Tornado Watch : Will Texas Band Take S.D. by Storm?

TIMES ORANGE COUNTY POP MUSIC CRITIC

Returning to roots was a recurring theme in '80s pop.

First came the rockabilly revival, then the blues blossomed with renewed mass appeal. Cajun and Celtic music emerged as significant pop influences. In country music, the second half of the decade brought a stampede back to honky-tonk traditionalism. Even folk music made a comeback.

And now: Tex-Mex, anyone?

The Texas Tornados--who will play Wednesday at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach--hope that once people hear their peppy, border-country hybrid of Mexican folk, country music, European polkas, rinky rock 'n' roll organ sounds and easy-rolling R&B;, the answer will be a resounding "Si!"

With a lineup of four well-regarded, high-profile practitioners of the Tex-Mex style, the Tornados are a sort of super-group working in what has been a commercially minor form. Having found backing from a major label, the Nashville branch of Warner Bros., the Texas Tornados are hoping to make Tex-Mex the next strain of roots-music to grow on a mainstream audience.

Freddy Fender and Doug Sahm are the band's marquee names. With his trembling tenor and bushy locks, Fender emerged as one of country music's biggest sellers in the mid-'70s, but before that he was a wide-ranging performer, firmly grounded in Tex-Mex and rhythm and blues.

Sahm, one of the most versatile and natural roots-rockers, is best known as leader of his '60s band, the Sir Douglas Quintet. On songs like "She's About a Mover" and "Mendocino," Sahm and his ethnically diverse group introduced elements of Tex-Mex into the pop Top 40. Fellow Texans Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs ("Wooly Bully") and the Detroit-based, Mexican-born band, ? and the Mysterians ("96 Tears"), were others who scored in the mid-'60s with garage-rock hits that bore a Tex-Mex stamp.

Another Tornado is Augie Meyers, Sahm's old sidekick from the Sir Douglas Quintet. Inspired by what he heard from traditional Mexican folk musicians around his and Sahm's mutual hometown of San Antonio, Meyers adopted their sprightly rhythms on his British-made Vox organ, forging the comically wheezy sound that became a trademark of Tex-Mex rock.

Rounding out the band (which is being tagged as a sort of Tex-Mex Traveling Wilburys) and anchoring it firmly in the folk heritage that underlies Tex-Mex music, is Flaco Jimenez. Also from San Antonio, Jimenez is a Grammy winner whose button-accordion style expands upon music handed down from his father, Santiago Jimenez Sr., a noted player regarded as one of the pioneers of conjunto music, a Tex-Mex precursor that conjoined German waltzes and polkas with Mexican folk. Pop audiences have heard Jimenez' playing on records and tours with Ry Cooder, and on Dwight Yoakam's hit, "Streets of Bakersfield."

It was Sahm who got the idea that Tex-Mex might be the way to reach a wide audience while still dealing in music with a rootsy feel.

His 1989 album, "Juke Box Music," was a wonderful romp through obscure old blues and R&B; nuggets, but Antone's, a small label affiliated with the famous Austin, Tex., nightclub of the same name, didn't have the clout to get Sahm much exposure beyond his existing cult following.

Sahm said he started approaching Nashville record companies and producers with the idea of doing a Tex-Mex project, figuring it had a chance to catch on with country listeners. "It's not like what's coming out these days, but it's soulful, and it's real," Sahm said.

One person Sahm persuaded was Cameron Randle, who had worked for the company that manages such country stars as Yoakam and the Desert Rose Band. They put together a concert last December at a San Francisco nightclub, in which Sahm, Meyers, Jimenez and Fender played together for the first time. They wanted to feel out whether the players were compatible, and whether the combination could draw a crowd. The show was a sellout, and the musicians got on well.

"You'd have to be real turned off not to see the potential," Sahm said.

Last spring, Randle took some demo recordings to Warner Bros.' top country music scout, and the Tornados quickly were given a four-album contract to record in the big leagues.

Released less than a month ago, "Texas Tornados" has sold about 40,000 copies, Randle said last week--a good start. Sahm worries, however, that some country radio programmers are too formula-bound to play the album's first single, the delightfully hang-dog "Who Were You Thinkin' Of."

"There were some who were dancing around the room (when they heard it), but they were saying, 'We can't play it,' " Sahm said.

But, according to Randle, the Texas Tornados will try to blow into other segments of the pop marketplace. The Sir Douglas Quintet-flavored rocker, "Adios Mexico," will be promoted among college and alternative rock stations, while "Soy de San Luis," a composition by Flaco Jimenez' father, has been released as a single on Spanish-language stations.

Freddy Fender recalls the first time he played with Doug Sahm: it was 1959, and Fender, who had scored a local R&B; hit in Texas with the song, "Holy One," was barnstorming in a fancy Cadillac.

"I came into San Antonio to promote the record, and I met this scrawny kid hanging around me," the affable Fender said from Austin. Fender wound up playing a gig on top of the roof of the concession stand at a drive-in movie theater, and as he recalls it, Sahm's band backed him up.

"He liked my blue suede shoes, and my long sideburns. He liked the idea of riding around in a white Cadillac with a red interior," Fender said, recalling with a laugh that he and the teen-age Sahm wound up spending the night drinking and sleeping it off at the home of one of Sahm's relatives.

"He looked like the Mexican Elvis," Sahm recalls. "Chicks were screaming."

But years later, when asked to join the Texas Tornados, Fender wasn't exactly screaming to get in.

"To tell you the truth, I wasn't interested," he said. "I've always liked to fend for myself. I never wanted to sing with anybody else. With me, it was reluctant participation until I saw that (Warner Bros.) was really getting into it. I would have hated to sacrifice good songs, good material on an independent label that wouldn't get (the record) anywhere. It's like putting a paper boat in the ocean and seeing if it will get to England."

Fender said he is making the adjustment to working cooperatively instead of being the only singer in the spotlight. All four of the Tornados take lead vocal parts. On tour, they are backed by four other players drawn from Sahm's and Jimenez's bands.

"I'm so used to controlling, to talking a lot on stage, but Doug Sahm has a bigger mouth than I do," Fender said with a laugh. "It's an adjustment I'll have to make. I think it's going to be great."

Is Fender hoping to use the Texas Tornados as a vehicle to jump-start his solo career?

"Is pork chops greasy? I guess we all want it," he said.

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