as the label's second release.

And then there's Sahm's relentless travels, which might find him chilling out in the mountains of Colorado, checking out baseball spring training in Florida, doing the music business thing in Los Angeles, escaping the heat in Western Canada, or playing a festival somewhere in Europe, where he remains one of the most popular exports from Texas.

Although the genuine stardom Sahm deserves has eluded him, he's managed to turn the hippie ethos of doing your own thing into a lifestyle that gives him the room to follow his muse wherever it takes him, and pursue a personal freedom that few other working musicians approaching 60 years old ™ or any age, for that matter ™ can claim to enjoy.

How does he do it? "I'm a hermit, man," Sahm says, a notion that would surprise anyone who has seen Sahm work a room, onstage or off, what with his constant adrenal energy. "I've got all this shit on my mind, but man, I also like to rest. People say, 'How can you have so much energy?' I love to sleep, maybe kick back and watch 'Perry Mason,' sleep maybe nine, ten hours, get up, put the coffee on, read the paper for two hours. You've gotta figure that shit out. That leads to contentment."

And even though Sahm is the walking, talking, singing and playing epitome of Texas music, he says he is most content up in Canada. To underscore the point, Sahm recalls the satisfied smile on his face found in a snapshot on the back cover of the CD booklet to S.D.Q. '98, his most recent solo album, released last fall. With green hills and deep blue sea behind him, Sahm positively beams underneath his San Antonio Missions baseball cap.

"San Antone hat with a Canadian background," he says with pride. "That's a happy motherfucker. You'll never see that guy here, not with the yuppies and all that bullshit in Austin. That guy doesn't exist here. My crib's just right over that hill. You talk about some cold beer and some crazed fuckin' IndiansŠ

"That's paradise, man. The right season, you'll see whales jumping up and down. Look how clean that water is. And what am I wearing? A Missions cap!

"I live with a foot in both worlds, man. And I gotta have both worlds," Sahm says. "If it wasn't for that and my family and all my friends [in Texas], hell, I'd be in Vancouver all the time. Because I just love the Northwest. You don't have to worry about allergies and all that. But hell, after eating salmon for five days in a row, where do ya go from there? You gotta have an enchilada, man."

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