He's about a mover

Doug Sahm may spend his summers in Canada, but he's still a Texas tornado

One might imagine that Doug Sahm came up with the idea of forming the Texas Tornados -- his Tex-Mex supergroup with Chicano country crooner Freddy Fender, conjunto music legend Flaco Jimenez, and Sahm's Sir Douglas Quintet compadre Augie Meyers -- while sipping Corona con lima in a rustic cantina down south of the border. The true story, however, finds Sahm on the other side of a very different national boundary.

"I really conceived it in Canada," Sahm confesses over a bowl of tortilla cheese soup at the Waterloo Ice House in Austin, the city where he lives for most of the year. But as the Texas summer settles in for its extended stay and the mercury starts creeping into the 90s, the man known as the Texas Tornado -- as well as Sir Doug, Samm Dogg, Doug Saldana, and Wayne Douglas -- escapes the heat at his secluded getaway near the Pacific coast of British Columbia. "When you get up there with very little TV, your whole life changes, and you just spend a lot of time thinking in the beautiful woods. My mind just takes off. I could write symphonies, you know?"

Symphonies are just about the only thing Douglas Wayne Sahm hasn't yet touched on in his 50 years or so of making music. Even before he hit the national scene in 1965 as the leader of the original Sir Douglas Quintet with "She's About a Mover" -- still his biggest pop hit, recorded in Houston with legendary producer Huey Meaux -- Sahm had already become a local legend in his native San Antonio.

Sahm old story: Doug Sahm's musical career is summed up on the latest Texas Tornados album, Live From the Limo, Volume 1.
Sahm old story: Doug Sahm's musical career is summed up on the latest Texas Tornados album, Live From the Limo, Volume 1.

Born November 6, 1942, he started his musical career at the age of 6 as a country-and-western prodigy. By the time he was 10, Sahm had mastered guitar, steel guitar, mandolin, and other instruments, all by ear. Known as "Little Doug," he wrote and recorded his own songs, sat in with Webb Pierce, Hank Thompson, Faron Young, and other C&W stars, appeared on "The Louisiana Hayride" and "The Big D Jamboree," and was being scouted by the Grand Ole Opry. As a teen, Sahm played in some of San Antonio's top bands, scoring hit records on local radio and mixing with the rock-and-rollers, bluesmen, soul stars, and Chicanos like a brother to them all.

In the nearly 40 years since "She's About A Mover," Sahm has proved himself to be the most phenomenally versatile, resilient, and prolific musician to emerge from the Lone Star State, if not anywhere on the planet. Ever since the Tex-Mex polka-pop sound of the Quintet ironically lumped the San Antonio-based band in with the British Invasion, Sahm has ridden successive wave after wave of varied musical movements with nary a hint of contradiction. The Quintet migrated in the late 1960s to the San Francisco Bay Area to add their Tex-Mex musical caldo to the West Coast hippie scene. By the early 1970s, Sahm headed back to Texas to become a standard-bearer of the "great progressive country scare" with Waylon, Willie, and the boys.

When new wave music hit at the end of that decade, he revived the Quintet to surf that trend as a revered elder statesman. As country music went big-time in the early 1990s and Tejano music began its ascent to international prominence, Sahm gathered the Texas Tornados together for his most successful commercial venture to date. And just last fall, his song "Get a Life," recorded with the Gourds, topped the Gavin trade paper's Americana chart that tracks the burgeoning "alternative country" movement. Along the way, Doug Sahm has become a compadre to such legends as Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, The Grateful Dead, Willie Nelson, Dr. John, and Atlantic Records co-founder Jerry Wexler, to name but a few. He even played the part of a speed-rapping pot dealer and musician in Kris Kristofferson's 1971 movie debut, Cisco Pike.

To date, Sahm has cut scores of records in a variety of solo and band configurations, playing rock-and-roll, country, blues, soul, swamp pop, Western swing, psychedelia, Texas-German polka, hard rock, and Tex-Mex -- to name many but hardly all the styles he's touched on -- as well as combinations and variations thereof. In just the last year or so, he's appeared onstage with the reunited Tornados and the latest incarnation of the Quintet (which now includes such second-generation players as Doug's son Shawn Sahm on guitar and Augie's son Clay Meyers on drums). Sahm plays with the Last Real Texas Blues Band (a blues and soul big band in the T-Bone Walker tradition) as well, in addition to performing with his bar band, the Texas Mavericks (with longtime Austin country hero Alvin Crow). He has also sat in with the Gourds and Los Super Seven, and he plays steel guitar at Crow's country gigs and with Austin's Cornell Hurd Band.

If platinum records were awarded on the basis of sheer output, merit, and soulfulness rather than sales, Sahm would surely be in the running for Michael Jackson's self-anointed title of "King of Pop." And if you had to define the broad rubric of "Texas music" for, say, a visiting Martian, Sahm's 1991 boxed set on Rhino, The Best of Doug Sahm (1968-1975), would handily do the trick. Or for a more shorthanded overview of the Lone Star State's musical ethos, give a spin to the just-released fifth album by the Tornados, Live From the Limo, Volume 1, recorded over two magical nights at Antone's nightclub in Austin at the end of last year.

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