Doug Sahm, a Man of Many Styles and Backdrops: ‘Still a Vagabond’


Nobody ever had a more prophetically titled debut on the pop charts than Doug Sahm.

He was fronting the Sir Douglas Quintet in 1965 when the band burst into the Top 20 with “She’s About a Mover,” a rough and playfully rocking number that sounded as if it had been concocted in a backwoods still. Since then, Sahm’s career has been about moving his person from place to place and his music from style to rootsy style.

Over the phone recently from Austin, Tex., his latest depot, the easygoing, good-natured Sahm said he doesn’t foresee ever moving onto a less meandering career track.

“I’m 47, and I’m still a vagabond,” he said. “I like what’s coming up over the hill. I like moving around.”


(Sahm’s travels bring him to the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Friday, where he will appear as part of the Antone’s Texas Rhythm and Blues Revue, which also features blues singer Angela Strehli, accordionist Flaco Jimenez and guitarist Mel Brown.)

What makes Sahm special is that he sounds so natural and so comfortable in so many musical settings. Such dabblers as Elvis Costello (whose tinny organ sound and more blues-oriented vocal mannerisms owe a debt to Sahm and the Sir Douglas Quintet), however commendable their explorations in a variety of styles, have moments when they sound like students trying to get it right. Sahm sounds as if he grew up singing and playing in the multiple languages of a musical melting pot--which, in fact, he did.

He started out in San Antonio as Little Doug, a country music child prodigy so skilled on a variety of stringed instruments that touring stars who heard him tried to persuade him to join the Grand Ole Opry. But Sahm’s restless ear wouldn’t settle on just one musical form. By his early teens, he was absorbing firsthand the wide range of music to be sampled along the border, including Mexican folk strains and Texas’ brassy brand of blues and R&B.;

“She’s About a Mover” is a good example of the melting-pot influence at work. While the song was aimed at cashing in on the popularity of the Beatles’ British Invasion sound, its blues rawness was home grown, rather than re-imported from England. The band also added its own ingredient: a rinky organ sound that became the Sir Douglas Quintet’s signature and served as the basis for the burgeoning garage-psychedelic rock that came out of Texas in the mid-’60s.

As fine a breeding ground as Texas may have been, it wasn’t the most hospitable place for rockers in the mid-’60s.

“To have long hair down here, you had to put up with a lot,” Sahm said. “The rednecks wanted to whip you, and the cops were after you.” Sahm relocated to San Francisco in time to be inspired to write several hippie odes to peace, love, and grooviness.


“Mendocino,” from 1969, was the Quintet’s last major hit. In the ‘70s, Sahm kept popping up in changing company and in changing musical settings, with such sidemen as Bob Dylan and Dr. John. In the ‘80s, as Sahm puts it, “I was all over the place.” His career focus shifted for several years to Europe, where Sahm recorded a series of albums for a Swedish label and had a European hit with a country tune called “Meet Me in Stockholm.”

“I was havin’ hits in Europe. I was really doing well, but people in America didn’t know that,” Sahm said.

After living in Scandinavia and Canada, Sahm returned to Texas about a year ago and began hanging out at Antone’s, Austin’s leading blues club. Before long, owner Clifford Antone had signed him up to record an album of blues and R&B; oldies for his house label. The album, “Jukebox Music,” is a delightful ramble through gritty blues, jumping R&B;, and hokey-but-endearing ‘50s doo-wop ballads that Sahm renders with winning affection and an adventurous croon.

“I felt I had to come back to some kind of destiny, which turned out to be this record,” Sahm said. “(Texas) is like a magnet. It keeps pulling you back.”

Pulling but not holding. “I don’t think I’ll stay here forever,” Sahm said. “I think I’m getting the itch for California.”

Sahm doesn’t sound like a man who needs to keep scratching at an unsatisfied itch for big-time stardom. There has been talk of a larger label picking up “Jukebox Music,” he said, “but it’s got to be so I don’t have to change myself too much. It’s good when you’re not too hungry.”


Certainly, Sahm’s new album has a chance to appeal to the substantial back-to-blues audience that has enabled the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray and the Fabulous Thunderbirds to find success in the pop mainstream. In fact, Sahm said the one original number on his new album, a blues-rocker called “Money Over Love,” is a deliberate bid for that audience.

“Maybe it’ll be like ‘Tuff Enuff’ was for the T-Birds,” he said. “Maybe it’ll get ‘em.”

After about 40 years as a performer, Sahm says he is still expanding his repertoire. To his long list of specialties--country, Tex-Mex, blues, R&B;, psychedelia--he can now add heavy metal slide guitar. Sahm said that he sits in from time to time with San Antonio metal bands that include his sons, Shawn, 23, and Shandon, 19.

“I’ve got two heavy metal boys,” he said. “I go down to the heavy metal gigs and try to turn them on to the things they missed.”

Sahm said he has had some luck getting his sons interested in the Texas psychedelia of his ‘60s contemporaries, the 13th Floor Elevators, but not the country, Mexican and R&B; roots that he grew up with.

“No, they don’t want to hear from it. They don’t even want to deal with it,” Sahm said. “They might when they get older, but there’s a Guns N’ Roses mania right now.”

Let the kids catch up when they can. Their dad is still a mover.

Antone’s Texas Rhythm & Blues Revue, featuring Doug Sahm, Angela Strehli, Flaco Jimenez, Mel Brown & Silent Partners and the West Side Horns of San Antonio, appears Friday at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano. Tickets cost $13.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.


ALIVE AND RAUCKING: Gherkin Raucous, the promising Orange County band that mixes heavy rock with comedy, is back from the brink of a breakup and in a better position than ever to land a recording deal.

The group will play tonight at Night Moves in Huntington Beach, in a tuneup for a major showcase for record company talent scouts Jan. 26 at Club Lingerie in Hollywood.

Last month, the band announced it was breaking up because of drummer Miles Gillett’s decision to return to his native New Zealand. Gillett, a veteran of the highly regarded county band El Grupo Sexo, said he would reconsider if strong prospects of a record deal developed before his departure.

Those prospects have materialized in the form of Don Muller of the Triad booking agency in Los Angeles. Muller, who had heard Gherkin Raucous’s demo tape, felt the group had strong potential. He contacted Gherkin Raucous after hearing about its plans to break up and offered to use his music industry connections to help the band get signed.

“People in Los Angeles don’t know too much about them,” said Muller, who set up the Club Lingerie showcase. “I’ll get a representative from almost every major label there. They’re too good a band to let go and not give them a shot up here.”

“I’m thankful about it,” said Warren Fitzgerald, Gherkin Raucous’s guitarist. “It’s special to have someone from outside step in. (Muller) has taken it upon himself to help the band, which is what we really need.”