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Remembering Doug Sahm

The Texas Tornado is gone, but not forgotten

The night after Doug Sahm died of heart failure, I tried to explain his significance to an Austin newcomer who didn't know who he was. I offered an analogy: It was like losing Duke Ellington, Count Basie or Miles Davis. It was that important. A few days later, someone else said it was also like losing T-Bone Walker.

Doug would have loved that notion. Like his fellow Texan Walker, Sahm was a musical giant in big Texas fashion, as well as one of America's greatest bandleaders, though he never enjoyed the commercial success and acclaim he deserved. Walker was actually an early inspiration for Sahm, who as a teenager would sit in a field outside San Antonio's Eastwood Country Club, a rough-and-tumble blues joint, and listen to Walker and his band. What Sahm heard back then resonated in his music, especially in the Last Real Texas Blues Band, which was just one of his many groups.

Too bad kind words like this can't do the man justice. Which, in itself, is ironic: The Texas Tornado could talk a blue streak, peppered with genuine hipster argot and attitude. But even after numerous lengthy interviews and bullshit sessions with him, I still feel like I touched only the surface of what he had to impart. Every word here seems hardly enough to express his greatness as a musician, person and friend.

If there is any consolation, friends say it's that Doug Sahm packed 150 years of life into 58 years of living.
Debora Hanson
If there is any consolation, friends say it's that Doug Sahm packed 150 years of life into 58 years of living.

Thankfully, though, there's his music. Rather than recite the various styles and influences he understood, if not mastered, let me say this: There probably isn't one type, style or genre of contemporary popular music that Sahm didn't play or somehow infuse into his recordings or live shows at some point or another. On the evening of November 18, as the news of his death swept through Austin like a dust storm, I talked with Joe "King" Carrasco, the most devoted musical acolyte of Sir Douglas's. Said Carrasco: "It's like the encyclopedia of Texas music got burned up."

The man knew literally thousands of songs. He might not have played a certain number for 20 years, yet he could pull it out and remember the changes, words and arrangement as if he had learned it yesterday. Sahm also knew about the people and stories behind the music and, even more, understood the ineffable qualities that made the best music magical. "He played more styles of music more correctly than anyone I ever met," said Austin's godfather of the blues, Clifford Antone, at the end of a two-night Sahm tribute in Austin earlier this month.

Yet for all Sahm left, there was still much more to come. He was as active, creative and restless at 58 as Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain were when they died in their twenties. In just the last decade, Sahm enjoyed chart and concert success with his Tex-Mex supergroup, the Texas Tornados. He also played and recorded with his latest version of the Sir Douglas Quintet, launched his Last Real Texas Blues Band and hit small Austin clubs with his bar band, the Texas Mavericks. He also produced and mentored rising Dallas country singer and songwriter Ed Burleson, recorded his own country album and collaborated with everyone from Uncle Tupelo to the Gourds. And that was just some of his musical fertility in recent years.

Special memories abound when I think of hearing Doug live, like the Texas Tornados' acoustic set at Austin's tiny Hole in the Wall club during South By Southwest or at Antone's recording the band's most recent album, Live from the Limo. There were many nights at Antone's when Sahm and the Last Real Texas Blues Band played the best soul, blues, R&B and swamp pop I had ever heard in my life. But Sahm was as memorable leading the Texas Mavericks, playing pop-rock with his son Shawn in the latter-day Sir Douglas Quintet and sitting in with everyone from Son Volt to Los Super Seven. Whenever Sahm hit the stage, magic was bound to follow.

I also think of all his incarnations I never got a chance to see: Sahm in his Wayne Douglas guise, anonymously playing amazing pedal steel with Alvin Crow and the Cornell Hurd Band or leading a crack Texas country band behind Ed Burleson or playing reportedly stunning country sets of his own. Sahm's recently recorded country album, tentatively titled The Return of Wayne Douglas Sahm, will be released in the near future on Tornado Records, the label Sahm created to release Burleson's CD. And there's also at least an album's worth of live material from the Tornados left over from the Live from the Limo shows. But it's too early to tell if the Tornados will carry on without Sahm and, if so, how.

Knowing Doug Sahm as a friend was truly a blessing. After all, I grooved to "She's About a Mover" and "Mendocino" on AM radio in my prepubescent and early teen years. Grooving, after all, was Sahm's mission. To him, it was the best thing one could bring to or get from music, or life, for that matter, as Shawn pointed out at his father's funeral. Chet Flippo's 1971 Rolling Stone cover story on Sahm was what initially turned me on to Austin's music scene and set me on an expedition through record stores for his LPs. From cutout bins, I eventually compiled the entire Sir Douglas Quintet catalog on Mercury Records at a mere 99 cents per album. By the time Doug Sahm and Band was released in 1973, I viewed Sahm as a hero, to me as heavy a cat as Bob Dylan, who played and sang on that album.

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