Doug Sahm was one of the best evangelists for Texas music this state has ever known, but his mythical powers always seemed to dissolve at the state line. Certainly he was idolized and admired by many of his fellow musicians, had his fair share of champions within the music business, and even scored a handful of honest-to-God hits, most notably 1965’s “She’s About a Mover” and 1969’s “Mendocino.” But it took more than 15 years after Sahm’s death for his story to be told in a manner befitting of the voluminous personality known to friends and fans alike as “Sir Doug” — namely, with as much genuine cosmic Texas groove as possible.
That labor of love fell to Joe Nick Patoski, director of Sir Doug and the Genuine Cosmic Texas Groove, which screens this evening at the Houston Cinema Arts Festival after a triumphant world premiere at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. This is Patoski’s first film, after decades of telling the stories of Texas musicians as a writer for Texas Monthly and author of acclaimed biographies Willie Nelson: An Epic Life and Selena: Como Le Flor, as well as co-author of Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught In the Crossfire. After the latter book was published in 1993, Patoski pitched Sahm as his next project, but recalls his editor shooting him down because Sahm was “too obscure.”
“Doug was the one story I've wanted to tell that almost got away,” Patoski says via email, adding that onetime fellow TM writer Jan Reid's 2010 book on Sahm, Texas Tornado, “was the last nail in the coffin of that idea.”
Even if Sahm had had a higher profile in the New York publishing world, that editor could well have still dismissed his life story as simply implausible. Sahm shared the stage with Hank Williams Sr. as a child; crossed color lines and rubbed shoulders with San Antonio’s top R&B musicians in his teens; first tasted stardom as he got swept along in the British Invasion; fit right in with the far-out San Francisco scene during the peak counterculture years; made the cover of Rolling Stone when he moved back to Texas in the early '70s; and more or less laid the foundation of everything “Keeping It Weird” by holding court for years at Austin’s Soap Creek Saloon, a honky-tonk on the outskirts of town where Sahm’s house lay just up the hill. After years of heavy traveling in Europe and Canada, he returned to Texas at the turn of the ‘90s and helped found the Texas Tornados, a real-deal “Tex-Mex supergroup” also featuring longtime friends Augie Meyers, Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez. And then he was gone.
Sahm was a relatively young 58 when he died in November 1999, so who knows what else he might have done? (One point that Cosmic Texas Groove makes quite well is that Sahm was well on his way to becoming a leading elder of the then-nascent alt-country/Americana scene.) Patoski’s sister Christina, who had been the location coordinator for David Byrne’s Texas-shot Talking Heads film True Stories, and the man who wound up being the documentary’s main underwriter — himself a huge “Doug-head” who pulled Patoski's own articles about Sahm out of his briefcase during their meeting — agreed that Sir Doug’s story cried out for more than the printed page.
“I got it immediately,” Patoski says. “Jan’s book didn’t make a whole lot of noise. I figured then if you’re going to tell the story about a musician who most people have never heard of, you need to hear his music, you need to hear him, and you needed to see the context around him. Print doesn’t do that.”
Working on the 80-minute Cosmic Texas Groove — and fundraising all the time he was filming, including a Kickstarter campaign to lock down the publishing rights that reached its goal hours before the deadline — Patoski certainly did his homework. He figures he interviewed more than 55 people for the film (“the journalist in me”), but kept the talking heads to Sahm’s inner circle and a few others who had played a key role in his life: “it got down to whether a talking head moved the story along or not,” he notes. Both Patoski’s thoroughness and Sahm’s influence can be easily detected as the closing credits roll, as fans including Dr. John, Jeff Tweedy, Delbert McClinton, Charlie Sexton, Steve Earle, Marcia Ball, Boz Scaggs and others discuss what Sir Doug’s music meant to them. The two men he wanted to interview but didn't get, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, do appear in some choice vintage footage.
Cosmic Texas Groove wouldn’t have happened at all, Patoski says, without the contributions of Sahm’s three kids: Shawn, current Texas Tornados front man; Shandon, now drummer for the Meat Puppets; and daughter Dawn. The children have as much time onscreen as anyone apart from Augie Meyers, and Shawn especially helped populate the film with all manner of Sahm memorabilia thanks to the “museum” of artifacts he donated. When Patoski first approached Shawn — who he calls “a chip off the old block” — about the film in the summer of 2013, he says Shawn reminded him that Patoski and Joe “King” Carrasco used to take him to various Austin-area water-slide parks in the old Soap Creek days, when Patoski was writing for the Austin American-Statesman. “Our relationship goes back pretty deep,” he says.
The other key figure was Augie Meyers, whom Patoski calls “Doug’s musical brother for life.” Until Sahm passed away, he and Meyers had practically known each other their whole lives. Meyers was with Sahm in the Sir Douglas Quintet — several different versions of the Quintet, actually — and later in the Texas Tornados. Meyers is right alongside Sahm at the 1975 Austin City Limits episode that opens Cosmic Texas Groove, and the film explains how Meyers’ silly late-‘80s solo tune “Hey Baby Que Paso?” indirectly sparked the formation of the Tornados. Meyers and Sahm had a unique quasi-sibling rivalry, Patoski explains.
“Musically speaking, Doug and Augie are the nut of the story,” he says. “They knew each other as kids, and in the end, they couldn’t live with each other, and they couldn’t live without each other. Doug needed Augie as much as Augie needed Doug. And with Doug gone, Augie was critical.”
In all, Patoski says he used 45 songs in all and still didn’t get to use everything he wanted. The only must-includes, he notes, were “She’s About a Mover” and “Mendocino” — and then, mostly because there was easily accessible footage of the Quintet performing those songs at the height of their popularity. Some well-known tunes, like “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” were glossed over; others still like “Soy Chicano” didn’t make the cut at all. “Choosing songs for the film was a bitch,” sighs Patoski. Sahm was that prolific — and adaptable.
“Doug was never satisfied because as an artist/musician, he knew too much,” Patoski says. “He had to play western swing, country, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, Tex-Mex, Cajun, and swamp pop because he was articulate in all those indigenous Texas sounds — he was the only player I’ve witnessed who could play all those sounds authentically.”
Today, Doug Sahm would be 74 years old. “I have no doubt he would be playing with five different bands,” Patoski says, “mentoring younger players like he did with Jeff Tweedy, Los Lobos, Charlie Sexton, the Gourds and Max and Josh Baca, producing a few acts, and above all, grooving.”
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Patoski hopes Cosmic Texas Groove might have some influence with the ballot committee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, admitting the film is “his last, best chance.” (Rock Hall Foundation member and Rolling Stone publisher Jann S. Wenner appears in the closing credits, remembering when Sahm would visit the magazine’s offices to offer up samples from the many different strains of pot in his briefcase.)
“I miss him dearly,” Patoski says. “Music has never been the same for me since he passed. But for an hour and twenty minutes at least, I’ve brought my old friend back. I love hearing all the people who’ve seen the film but didn’t know who he was/is react. And seeing all the Doug-Heads and Groovers come out of the woodwork.”