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Music legend had no boundaries in music, U.S. 

By Jim Beal Jr.
Express-News Arts Writer 

Like the force of nature after which he named a 1973 album and eventually a band, Doug Sahm didn't pay much attention to borders or boundaries.

 When he was discovered dead Thursday, apparently of natural causes, in a Taos, N.M., hotel room where he'd holed up alone to prepare for a stretch of intensive work, Sahm had been making music for about 53 of his 58 years.

 A Texas Tornado literally and figuratively, he gathered up musical influences, reworked some, rearranged others, developed a few and dropped the results onto singles, albums and compact discs. An active performer since shortly after he got out of diapers, Sahm also delivered his cross-pollinated, cross-cultural music to eager audiences around the world.

 He started taking his prodigy's talents on steel guitar, fiddle, guitar and mandolin to the public via San Antonio radio. After a stint on the Louisiana Hayride and a recording career that started with a tune called "A Real American Joe," attributed to Little Doug Sahm, the youngster didn't slow down.

 A proud San Antonian, and an equally proud Sam Houston High School Cherokee, Sahm likely could have had a solid country music career.

 But the rail-thin, hyperkinetic native of the East Side always felt the pull of almost every genre of music. Even a sit-in turn with Hank Williams at an Austin show didn't set him on a single-minded path. Sahm couldn't resist sneaking out of his parent's house, crossing a plowed field and hanging around outside the Eastwood Country Club to listen to T-Bone Walker play the blues.

 In the late '50s and early '60s, Sahm recorded and played rock 'n' roll and R&B with groups such as the Twisters, the Markays and the Pharaohs.

 He'd play gigs with his bands and still hang out at East Side, South Side and West Side nightclubs, listening to and learning from blues bands, conjuntos, jazz groups and country bands. Influenced by people such as R&B saxophonist Spot Barnett, swing fiddler J.R. Chatwell, conjunto giant Ruben Vela and the Western swing-meets-polka of Adolph Hofner, Sahm began to synthesize a unique South Texas sound.

 In the mid-'60s, at the height of Beatlemania, record producer Huey P. Meaux figured it was better to join the British Invasion than fight it. So Meaux tagged a bunch of Alamo City musicians including Sahm and a keyboard player named Augie Meyers who, though they were only in their early 20s, already were seasoned veterans.

 The result was the Sir Douglas Quintet, a band that was to score three '60s hits, "She's About a Mover," "The Rains Came" and "Mendocino." Still, despite the long hair and the other trappings of the British Invasion, Sahm wore a cowboy hat on "American Bandstand."

 Sahm may have been a prodigy, but he never worked in a vacuum. The advent of the Quintet led to a partnership that was to last more than 30 years. While Sahm sang well, arranged horns, played a mean guitar and talked enough for a herd of people, it was the Vox organ sound of Augie Meyers that provided the unmistakable sound of the Sir Douglas Quintet.

 "Look what we did," Meyers said Thursday, talking through tears. "Elvis Costello told Johnny Carson Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers were his influences. Listen to Creedence. Bob Dylan used to say we were his favorite group. There will always be somebody who will play our music somewhere."

 Just as he didn't keep playing country, but never quit playing country, Sahm didn't keep doing the Quintet, but never quit doing the Quintet either. He was always big on pursuing what he called different trips.

 "I get bored, man. I get bored," he'd say quietly.

 That's why he released a string of "solo" albums that featured everything from T-Bone Walker covers to cosmic cowboy originals.

 That's why he helped found, in 1989, the Texas Tornados, a South Texas supergroup with Meyers, guitarist and vocalist Freddy Fender, accordionist Flaco Jimenez and a supporting cast of players with equally eclectic musical interests.

 That's why he always had a blues band going. The Last Real Texas Blues Band put out one album, which was live, and ragged in spots, but cooked so undeniably it was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1994. 

That's why he always had a country band going, usually with fiddler Alvin Crow. That's why he'd jump headlong into a cameo on a project such as Los Super Seven or do a guest shot on an album by blues chanteuse Angela Strehli or produce the debut disc of country singer Ed Burleson.

 True to his whirlwind nature, Sahm couldn't settle in just one place.

 He was proud of his San Antonio roots, and would tout the wonders of the Alamo City from stages around the world. But his home was Austin. And San Francisco. And Vancouver. And the ballpark.

 "If I spend too much time in San Antone, man, I'll get fat," he'd say. "I've gotta have those enchiladas, man, but I can't have 'em every day."

 Instead, he made quick trips to San Antonio to eat, hang out with his grandkids, make quick trips to radio stations and car dealerships and friends and wail that Austin was being overrun by yuppies. He had to keep his hometown close. But not close 12 months a year.

 When spring started inching toward summer, Sahm would get jumpier and more hyperactive than usual.

 "I can't take this heat, man, I can't take this heat," he'd say. "It's time to get to Vancouver."

 He traveled in a Cadillac. In the trunk of the Cadillac of a man who once chain-smoked marijuana was a shoulder bag full of vitamins and herbal supplements and bottles of cranberry-juice concoctions. 

"When you start gettin' older, man, you've gotta start thinkin' about your health," he'd say, his eyes burning with the fervor of a convert. "I keep tellin' Meyers, man, he's gotta start drinkin' this cranberry juice." 

There was one place, though, where Sahm wouldn't worry about cranberry juice, vitamins, getting fat or being overtaken by a heat wave. That place was the ballpark, any ballpark. He'd watch high school baseball, college baseball, minor league baseball, big league baseball, any brand of baseball. He carried a baseball card of himself in his wallet. The photo made him look like Pete Rose.

 "I'm not home right now," Sahm drawls in an uncharacteristically laconic manner on his telephone answering machine. "I'm out milkin' the cows. So you might call back if it's baseball or Guitar Slim or somethin' interestin'. I'll give you a buzz. Have a good day. Adios."

 He was a Texas Tornado. He was a real American Joe.

Friday, Nov 19, 1999

© 1999 San Antonio Express-News