By Rush Evans
Shawn Sahm just turned 50. And it’s been 47 years since he was on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Do the math. On that cover, he was sitting on the lap of his famous father, Doug Sahm, the rocking, bluesy, country-singing musical renaissance Texan, at the time fronting his own Sir Douglas Quintet.
And some 16 years before that picture was made, Doug himself sat on the lap of another master musical craftsman, Hank Williams. Do the math again. Both Sahms started early in their quest for music with a soul. And now, more than 15 years after Doug Sahm’s untimely death at 58, Shawn Sahm is keeping his dad’s music alive and in the groove. He has hit the road hard with Doug’s longtime band mates Flaco Jiménez and Augie Meyers as The Texas Tornados. Flaco and Augie and Doug and Tejano legend Freddy Fender came together in the late ‘80s as a sort of Tex-Mex super group for the first incarnation of the Tornados.
The groove is still there as the Tornados twist across the map with celebrations of the kind of music they pretty much invented. They’re keeping the music alive, along with the musical spirits of their departed friends Doug and Freddy (Fender passed in 2006 at age 69). To a lot of folks, it might’ve seemed crazy that this particular band would — or even could — carry on without the two most central figures. But when the current Texas Tornados played the New Orleans Jazz Festival, one simple phrase in a newspaper review summed it all up: “unexpectedly excellent.” Shawn’s got it down now, as he’s been immersed in his dad’s type of music since he was on that Rolling Stone cover.
“I don’t feel like I have any God-given right to this. That was just a kid taking a picture with my father. That could’ve been my sister or my brother just as easily. I was just there,” says Shawn, putting the Rolling Stone cover in its proper place. It’s not about rock stardom or bragging rights, it’s about capturing the beginning a beautiful musical relationship. “That said, my dad always had me hang out with him!”
Shawn Sahm looks a lot like his dad, but more important, he sounds a lot like his dad, writes songs like him, plays with the same passion and, as it turns out, he talks like him, too. It’s a rapid-fire stream of Tex-Mex enthusiasm and love of music that is a lot like talking to Doug Sahm himself, the itinerate hippie to the very end.
“I call it a celebration, but it is all the original remaining guys, so there is that reunion side of it,” says Shawn. “My dad passed in ’99. In 2009, on the 10th anniversary of my dad’s passing, we wanted to get together and do something special. We’d cut the record, “Esta Bueno,” in 2006, before Freddy passed away, so we’d already done things that had planted the seed. Come 2009, we wanted to do a Tornados type of set. It went really well. It went well every time. There was that chemistry from the beginning. It just sounded right. I have so much respect for my father, and I’ve always been such a big fan of his music, it was very easy for me to come in and know what I was supposed to do.”
The first proper show for the new Tornados was at Lincoln Center in 2009, and they’ve been tearing it up ever since. “At this point in the game, the shows are fantastic. We’re a well-oiled machine. We do exactly what people expect to hear from the Tornados. We do ‘Mendocino,’ and ‘Mover,’ and ‘Que Paso’ and ‘Who Were You Thinking Of?’ and Flaco squeezing the box.”
Here’s the deal on the founding members: Flaco Jiménez has been squeezing that box for almost 70 years, as the lifelong Tejano accordionist began performing at age seven with his father, Santiago Jiménez Sr., himself a conjunto music pioneer. The Grammy winner has worked with Dr. John, Bob Dylan and countless others. His musical relationship with Doug Sahm dates back to the 1960s.
Augie Meyers has also worked with Dylan, and that came about from his brother-like, lifelong musical partnership with Dylan’s friend from all the way back, Doug Sahm. His gloriously greasy Vox organ sound fueled a big hit, “She’s About a Mover,” and it powered the sound of the band behind that song, The Sir Douglas Quintet — a band that everyone thought was a British Invasion band in 1965. That was the idea, actually. The regal name fit right in with the wave of music that was all the rage after The Beatles landed in America and in living rooms via the Ed Sullivan Show. Producer Huey Meaux insisted on having that organ in the mix. That’s what made it British. But the ‘British Invasion’ band from San Antonio, Texas, was more raw, primal and unpolished than any of the bands coming from across the pond. By the time of their second big hit in 1968, “Mendocino,” all that British Invasion stuff was gone. Now everybody knew they were pure Texas soul.
Freddy Fender was already a superstar of Tejano music before he crossed over into mainstream country pop with a string of major hits in the ’70s, “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” “You’ll Lose a Good Thing,” among others. He and Doug had worked together a number of times before officially forming the Tornados together in the ‘80s with Flaco and Augie.
Doug Sahm was, well … Doug Sahm. The Sir Doug in Sir Douglas Quintet, the hippie solo artist and generator of beautiful vibes with a Texas drawl and sound, the multi-talented songwriter, singer, performer, guitar player and fiddler. He had been a force of musical nature since he started making local records in San Antonio as a pre-teen in the 1950s. Doo-wop, country, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, tejano … he made records of every type, but it was the records that incorporate all of these styles at once that defined the Sir Doug sound. The Doug Sahm catalog is deep, with a lot of solo records and Sir Douglas Quintet records. Augie was on virtually all of them.
When the four men came together as the Texas Tornados, they could’ve just as easily been called the Tex-Mex Wilburys, given the level of talent and history that made it such a good idea. The resulting music and string of albums was a fun-driven mix of sounds, fast and unpredictable as a tornado. From Texas.
When it came time to revive that band in this century, Shawn had no interest in replacing his dad, just an interest in keeping the music going. He was on a mission. “You don’t replace Doug Sahm and Freddy Fender, I mean come on!” he says. “But at the same time, the music should never stop. They wouldn’t be cool with that.”
In the new Tornados, Augie is Augie, Flaco is Flaco, as they ever were, and Shawn is Shawn – no need to change anything about himself to fit right in. He’s spent a lifetime immersed in his dad’s musical world. “I’ve known all these guys as long as I’ve been alive. Speedy Sparks (Tornados bass player long associated with various Doug Sahm incarnations) I met when I was five, six years old at Soap Creek Saloon when he was bartending. Augie was playing with my dad before I was even alive. They absolutely are family. It’s 100 percent a family trip.”
It’s the immediate family, of course, that looms large in the life of the younger Sahm. “I was really close to my father,” says Shawn.” Making music with him was a big deal to me. We had a lot of fun. We wrote songs together, we grooved, we made records. It’s what really meant a lot to me, when we wrote “Too Little, Too Late” and “Twisted World.” I’ve been a hardcore fan of my dad’s music since I was a child.”
Shawn played as a teenager in his dad’s revived version of the Sir Douglas Quintet in the ‘80s, and he found himself playing hooky from school with his dad’s band, sharing a bill in Central Park with the Pretenders, performing on the nationally televised Austin City Limits and hanging out with once and future rock stars. For instance, he has memories of hanging out with Stevie Ray Vaughan (Doug’s girlfriend at the time was close to Stevie’s wife). Stevie wasn’t famous yet, just another Austin artist working the clubs and playing Yahtzee. “I knew Stevie as a local guitar player, that early period before he made it. I would go over there, and they would play Yahtzee. All. Night. Long.” It was a childhood like no other. “We were hangin’ out in groover’s paradise. We’d stay at my dad’s half the time and be full-on Neanderthal hippie children. What does that tell you about the state of the Sahm family? We weren’t your classic Leave It To Beaver family by any stretch.”
As an adult, Shawn fronted his own Tex-Mex Experience, made a solo record. and worked in the same field as his dad. But since the Tornados came together again, this is his primary job. There are a number of other projects keeping Doug Sahm alive, not all driven by Shawn, but he is happy to assist behind the scenes every time. There was a star-studded Doug Sahm tribute at Austin’s Paramount Theater at this year’s South By Southwest music conference. There is a documentary film out just this year and soon to be in wide release, the aptly titled “Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove.” There is a biography, “Texas Tornado: The Times and Music of Doug Sahm,” co-written by longtime Texas journalist Jan Reid and Shawn. And there is an honest, earnest effort to get Doug Sahm into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Because he took the blues, country, rock ‘n’ roll, conjunto, soul and R&B, and created a whole new sound, a groove all his own. And if innovation in the field is a key point of entry into the Hall of Fame, has there ever been a better candidate than Doug Sahm?
There is also a fine tribute album from 2009, “Keep Your Soul,” which features Doug Sahm covers by some of Texas’ best, including Jimmie Vaughan and Alejandro Escovedo, and a spirited take on “Adios Mexico” by the current Tornados accompanied by the Texas musician whose entire career also boasts a spiritual musical kinship to Doug, Joe King Carrasco.
And speaking of Carrasco, he, too, finds it important and meaningful that the Tornados remain on the road. “The best song that ever came out of Texas is ‘She’s About a Mover,’” says Carrasco of Doug’s most famous Sir Douglas Quintet hit, still performed live by the Tornados. “They’re the real Texas music. They’re why Texas music is. They’re carrying on, because they’re carrying on the songs. They’re my idols, you know. I’m playing with Augie tomorrow night!”
Augie Meyers was the most constant musical presence in Doug Sahm’s long and varied career, so every time he takes a stage, the Sir Doug legacy lives. But when he does so with Flaco Jimenez and/or Joe King Carrasco and/or Shawn Sahm, it leaps to another level. And this fact rendered the reunited Texas Tornados downright urgent. “I had my own band, the Tex-Mex Experience,” says Shawn, “and we were doing really well, but I kind of stopped doing all that to do this. If we were gonna do it, it was time to do it, and none of us were getting any younger. My plate’s so full with the Tornados, and I run my dad’s business stuff. I have to stay focused on making this happen. Right now, the band is sounding great. We’re playing better than we ever have.”
It’s a safe bet that Doug Sahm would be more than happy about the current state of his songs, his bandmates, his name and his family. “It’s hard not to feel like my dad’s smiling down on us,” says Shawn. “My dad used to always joke about me being in the Tornados. He would say, ‘Son, you go deal with the madness, and I can stay at home and watch wrestling and baseball.’”
I make it a point to tell Shawn about the time I interviewed legendary blues club owner, Clifford Antone, at his Austin apartment. As soon as I arrived, Clifford’s phone rang, and it was Doug Sahm. For the next half-hour, I sat and watched as Clifford laughed and Doug’s stream-of-consciousness monologue came through loud and clear. Several times, Clifford held out the phone on purpose just to give me my own taste of Doug, which included a bit of singing and an endless stream of hippie colloquialisms (groovy, far out, trip…). Shawn laughs. “When you interviewed dad, questions were optional!”
I feel compelled to acknowledge with Shawn the whole you-look-and-sound-like-your-dad deal, a comparison to which he’s accustomed (though he assures me that his musical brother Shandon Sahm actually bears a more striking resemblance to Doug). Shawn isn’t trying to look and talk and sing like his dad, because he’s every bit as authentic as Doug was. And he certainly doesn’t run away from who he is. “There’s that genetic side, but the musical side is you don’t play with somebody for as long as I did and that not be a part of you. I was way into playing with my father. And if I do play and sound and look like him, well you know what? I played with him for so long that there should be some similarities, or I wouldn’t have been paying attention, you know?” GM