If sales figures were a guiding compass, Doug Sahm was at best a minor regional artist who enjoyed brief pop chart success in the mid-to-late 1960s. But given his sphere of influence as a Texas musician — he was the Texas musician who could play all the roots sounds, from blues to country to jazz to teen pop to Tex-Mex, like the native he was, while being able to leap genres in a single chord — his impact was wide and remains considerable.
This five-disc set, covering seven years, five albums, and reels of ephemera, isn’t just the missing link in a long and storied recording career that spans the ’50s through the ’90s. This is the essential Sir Doug, capturing the Texas music utility player of the century who could play it all and still come out sounding wholly original, on the heels of his first chart successes with “She’s About A Mover” and “The Rains Came” and the band’s drug bust in Corpus Christi, but before Sahm’s lengthy residency in Austin.
For much of this period, the band was in exile in northern California, intoxicated by and very taken with the flowering San Francisco movement, even while their leader couldn’t help but remain very much a Texas cat deep inside. You can’t write “At The Crossroads”, the anthem for homesick Texans everywhere, without missing home yourself.
By laying out all the cards on the table, you get the Full Monty version of Sir Doug: great pop songs (“Dynamite Woman”, “Nuevo Laredo”, “Michoacan”), experiments in stone jazz (“Song Of Everything”, “Don’t Bug Me”) and funky rhythm & blues (“Glad For Your Sake”, “The Gypsy”), straight from the stump Texas fiddle drenched in reverb (“Whole Lot Of Piece Of Mind”), some spacey excesses clearly influenced by some righteous pot if not psychedelics (“Monterrey Sun”, “Too Many Docile Minds”), a few pieces of throwaway bullshit (“Spearfish By Night”), some underappreciated gems (“If You Really Want Me To I’ll Go”, “Revolutionary Ways”), a series of stone Mexican-Spanish vocals on top of the music tracks, lots of disjointed studio dialogue, and florid song tributes and shout-outs to all the friends and neighbors back home and Freddy Fender — Freddy, this is for you, wherever you are.
What’s revealing is how soulful Doug stayed even when he strayed, how fluid the band was over those years (lots of players shuffling back and forth between Texas and northern California), and how critical Augie Meyers and his magic Vox organ was to the Quintet sound, adding rhythm, texture and a Tex-Mex groove to every track. “Doing It Too Hard” is but one shining example, with Meyers laying down a very simple rhythm and Sahm pushing off of the beat with fat chunks of Creedence-style guitar. Repeat over and over, and you get the same trance-like drone the Dead were searching for on “Dark Star”, only with a whole lot more hip-shaking possibilities. I would have preferred a twenty-minute version, but the Quintet manages to make the point in 3:51.
Speaking of time, it’s about time these classic versions of “At The Crossroads”, “Mendocino” (the biggest hit of Sahm’s Mercury period), “T-Bone Shuffle”, “Papa Ain’t Salty” and “Wasted Days” finally became available on CD in their original incarnations. The unexpected pleasures thrown in as part of the bargain include things like the mono tracks he recorded for Jerry Kennedy in Nashville under the name of Wayne Douglas in an attempt to appeal to the hardcore C&W market; his own productions of tracks by Texas shouter Roy Head and Duke-Peacock blues crooner Little Junior Parker; or the entire Rough Edges album.
Mercury released Rough Edges to cash in on Sahm’s much-hyped early-’70s collaboration with producer Jerry Wexler, Doug Sahm And Band for Atlantic Records, a project that ultimately failed to boost Doug’s career beyond what it already was. The beauty is, despite the tracks being outtakes, most are of a quality and musicianship as good as, if not better than, those on the previous Mercury albums and the Atlantic album as well. Even when no one was looking, SDQ was cooking with all the right Texas sounds, no matter where they happened to be camping out.