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Monday, June 14, 2010

The Times and Music of the ‘Texas Tornado’

Jan Reid remembers Doug Sahm

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Doug Sahm evolved seamlessly from slicked-back hipster to long-haired cosmic cowboy during a career that began in the early 1950s as a steel guitar prodigy on the knee (literally) of Hank Williams and did not end until his death more than five decades later.The guy was a force of nature, as equally adept at various musical genres as he was at blurring them.

Author Jan Reid enlists Sahm’s son Shawn, who played in his dad’s band, for valuable first-person accounts in his biography, Texas Tornado: The Times & Music of Doug Sahm (University of Texas Press). Likewise Reid relies on Sahm’s numero uno campadre,Augie Meyers, who was part of the original Sir Douglas Quintet and Sahm’s final go-round with Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez as the Grammy-winning Texas Tornados.

The Sir Douglas Quintet’s 1965 success with the Ray Charles homage “She’s About a Mover” set Sahm on a course that he would maintain for his adult life. Though never a top-selling artist, he was widely respected by his peers.Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, himself an icon and sagacious scout of talent said, “I really regard him as the best musician I ever knew because of his versatility and the range of his information and taste.”

Growing up in San Antonio, Sahm was served up a buffet of music from country to Mexican sounds from across the border to Cajun sounds from the fertile Gulf Coast region of east Texas and Louisiana. Reid also notes the impact that a nearby blues club had on Sahm. At a young age he witnessed performances by the likes of T-Bone Walker and Bobby “Blue” Bland.

With the British Invasion came the management of “The Crazy Cajun” Huey P. Meaux, who thought the Sir Douglas moniker would gain a seat on the bandwagon—that is until the band’s undeniable twang gave them away. Times were changing fast in the ’60s—just not fast enough for Sahm and his long-haired buddies. Sahm headed for California following a drug bust, but he would return to the open-minded oasis of Austin, Texas. It was here at clubs like the Soap Creek Saloon and the Armadillo World Headquarters that his genre-melding talents were best put on display.

In Reid’s 1974 book, The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock,he hints at the importance of the Austin scene but cops out and mainly deals with folkies like Michael Martin Murphey. Reid makes up for it in Tornado with a vivid snapshot of a scene that had a hard time telling the cowboys from the hippies and where only the music mattered. In 1973 Sahm would venture to New York Cityto record his classic Atlantic album Doug Sahm and Band, which included contributions from Bob Dylan and Dr. John, among others.

In the decades to follow, Sir Doug never let up and was continually regrouping for another project, living at times in Canada and Scandinavia. Reid does Sahm justice in portraying the restless figure who stood by the lean years of his buddy Roky Erickson and the devoted baseball nut who would drive hundreds of miles to catch a minor league game. By the time the book gets to Sahm’s death at age 58 in 1999, Reid has more than explained how Sahm got his nickname.

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