The Roots Genius of Doug Sahm
The weirdness of Doug Sahm’s stature as a roots music icon never really dawned on me ’til last year when I searched through a batch of vintage electric Dylan interviews. Starting as soon as “She’s About a Mover” hit the airwaves, Dylan identified the Sir Douglas Quintet as his favorite among the new rock groups.
Talk about ahead of his time: Sahm never got respect ’til years after his commercial pop career ended. Although a very good record, “Mendocino” seemed like just another Summer of Love ploy from a fading one-shot, and unless you actually lived in San Francisco or Texas, later records like Together After Five and 1 + 1 + 1 = 4 came across as lovably soulful eccentricities more than anything else.
Listening now, Doug Sahm’s laconic blues-infused singing sounds like one of the biggest influences on Dylan of anyone in his own generation. But I know no more glorious batch of work from the late ’60s and early ’70s than the Sir Douglas Quintet albums just reissued on CD: the two above plus Sir Douglas Quintet + 2 = [Honkey Blues], the Mendocino album, Together After Five, and one of my favorite records ever made, The Return of Doug Saldana (on a single disc with 1+1+1=4 and a handful of obscurities). This represents the Quintet’s entire output for Smash/Mercury Records (two earlier albums originally came out on Huey Meaux’s Tribe label, then were picked up by Smash). The reissues are on Arcadia, a label I’m told is connected to Doug’s son Shawn, although the version of 1+1+1/Saldana I have came out on Glenn Baker’s Australian reissue label, Raven.
To my ear, Sahm’s status as a great roots musician rises and falls on these records far more than the legendary but weak Doug Sahm and Band, more notable for Bob Dylan’s cameo and Jerry ler’s tries-too-hard production than for the focus Doug brought to the music, or the tejano records he made with the Texas Tornadoes. Each of the Smash albums, on the other hand, moves beyond power-pop or even folk-rock into a mingling of rock’n'roll, blues, R&B, norteno, honky tonk country, and some curious combination of border radio preachment and talking blues. It’s like a party in San Antonio at which the guests include Freddie King, Johnny Winter, Ray Price, Freddie Fender, Vicente Fernandez, Delbert McClinton, Wolfman Jack, Pappy O’Daniel and the ghosts of The Big Bopper and Buddy Holly.
The beauties of Saldana, for instance, encompass the loose narcotized blues of “Stoned Faces Don’t Lie” (akin to the O’Jays’ “Backstabbers” and Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes” in its portrait of a counterculture falling into abject dishonesty), the rocked-up tejano of “Me and My Destiny” (which has the mood of a Blonde on Blonde outtake), the goofy rock of “She’s Huggin’ You (But She’s Lookin’ At Me),” the secular gospel lament “Oh Lord, Please Let It Rain in Texas,” a cover of T-Bone Walker’s “Papa Ain’t Salty,” and probably the greatest rock’n'roll talking blues, “The Railpak Dun Done in the Del Monte,” a magnificent reminder that the first time that Woody Guthrie left Oklahoma, he landed not in California but Texas. Could even Woody have beaten a sweet-tempered anti-corporate rant (“we’re gonna do away with all them _soulful_ trains) that features the chorus, “The Railpak dun done in the Del Monte / What a drag, what a drag, what a drag.” Could any other performer since Guthrie have pulled off such an improbable concoction?
Maybe Bob Dylan. But even Dylan wouldn’t have ended the damn thing by–whistling–the final lines. And Otis Redding preached only about love.
All this is true, but who in the period when the Sir Douglas Quintet established Doug Sahm as a great musician–great enough to follow him through the weedy and somewhat chaotic years that followed–would have talked about him in the way that we talk now about current alt.country and roots performers? In his most popular period, Sahm’s work was defined by hit singles–it’s probable that none of his albums until the Texas Tornadoes had a tenth the circulation of “She’s About a Mover.” Of the Mercury albums, only Mendocino charted, for 11 weeks at a peak of #81. Jerry Wexler, operating under the mistaken impression that what Sahm did could be constrained as “country rock,” which missed not half but something more like 85% of the point, created an opus that spent ten weeks on the charts and peaked at #125, which at that period basically represented the Dylan association and a favor to a powerful producer. The Atlantic album was the only record that charted under Sahm’s own name.
To be taken seriously, Doug Sahm had to go back home to Texas and live without most of his best music ever being heard outside a tiny cult. (The Texas Tornadoes. “tejano” breakthrough that it may have been for Anglos, charted one record , its debut which peaked at #154 after ten weeks on the charts.) When I was listening to The Return of Doug Saldana every day for a year, if you’d asked me about “roots,” I’d have thought immediately of Mott the Hoople, who did a great version of “At the Crossroads” on their debut album (#185, 2 weeks on the chart).
It’s taken almost two decades of a CD reissue boom to restore Sahm’s most important albums to print. Except for a splendid essay by Mitch Myers in a recent issue of Magnet, nobody’s paying them much attention. In a time of turmoil, these albums have been almost all I’ve listened to for the past two weeks, and it’s been more than comforting, it’s been a re-education about the music values of Doug Sahm-and me, too. Myers sums it up, describing all his various aspects and declaring, “Doug Sahm dared to dream all of these different dreams and he grew up to be all of those different people.”
Keep listening, and you get to share those dreams, although you’ll become those people-as Doug himself did-at your own risk.
DAVE MARSH coedits Rock and Rap Confidential. Marsh is the author of The Heart of Rock and Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org