By Eleni P. Austin
When discussing Texas musicians, plenty of ink has been spilled about Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Janis Joplin, Townes Van Zandt, Tanya Tucker, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett and Miranda Lambert. But one progenitor who consistently slips through the cracks is Doug Sahm. The band Son Volt hopes to right that egregious wrong with the release of Day Of The Doug, an album that pays tribute the San Antonio native, who died quite suddenly in late 1999.
Born in 1941, Douglas Wayne Sahm was a musical prodigy, singing and playing steel guitar by age five, adding fiddle and mandolin to his musical arsenal a couple years later. At an early age he was performing in shows that featured Hank Williams, Sr., Faron Young and Hank Thompson. Country music and Blues were both early inspirations, and by his late teens he was fronting bands like The Phantoms, The Dell-Kays and The Markays.
But at the dawn of the ‘60s, his world shifted on its axis, thanks to Beatlemania and the ensuing British Invasion. Enlisting Augie Meyers (keys) Frank Morin (saxophone), Harvey Kagan (bass) and Johnny Perez (drums), he adopted the veddy English band moniker Sir Douglas Quintet. Their first single, “She’s About A Mover” was the first (possibly the only) song to cross-pollenate British Invasion Rock with Lone Star Tejano music. Released in 1965, the song climbed up the charts to #13. It opened all kinds of doors for the band, who went on to share stages with The Beatles, The Beach Boys, James Brown and The Rolling Stones. Even Bob Dylan began singing their praises.
A few years later, as habitues of the San Francisco scene, Sir Douglas garnered another hit, the mellow, Country-flavored “Mendocino.” Doug was celebrated in the pages of Rolling Stone and signed a deal with Atlantic Records. For the next two decades he toggled between solo projects and Sir Douglas albums. Operating under a number of musical aliases like The Texas Groover, The Texas Tornado, Doug Saldana and Wayne Douglas, he continued to refine his sound, curating a potent combo-platter of Country, Blues, Rock, Cajun, Rhythm & Blues, Doo-Wop, Tejano and Jazz.
In 1989, he formed the first Tejano Super Group, The Texas Tornadoes. It included ex-Sir Douglas compadre, Augie Meyers, as well as singer-songwriter/accordionist (and the unofficial “father” of Conjunto music) Flaco Jimenez and swoony Tex-Mex singer, Freddy Fender (who had scored crossover hits like “Wasted Days And Wasted Nights” and “Until The Next Teardrop Falls”) Their self-titled debut landed in the upper echelon of the Country charts and won a Grammy award for Best Mexican/American Performance. Three studio albums and a live collection followed. Sadly, in late 1999, Doug Sahm suffered a fatal heart attack.
Son Volt front-man Jay Farrar first crossed paths with Doug when and Jeff Tweedy were the sonic architects of the seminal Americana/alt.country (whatever) band, Uncle Tupelo. While recording (what would become their final album) Anodyne in Austin, Texas, the five-piece invited the Texas Groover to add guitar and vocals to a Sir Doug original, “Give Back The Keys To My Heart.”
Once Uncle Tupelo broke up, Tweedy formed Wilco and Jay started Son Volt. Although Wilco inexplicably receives more attention, Son Volt forged ahead. 25 years in, they’ve recorded 10 stellar studio records and a couple of live collections. The line-up has evolved over the years, but it currently includes Jay on vocals and guitar, Andrew DuPlantis on bass and vocals, Mark Spencer on keys, vocals and guitar and John Horton on guitar, slide guitar, baritone and bass. Jay and Doug maintained a friendship until the latter’s untimely passing. Post-pandemic, the time felt right to salute the original Texas Tornado. The result is their 11th long-player, Day Of The Doug.
The album opens (and closes) with an archived message from Jay’s answering machine. A sing-song salutation tied to a plea for a return call. Rather quickly, Son Volt kicks in with “Sometimes You’ve Got To Stop Chasing Rainbows.” This mid-tempo groover is anchored by flowery Farfisa organ, stinging guitars, thrumming bass and a clanky backbeat. Written toward the end of Doug’s career, mordant lyrics speak to the occasional highs and consistent lows that accompany a music career. The chorus attempts to manage expectations; “Sometimes you’ve got to stop chasing rainbows, or tailing Haley’s Comet across the sky, sometimes you’ve got to stop chasing rainbows, and get it together before you cry.” The buoyant melody and sparkling arrangement nearly disguises the lyrics’ impulse to pack it all in; “I tried so hard in the record business, I give it all I got when I sing my songs, like Kris said, ‘don’t waste time if they don’t want to listen,’ so I pack my guitar case and travel on.” Waspish guitar riffs dart through the break followed closely by Tejano-powered keys.
Wisely choosing to sidestep Sir Douglas Quintet’s two big hits, “She’s About A Mover” and “Mendocino,” Son Volt digs deeper into the five-piece’s oeuvre (yeah, I said “oeuvre”). The prolific band released two albums in 1970, Together After Five and 1+1+1=4. From the former they resurrect “Dynamite Woman” and “Seguin.” A heady elixir of Roller Rink organ, swoopy fiddle, stuttery guitars snappy bass lines and a ricochet rhythm, “Dynamite…” pays homage to an um, compassionate femme fatale; “Houston can be a hard town when you’re down and out, the way that people look at you makes you wanna shout out, then the Dynamite woman, oh, the day she came my way, she’s a dynamite woman, that’s all I want to say.”
Named for Juan Seguin (pronounced si-GEEN) the small town is one of the oldest in Texas. Here, the melody shares some musical DNA with Bob Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” Chattery Farfisa notes partner with courtly acoustic licks, vroom-y bass and a knockabout beat. The irresistible melody is matched by an effusive (albeit laid-back) paean to an easygoing metropolis where “Barbecue’s just a quarter, beer is just 35 cents, you smell the hickory smoke as you’re drivin’ down by the fence/There’s also a lot of moonshine, and things that make you mellow, and I’m glad to be back on the scene, back in old Seguin.”
Representing 1+1+1…., “Yesterday Got In The Way” couches cagey, carpe diem lyrics in a driving melody fueled by jangly guitars tip-toe Farfisa fillips, brittle bass lines and a propulsive backbeat. Attempting to put those wasted days and wasted nights in the rear view, The new mantra is “Got to keep movin,’ sure got a long way to go, got to keep groovin,’ about to try and steal the show.” A lithe guitar solo dovetails with lithe organ fills on the break, and a sustained Farfisa note ushers the song to a close. Meanwhile, “What About Tomorrow,” delivers a mixed message underscored by stabby keys, wah-wah guitar, sinewy bass and a chunky backbeat. Presaging the conflicting emotions of Mac Davis’ “Baby, Baby, Don’t Get Hooked On Me,” and The Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You,” this song tries to have it both ways, one minute insisting “you have no cause to doubt me, dear,” and then reversing course; “get out of my life,” the next. Luckily, the romantic schizophrenia is cocooned in an infectious melody and insistent instrumentation.
Intriguingly, Doug Sahm’s 1973 solo debut featured an all-star cast, including Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Jazz saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman and Flaco Jiminez. Rather than peddle his own songwriting wares, the record was packed with favorites from other artists and writers. A couple of those covers make the cut here. “It’s Gonna Be Easy” is pared down to just sepia-toned guitar and churchy keys. Jay’s woodsmoke and honey tenor is front and center as lyrics navigate the rocky shoals of heartbreak; “Just like Humpty Dumpty, sittin’ up on the wall, havin’ all the logic, but not the where all to fall.”
Conversely, “Poison Love” is a Conjunto Rave-up. Peppery accordion, pliant bass lines and rollicking guitar are wed to a leapfrog beat. To paraphrase Bad Company and The Flying Burrito Brothers, some good lovin’s gone bad, but it’s difficult to discern which one is the devil in disguise; “All that poison love has shamed the life blood in my heart and soul, dear, and I know that I will never be the same, all my pleadings have been in vain, for you and you alone dear, and I know that I am guilty of the shame.” Fluttery accordion frolics across the break as Mark Patterson rides the hi-hat and Jay uncoils a sidewinding guitar solo that simply crackles with authority.
The best tracks here hopscotch across the record.
First up is the shimmery “Beautiful Texas Sunshine.” A peaceful, easy paean to the Lone Star State and female pulchritude in equal measure. Propelled by gilded piano, sylvan guitars, a kick-drum beat and shivery pedal steel, the lyrics seem to say it’s okay to be a womanizer, if the scenery includes Bluebonnets and beautiful sunshine. Then there’s the crafty Texas Two-Step, “Keep Your Soul.” Honky-Tonk piano, willowy guitar and a walking bass lines are tethered to a clip-clop beat. The message is crisp and concise; “Keep your soul, girl, or you will lose it.” Its lyrical brevity allows the arrangement to breathe, making room for two instrumental breaks. On the first, Mark Spencer lays down a boogie-woogie groove over cantering guitar. Jay and John take lead on guitars the second time out adding a bit of a rich, Buckaroo kick.
Next up is the twangy, 12-bar shuffle of “Huggin’ Thin Air.” Stripped-down and Soulful, it couples Bluesy, bottleneck guitar and roiling bass to a thunking beat. Lyrics paint a vivid portrait of a restless Romeo pining for a fickle Femme Fatale; “She’s the kind of girl to make your heart beat, so good that you never let her down. she’s up and gone in the morning, and I wake up just huggin’ thin air.” A prickly, tears-in-my-beer guitar solo sidles through the break salted with incredulity and regret.
Finally, “Juan Mendoza” frames a sharp allegory about the haves and the have-nots with a choogling arrangement. that is anchored by filigreed fretwork, loose-limbed bass and rattletrap beat. Doug slyly juxtaposes affluent arrivistes with struggling strivers. Lyrics like “You’re brown and near the border, you better have your papers, if not, oh man, you’re gone” presciently speak to the late 20th century practice of treating immigrants as interlopers. Jay retrofits a Watergate reference with one Maga-sized adjustment; “Washington is in the news, Junior and Donny got the blues, who cares?” Elastic, chicken-scratch guitar licks bookend each acerbic verse before unleashing a final, shang-a-lang solo at the finish.
The album closes with a final answer machine snippet from Senor Saldana. A croaky stream-of-conscious rant that just kinda hits the spot.
Son Volt manages the neat trick of paying homage to this towering Texas talent, and also staying true to their own sui generis sound. Day Of The Doug had me digging out my Sir Douglas LPs along with the solo CDs and some Texas Tornados to boot. And then I raided my Son Volt collection. What could be sweeter than that?