Sharps & Flats

Versatile country and blues player Doug Sahm goes out with an album of songs dedicated to love -- and Texas.

By David Hill

Published June 21, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Doug Sahm
"The Return of Wayne Douglas"
Tornado Records If ever there was a performer who defied labels, it was the late, great Doug Sahm, who died of a heart attack in November in a Taos, N.M., motel room, at 58. Throughout his long career as a singer and guitarist he played rhythm and blues, rock, blues, country rock, Tex-Mex -- you name it. He probably played damn good polka, too.

A musical child prodigy, "Little Doug" Sahm was playing steel guitar when most kids were playing cowboys and Indians. At 9, he was a featured performer on San Antonio radio shows, backing up local and national Western swing bands. When Hank Williams came to town, the boy got his picture taken sitting on the master's lap. The pull of rock 'n' roll was strong, however, and soon a teenage Sahm was fronting his own combos -- the Knights, the Pharaohs, the Twisters, the Mar-Kays, the Dell Kings and others -- and playing passable rhythm-and-blues music. (The highlights from Sahm's earliest period can be heard on the recent release "San Antonio Rock: The Harlem Recordings, 1957-1961," on Norton Records.)

Sahm would go on to form the Sir Douglas Quintet -- the name was a producer's ploy to pass the band off as British Invaders -- recording such '60s AM radio classics as "She's About a Mover" and "Mendocino." Signed to Atlantic Records in 1973 by Jerry Wexler, he recorded two fine (but poor-selling) albums for the label, "Doug Sahm and Friends" and "Texas Tornado." Tall and lean, with long blond hair, mutton-chop sideburns and granny glasses, he was the original hippie cowboy, a Lone Star hipster who palled around with Dylan and Janis and the Grateful Dead.

Sahm's subsequent work was all over the map, as sprawling as the wide-open Texas landscape. In his adopted hometown of Austin, Sahm was a legend, the patron saint of Texas music. When he died, the Austin Chronicle put Sahm on the cover and dubbed him the "State Musician of Texas."

For what would turn out to be his last record, Sahm went back to his country roots, recording a superb collection of songs with a crack band, including son Shawn on background vocals, longtime cohort Augie Meyers on organ, Bill Kirchen on electric guitar, Tommy Detamore on steel guitar and Bobby Flores on fiddle. (The latter two, in particular, are featured prominently.) You won't be hearing any of it on country radio, though. "The Return of Wayne Douglas" -- the title comes from one of the aliases Sahm used when he played country gigs around Austin -- is as fresh as a just-opened, ice-cold bottle of Shiner Bock, but its sound is closer in spirit to Buck Owens than, say, Tim McGraw. "I'm a real country fan, son," he sings in "Oh No, Not Another One," a stinging critique of current C&W fare. "When country changed to pop, they had a laugh/As the real country fans got the shaft." "The Return of Wayne Douglas" is for country fans who like their music hard.

Naturally, the album's 12 songs are mostly about love: the love of women and the love of Texas. In "Cowboy Peyton Place," Sahm walks into a bar for a beer and winds up falling in love "with the steel guitar player's wife." Soap opera ensues. In "I Can't Go Back to Austin," a lover's boyfriend threatens to punch him out if he shows his face around town. "Huggin' Thin Air" finds Sahm doing just that as he wakes up in the morning to find his lover has up and gone.

In "Beautiful Texas Sunshine," a standout track that features some excellent pedal steel work by Detamore, Sahm muses on the joys of hanging out and doing nothing -- and then moving on. "Texas Me," which closes the album, is an ode to Sahm's beloved state, written in California more than 30 years ago during a bout of homesickness. "I wonder what happened to that man inside," Sahm moans in his soulful, gravelly voice, "the real old Texas me."

Two covers -- Dylan's "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" and Leon Payne's "They'll Never Take Her Love From Me" -- demonstrate that Sahm was just as good singing other people's songs as he was singing his own. Too bad he never recorded an all-Dylan album; it would have been great.

At the end of "They'll Never Take Her Love From Me," Sahm tells a little story about the time he and his daddy visited Payne, who was known as "The Blind Balladeer," at his home in Bandera, Texas. Little Doug was amazed at how easily Payne could get around inside his house without stumbling. "It just blew my mind," he says. "And my daddy told me that some people, they've got this inner sight. They just can feel and see things that other people can't see."

Doug Sahm had a similar gift. The songs on "The Return of Wayne Douglas" may be about earthly matters, but Sahm infuses them lots of Texas soul, elevating them to heavenly heights. Sahm's final recording is one of his best, a fitting end to the brilliant career of a true American original.

David Hill

David Hill is a freelance writer in Denver.

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