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In the course of 40 years of writing about musicians from Texas, such as Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Selena Quintanilla, ZZ Top and Freddy Fender, the one music story I really wanted to write almost got away. It was about the most important musician who ever crossed my path and who has been relegated to obscurity since his death almost 17 years ago.
Doug Sahm, native son of San Antonio, was a singer, guitarist, fiddler, pianist, composer, bandleader and an arranger. He could play all of Texas’ indigenous musical styles—country and western, rhythm and blues, jump blues, western swing, Tex-Mex, conjunto, cajun and swamp pop—all authentically.
As a prodigy steel guitar player, he earned praise from Hank Williams, the father of country music. As a teenager, he watched T-Bone Walker, Gatemouth Brown and other electric blues guitar virtuosos play at the African-American night spot Eastwood Country Club near his house. He had local No. 1 hit records while still in high school. As leader of the pseudo-British rock band the Sir Douglas Quintet, he scored a hit with She’s About a Mover and became running buddies with Bob Dylan. Sahm was as instrumental as Willie Nelson in putting Austin’s music scene on the map in the early 1970s. In the ’80s, he had international hits. In the ’90s, he came home to found the first Tex-Mex supergroup, the Texas Tornados, with his longtime sidekick Augie Meyers, accordionist Flaco Jimenez and crooner Freddy Fender.
Sahm also wrote the best homesick Texan songs ever—At the Crossroads, with the prescient lyric, “You just can’t live in Texas if you don’t have a lot of soul;” Texas Me (“I wonder what happened to the man inside that real old Texas me”); and Beautiful Texas Sunshine.
Sahm, who was 58 when he died of natural causes in 1999, looked like a Texan—a long-haired, fast-talking, pointy-boot- wearing kind of Texan. With his credentials and personality, you’d figure he was a charter inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Instead, he’s almost forgotten.
So I decided to make a movie about him.
Music is not easy to convey in print. If I was going to tell Sahm’s story and gin up enough interest to get him into the rock hall of fame, the audience needed to hear his music and see him speak to fully appreciate his kinetic energy.
After three years and $750,000, Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove premiered in March 2015. Telling Sahm’s story onscreen was rewarding, especially getting to interview Meyers, Jimenez and son Shawn Sahm—those closest to Doug—as well as musicians such as Boz Scaggs, Dr. John, Steve Earle, Jeff Tweedy, Los Lobos and Sunny Ozuna.
I also interviewed Sahm’s brother and other children.
I still obsess over what was left out. I was not able to include the story of Sahm performing on the storied Louisiana Hayride radio program from Shreveport as a child, three years before Elvis Presley appeared on the same show.
I couldn’t include anything about Sahm’s lifelong friendships with his mentors, western swing fiddler J.R. Chatwell and African-American bandleader and saxophonist Spot Barnett. Then there was Sahm’s mentoring of a kid named Jerry Garcia from a new band called the Grateful Dead. There was nothing about Sahm meeting the Beatles and running around with the Rolling Stones or producing rock ’n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry in San Francisco. What about his love of baseball, his deep knowledge of “rassling,” his passion for all kinds of music and eagerness to introduce others to what he knew?
Even for those who don’t know who Sahm is, the film tells the larger story of an artist coping with the world. In his case, he wasn’t just the artist, but the artist who knew too much and had to play all the different kinds of music to satisfy himself, even if it did not lead to fame and fortune.
You can still hear Sahm in the music of Meyers and Jimenez, the accordion legend Sahm brought out of the barrio to a global audience. And you can hear him in Shawn Sahm, who leads his dad’s band, the Texas Tornados, alongside Jimenez and Meyers. Artists such as Los Texmaniacs, the Mavericks, Los Lobos, Joe King Carrasco, Charlie Sexton, Jeff Tweedy, Shinyribs, the Swindles, the West Side Horns, Alvin Crow, Dave Alvin and the Texas Mavericks carry on the Sir Doug groove.
The best part about making a film about Sahm was bringing him back to life for all the longtime fans who want to see and hear their hero. Their numbers may be more comparable to a cult than to a pop star following, but they are passionate.
If enough people figure out who Sahm was—and is—and catch the bug as I did back in 1965 when I first heard She’s About a Mover, who knows? Maybe the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame could carve out some extra space for the obscure Texas music cat who could play it all.
Joe Nick Patoski, a member of Pedernales EC, writes about music from his home in Wimberley.