Culturespill » Waylon Jennings

Texas Tornado: The Times and Music of Doug Sahm

30th November

 

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To open Jan Reid’s book Texas Tornado: The Times and Music of Doug Sahm (U of Texas Press) is to stumble into a time warp where Bobby Womack is more famous for marrying the woman whom Sam Cooke widowed than he is for anything he’s done on record, where Doug Sahm’s name looms far larger in Texas than Willie Nelson’s, and where growing your hair a little longer than most other folks in town is still enough to earn you a mean shiner from a cop in the street.

Reid set out to write a book about an American legend for whom he clearly harbors a great deal of affection, and he begins his tale with a note of modesty that belies his subject, explaining that he hopes not to write a comprehensive biography but merely “to convey some sense of the antic swath that for decades he cut through many communities in many countries, to call up some voices of the people who got to know him well . . . and to demonstrate the sheer knowing of his music.” What he ends up accomplishing instead, though, is much more: a great book about Doug Sahm that also happens to be a great book about American music itself.

Reid breathes life into a moment in American culture that can neither be recaptured nor replicated. The stories he tells–and the unreal cast of characters that move through them–comprise a wildly entertaining romp so vivid that you can hear Doug Sahm chuckling at himself somewhere between the lines. On page after page, you can see the Texas dust that Doug kicks up on his way to thrill yet another town just as clearly as you can smell the several tons of ganja he roasted along the way.

 

There he is in a rare moment of domestic bliss before his insatiable pursuit of the next hit single and the town he’ll play it in wrenched him away from his wife Violet, demanding that his children keep from opening presents on Christmas morning until “he came out with his pipe and big jar of pot.” And there he is on the road with his bandits of the beat–some of them are part-time barbers, some make doughnuts for a living, others have done time “in the sweltering fields of Angola” for pot possession. Augie Meyers, who played the meanest Vox organ anyone on earth has ever heard and brandished a “pickled ear” to perpetuate the myth that his ear was sliced off in a knife fight; Freddie Fender, who did those mean years at Angola only to hit the road with Doug and the boys once again and, with his slick talent on electric guitar and a hairdo that looked like a mushroom cloud, solidify his reputation as “the Mexican Elvis”; Huey Meaux, the “crazy cajun” who did several stints in the clink himself and once earned a full pardon from Jimmy Carter for one of the convictions that put him there.

The sum of all these inimitable parts was a musical stew that ranged from psychedelia to Tex-Mex, from Bob Wills to Jerry Garcia and all points in between. Sahm’s greatest notoriety came with his 1965 hit “She’s About a Mover” with the Sir Douglas Quintet. As Reid likes to note throughout the book, Doug went on to enjoy the rare distinction of a musician who never once had to hold a day job. The creative restlessness that Sahm exhibited from then on resembled that of Neil Young, always finding himself with a different crew of sidemen to back him up in the studio for yet another record, some as inordinately famous as Bob Dylan or Jerry Garcia; others anonymous sidemen he picked up somewhere in Texas. By Reid’s count Sahm laid down no less than “140 records in the United States, Europe and Canada,” bringing Scandanavia to its knees with a gorgeous number called “Meet Me in Stockholm” that earned him eternal superstar status in that country, and firing off other Tex-Mex beauties back home like the chart hit “Mendocino” or the sublime “At the Crossroads.”

Reid’s book is full of forgotten treasures and the kind of rock ‘n roll trivia that you either never knew or had heard from a friend once and forgotten–that Delbert McClinton taught John Lennon how to play harmonica, that Freddie Fender is the reason Austin’s own Roky Erickson graced the world with his brilliant “Starry Eyes” and “Two-Headed Dog” even as he struggled with the ravaged psyche of a traumatic pot bust recounted in detail here, or simply that Michael Martin Murphey’s Geronimo’s Cadillac is one hell of a record.

The book’s generous collection of photos is equally revelatory. Stunningly intimate in a way that makes you feel as though you’ve been invited to the man’s house to thumb through his family albums, the photos tell almost as much of American music’s story as Reid does. Many of them are provided by Sahm’s son Shawn Sahm, who today plays and tours with his father’s old bandmates. There is Doug accompanied by a seemingly teenage Stevie Ray Vaughn on page  80; and there are Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and Leon Russel backing up Doug in a show at the Armadillo in 1972.

Doug never did quite recapture the stardom he attained with “She’s About a Mover,” but he never stopped recording and he did score a Grammy with the Texas Tornados in 1990, a group comprised of old cohorts Meyers and Fender along with Flaco Jiminez. The now-legendary alt-country group Uncle Tupelo afforded him a little cross-generation love when Sahm contributed “Give me Back the Key to My Heart” for their 1993 album, Anodyne. Today, though, Sahm’s music enjoys more air-time on barroom juke boxes in Europe than it does on radio stations in the Texas he called home for most of his life, where he contributed more to Austin’s emergence as the music mecca it has become than he’s given credit for.

Sahm’s lifelong heart murmur culminated in a heart attack that took him from this world much too soon in 1999 at age 58, but the beautifully sloppy cache of music he left behind is worthy of significant critical reconsideration–records like Honkey Blues, Doug Sahm and Band, or Texas Rock for Country Rollers. And even in death, the legend that was Doug Sahm lived on, as buddies hunched over his body after the funeral service to roll a few last twists of weed and dump them in–just in case he ever felt the urge to light up as he took his final rest. In Texas Tornado, Reid has written a book that essentially amounts to a 200-page-love letter to the younger days that Doug Sahm colored with great music, good times, and, of course, what Reid refers to as “the good herb.” The ride he’ll take you on as he inches toward the end of Sahm’s uniquely American tale will linger with you long after you’ve put the book down.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Flashback: Mark Knopfler’s “Ragpicker’s Dream”

14th June

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Mark Knopfler

It is anyone’s guess as to whether the former Dire Straits crooner and guitarist still gets chicks for free, but The Ragpicker’s Dream, the third in a growing sequence of brilliant solo albums released in the wake of Mark Knopfler’s former band, proves that he doesn’t get money for nothin’. Despite the speckles of genius Knopfler bestowed upon the music world with Dire Straits, the gritty, stylish honesty of the solo albums that have followed suggests that his old band’s demise was actually one of the best things that ever happened to rock ‘n roll. The break up facilitated Knopfler’s much-needed escape from the glaring spotlight of fame that Brothers in Arms imposed on him–a spotlight he never cared to stand in too long (he relishes the smaller venues his solo career allows him to perform in now that he doesn’t need to be the Sultan of Swing any longer.)

One of the problems with making a great record–especially one that makes a lot of money for people who had very little do with making it (the kind of people Pink Floyd sing about on Wish You Were Here’s “Have A Cigar”)–is that those same people then want you to make the same record again. And again. And again. And only in exchange for your life will they accept anything less. Just ask Joan Osborne, a tragically underrated singer who’s a hell of a lot more invested in the full-throated wail of “Right Hand Man”–complete with its meaty “I am the female Captain Beefheart” guitar licks—-than in the timid and predictable chart grab of “One of Us.”

But when she turned to her label a couple years later with a collection of rip-roaring rock that had clearly left behind all the mushy blather about God being “just a slob,” the label returned the album with a pink slip and wished her the best. Righteous Love, the consequently long-delayed follow-up to Relish, clung to its low spot on the charts for about five minutes before making its way to remaindered bins and flea markets across the country as her audience fled to less challenging thrills. If only someone could have been by Joan’s side as she dreamed of the transient glory she would someday capture: Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.


Joan Osborne: “Right Hand Man,” Relish (1995)

But Knopfler is no one-trick pony, and his solo work proves that, rather than merely the British J.J. Cale, he is a massively talented guitarist who brings as much curiosity as skill to the music he makes–a curiosity no Dire Straits album would ever have allowed him to indulge, especially after Brothers in Arms turned him into yet another of Rock ‘N Roll’s temporary gods. Most fans came to expect a certain sound from Dire Straits: the instantly captivating guitar licks and shuffling rhythm of “Money For Nothing” or “Sultans of Swing,” the chiming organ of “Walk of Life,” or the jangling hooks of “So Far Away.”

But the conventional boundaries that confined Dire Straits ultimately became so exhausted that the band had nowhere left to turn. 1991’s On Every Street, the band’s farewell album, showcased Knopfler’s increasing enthusiasm for, among other sounds, the twang and wail of Nashville, playing with country legend Chet Atkins as well as the Notting Hillbillies. The days of MTV videos and duets with Sting were clearly a thing of the distant past. Any further projects with Dire Straits would only have typecast a talent whose borders stretch well beyond rock ‘n roll’s tired roads. Enter albums like Golden Heart with its flutters of fiddle and bagpipe, or the acoustic blues and ambient folk of Ragpicker’s Dream–an album which, six years later, sounds more like one of this dwindling decade’s top ten records with each passing listen.

When not recording solo, Knopfler is lending a hand on projects by performers as artistically opposed to his pop-rock past as Waylon Jennings, whose final album, Closing in on the Fire, features a ballad to which Knopfler contributes a guitar solo. On his own work, though, such nods to Nashville are becoming more routine than anomalous–cutting whole albums with torch-bearers of twang like Emmylou Harris. So it’s no great shock Ragpicker’s Dream expands Knopfler’s creative vision as widely as it does. It’s a rock album one minute and a ragtime session on the street corner the next.


Mark Knopfler: “Why Aye Man,” Ragpicker’s Dream (2002)

The album’s track list, including titles like “Daddy’s Gone to Nashville” and “Hillfarmer’s Blues,” reads more like a lost set of outtakes from the career of Dock Boggs, the late, Appalachian banjo master. While some of the songs on Ragpicker’s Dream might have gotten Boggs’ toe tapping, though, Knopfler’s homage to J.J. Cale continues. Brooding, slick guitar solos emerge throughout the album, from the frenetic licks of the sprawling opener and single “Way Aye Man” to more laid-black tutorials in country blues such as the title track or the ferocious “Marbletown.”

Sprightly and deeply textured, the soundscapes of songs like “You Don’t Know You’re Born” and “Coyote” bloom with bass, flickering drum beats, horns, percussion and Knopfler’s sly guitar. The production is crisp, clear and abundant with influence, making for an unusually varied set of songs that are at once spare and luxurious, as the haunting, folkish “Fare Thee Well Northumberland” gives way to “Daddy’s Gone to Nashville,” a blithe and thoroughly convincing tribute to Hank Williams. “It’s hard to find love anywhere / hard to find love anywhere,” he laments on one of the album’s many moving ballads, his earthy vocals caked in the Delta dust they yearn for. While it may very well be hard to find love anywhere, albums like The Ragpicker’s Dream guarantee the love of those who feel alienated by the fluff that passes for “rock” in an industry becoming more subversive and superficial by the hour.