Remembering Doug Sahm
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.
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."
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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.
One of my first interviews as a professional music journalist was with Sahm in 1976. Nervous young naÏf that I was, I researched and wrote a page or two of questions ahead of time, wondering if I would be worthy of an audience with Sir Douglas. No need, it turned out. I shook his hand, sat down, turned on the tape recorder and let Sahm fill the hour with at least two hours of talk with little if any prompting from me. I left thinking what a great guy he was, and feeling a bit flushed that such a genuinely hip guy as Sahm had spoken so straight out to me, as if I were some compadre, an equal.
But that was one of the man's many charms. There was nary a hint of star trip or hubris or overinflated sense of self to him. Yes, he did have an ego as big as Texas, but it was the best kind of ego, powered by his innate understanding of what was truly good and soulful. Whether you were friend, fan or stranger, Doug would happily chew your ear.
After I moved to Austin for good in 1989, I was eventually befriended by my longtime musical hero, which, when I take the time to savor it, was a high honor. Perhaps my fondest memory of Sahm is his calling one day and announcing he was on his way over. Sitting on my porch, I watched his cowboy hippie Cadillac cruise up the street and pull up in front of my house. We hung there out front, shooting the breeze like pals. Just insert your biggest musical icon into this scenario, dear reader, and consider the thrill. On that afternoon, as well as every time I talked to Sahm, he was a man dutifully yet delightfully involved in his loves and passions, be they music, enchiladas, baseball or whatever captured his imagination.
When I passed by Sahm's coffin prior to and following his memorial service in San Antonio on November 23, I couldn't help but fantasize that the corpse, which looked like some wax figure, wasn't really Doug. After all, he wasn't talking, he wasn't grooving. I held out some secret little hope that perhaps, as some believe of Elvis, Doug had faked his death and had lit out for that little bit of heaven he always bragged about, his "crib" in the wilds of British Columbia. Maybe that's because Doug is, in a way, my Elvis, my greatest American pop musician. Maybe that's because Doug is the hero who became my friend, and I still don't want to believe he's gone.
If only it were so. But it wouldn't be like Sahm to disappear like that. Because as much as he bitched about how the yuppies were ruining Austin, the place he once dubbed "Groovers Paradise," and as often as he carped about the Texas heat, he could never stay away for too long. He was compelled to return, if only to sit at the bar at the Hole in the Wall and talk baseball, or pop up at Antone's nightclub to check out a band, or rustle up a gig for whatever musical conglomeration he felt like playing with at that particular moment. In the same way, he also had to return regularly to his literal and musical birthplace, San Antonio, even though he swore he could never live there because the temptation to eat enchiladas every day was too strong and he didn't want to get fat. But he had reasons to return to San Antonio, to see the kids and grandkids, of whom he was justly proud.
And unlike Elvis, Sahm didn't need to escape to gain his freedom. His fellow Texas Tornado Freddy Fender noted on Sir Doug's passing that Sahm was "the last great hippie." I had myself marveled at how Sahm had fashioned the hippie ethos into a lifestyle that he enjoyed until the day he died. The man never held a day job, made a good living playing songs and could record or perform any style of music he felt like. When not making music, Sahm traveled North America in his Caddy like some disciple of Kerouac's, visiting the best hippie hot spots still around, checking out baseball spring training and season games, and grooving on his freedom. He made music that erased any color line between white, black and brown. He grooved his way through his life, his music and the world with integrity and soul. Sure, he was never a superstar, yet that fact helped afford Sahm a life without the constraints that inevitably accompany mass success and stardom. In short, Doug Sahm mastered life and the music business like no other artist before.
In a way, when we lost Doug Sahm, we lost a bit of every musician who ever influenced him. For all the music he left us, which is considerable, a canon as vast, varied and inspired as that of any modern American musician, there was so much more he knew that will never be heard. For all the interviews that I and other fervent fans had with him, there was still so much more that Sahm understood about music, down to the tiniest nuances, that he took to the grave.
I always thought I'd get the rest of the story, or at least some more of it. As so many friends of Doug's have said in the wake of his death, we thought Doug would always be there. We are consoled by the fact that, as a number of folk observed, he packed at least 150 years of life into 58 years of living. But rather than dwell on the magnitude of the tragedy, I'll try to hold close to my heart all the spirit and soul Doug Sahm gave those of us lucky enough to appreciate his music and blessed enough to have known him.
As I've learned with grieving for departed friends, it's hard to ever truly say good-bye. But with tears in my eyes, I say this to Doug Sahm now, as I will say again and again for the rest of my days: Adiós, mi amigo. Vaya con Dios.
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