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Austin Chronicle The Return of Wayne Douglas

The Ever-Expanding Musical Legacy of Doug Sahm

By Jerry Renshaw

JUNE 26, 2000:  Doug Sahm raved to all his friends about Ed Burleson. The young, Dallas-area singer's country chops struck a nerve with the legendary Texas Tornado. As the two grew closer, Sahm offered Burleson a guiding hand, putting his weight behind the youngster's debut, My Perfect World, and assembling talent such as Commander Cody's Bill Kirchen on lead Telecaster, New Braunfels singer-songwriter Clay Blaker, Tommy Detamore on steel guitar, Alvin Crow on fiddle, and of course, Sahm himself contributing a guitar solo or two. The result is a heartfelt country effort by a young songwriter whose vision comes with its share of reflection and uncertainty, especially on the striking title track.

Sahm had long discussed starting his own label, calling it Tornado Records, naturally, and cutting his own pure honky-tonk album. Since he had already put together a great lineup for the Burleson sessions, Sahm booked more time at Floresville's Cherry Ridge Studios and simply went to work on his own project. Abetted by Augie Meyers, pianist Ron Huckabee, and son Shawn, he knuckled down with Detamore co-producing and cut 12 tracks over two weeks in July and August of 1999. Overdubs were still in progress when Sahm passed away unexpectedly three months later.

Left unpolished is a beautifully rich and mature-sounding disc, The Return of Wayne Douglas, an album tinged with melancholy and regret. It sounds eerily like a last album, like a hindsight summation of a career and a life. The playing is all first-rate (a disc-for-disc comparison to My Perfect World makes it clear it's the same band), with a clean production sound that stops short of being overly sanitary and slick.

It's the songwriting, though, and the wistful tone to Sahm's craggy voice that makes this album happen. His takes of familiar Sahm tunes like "Beautiful Texas Sunshine," "Dallas Alice," and "Yesterday Got in the Way" have a sentimental, evocative sound to them that fits perfectly. "Oh No! Not Another One" laments the state of country music circa 1999, and the succession of young country-pop stars that keep getting cranked out of the Nashville machine. Perhaps the most poignant song, "I Can't Go Back to Austin," describes a city now more Silicon Hills than Groover's Paradise.

Detamore's steel work throughout the album is an elegant filigree around the edges of each song, and Kirchen refrains from any Telecaster hot-dogging, instead emerging to accentuate key parts of songs. Sahm's acoustic solos have an expressive tack that fits beautifully with the album's thoughtful mood -- he nearly turns Bob Dylan's ageless "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" into a pure Sir Douglas song. It all adds up to 12 songs that couldn't be a more appropriate, touching postscript to a life spent in music.

As everyone knows, however, the music business hasn't always been so kind to artists who have passed on. Buddy Holly, for one, has been woefully underrepresented in best-of repackages in the decades following his death. Not until the CD era and baby boomers' passion for reissues came along did that begin to change. In the case of all that obscure garage-punk that came out in the Sixties, it's infinitely easier to find a lot of that brand of raunch now than it was then.

Fortunately, it looks as though Sahm's many varied musical incarnations won't suffer the same fate as Holly's poorly kept catalog. Labels such as Sundazed, a New York State indie with a fanatical attention to detail, and Britain's Edsel Records have already released a slew of Sahm in the months since his death, and as it turns out, there are plenty more posthumous collections currently hitting the market -- all of them varying in quality from label to label.

Sundazed's Beatrocket subsidiary has pumped out arguably the two best reissues, The Best of the Sir Douglas Quintet, a straight re-release of the group's 1966 debut, and The Sir Douglas Quintet Is Back!, which gathers up many of the remaining singles recorded for Huey P. Meaux's 1964-66 Crazy Cajun sessions. Capturing the band in their raw, unwashed prime, complete with matching suits and Brian Jones haircuts, both discs feature copious liner notes and photos. Notable is the formula that Meaux and the band came up with. Driven relentlessly by Augie Meyers' dime store Vox Continental organ and Sahm's vocal yowl, the band's sound was instinctive, primitive, and unbelievably raw.

The SDQ's takes on familiar R&B standards like "Wine, Wine, Wine" and "It's a Man Down There" make their contemporaries, who were influenced by the Rolling Stones, Animals, and Yardbirds, sound like half-melted vanilla ice cream. After all, Sahm and company were much closer to the source in San Antonio, with the chance to hear B. B. King, Hank Ballard, T-Bone Walker, and James Brown in their sweaty live element rather than on scratchy vinyl mail-ordered from across the pond.

British label Music Club's 15-song The Prime of the Sir Douglas Quintet also compiles much of the Crazy Cajun/Meaux-era stuff, such as the Cajun two-step "Sugar Bee," "Quarter to Three," "The Rains Came," and, of course, "She's About a Mover." Austinite Rush Evans' eloquent liner notes provide an informative and smart history of the band and Sahm's later career.

Edsel weighs in with a staggering 2-CD set that pulls together 41(!) cuts from the Crazy Cajun days, including much left off the Music Club and Sundazed reissues, like "Wolverton Mountain," "Revolutionary Ways," and "Hot Tomato Man." Released in 1998, this comp's liner notes discuss not only the history of Sahm and the band, but delve into Meaux's biography and go a long way toward explaining the musical and social contexts that spawned the SDQ, as well as Meaux's role in shaping the group's sound.

Of lesser note is Edsel's The Best of Doug Sahm and the Sir Douglas Quintet. With a couple of recent photos of Sahm at the Texicalli Grille, playing a Les Paul Jr. and looking a bit disinterested, this comp runs through 15 fairly predictable choices of songs and seems rather hasty and pedestrian.

The reissue that nearly trumps them all, however, is Norton Records' Doug Sahm: San Antonio Rock. Kicking off with Sahm's Bexar County hit "Crazy Daisy," a Little Richard-style pounder, San Antonio Rock unearths recordings by a wet-behind-the-ears Sahm playing in such incarnations as the Dell Kings, the Mar-Kays, the Knights, and the Pharaohs. The greasy, sweaty R&B groove of these 18 songs serves as an object lesson in Sahm's wild versatility and compose a great snapshot of a long-forgotten San Antonio music scene.

Complete with several pages of liner notes and tons of great photos of a young, young Sahm (including him, age 10, playing steel guitar onstage), this should be required listening for those only familiar with the SDQ or Texas Tornadoes. Intuitive, coarse, and entirely natural, it's hard to find any rock from the Fifties and early Sixties nastier and more down-and-dirty than this primeval Alamo City grind.

There is at least one glaring omission in these reissues, however. Where the hell is "Mendocino"? Sahm's earliest music-making period (the Fifties country singles that predate the Norton CD) is also passed over, as is his later, post-1968 material. Undoubtedly, reissues of this material, some of which (including "Mendocino") is available on 1990's superb The Best of Doug Sahm and the Sir Douglas Quintet, will come along eventually.

In the meantime, who else could take on everything from roots country to hippie rock to Tex-Mex, blues, Cajun, doo-wop, R&B, pop, even a smattering of Western swing, and pull any and all of them off effortlessly? Sahm could put several of the aforementioned influences into a musical Cuisinart, set the button for "purée," and make it all work in the same song.

Sir Doug's old haunts like the Soap Creek Saloon, the Armadillo World Headquarters, Vulcan Gas Company, and the Split Rail are long gone, fond memories in the minds of a dwindling number of Austinites. His Groover's Paradise is quickly being overrun by concrete, steel, and glass. Do yourself a favor and check out these CDs, especially the new Return of Wayne Douglas. Roll down the windows, go for a drive through South Austin or the Hill Country, and let 'em blast. That way, Sir Doug's Groover's Paradise won't vanish completely.


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