The first biography of the Sir Douglas Quintet and Texas Tornados founder Doug Sahm, a rock and roll innovator whose Grammy Award–winning career spanned five decades from the late 1940s to 1999.
Doug Sahm was a singer, songwriter, and guitarist of legendary range and reputation. The first American musician to capitalize on the 1960s British invasion, Sahm vaulted to international fame leading a faux-British band called the Sir Douglas Quintet, whose hits included "She's About a Mover," "The Rains Came," and "Mendocino." He made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1968 and 1971 and performed with the Grateful Dead, Dr. John, Willie Nelson, Boz Scaggs, and Bob Dylan.
Texas Tornado is the first biography of this national music legend. Jan Reid traces the whole arc of Sahm's incredibly versatile musical career, as well as the manic energy that drove his sometimes turbulent personal life and loves. Reid follows Sahm from his youth in San Antonio as a prodigy steel guitar player through his breakout success with the Sir Douglas Quintet and his move to California, where, with an inventive take on blues, rock, country, and jazz, he became a star in San Francisco and invented the "cosmic cowboy" vogue. Reid also chronicles Sahm's later return to Texas and to chart success with the Grammy Award–winning Texas Tornados, a rowdy "conjunto rock and roll band" that he modeled on the Beatles and which included Sir Douglas alum Augie Meyers and Tejano icons Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez.
With his exceptional talent and a career that bridged five decades, Doug Sahm was a rock and roll innovator whose influence can only be matched among his fellow Texas musicians by Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Janis Joplin, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Texas Tornado vividly captures the energy and intensity of this musician whose life burned out too soon, but whose music continues to rock.
- Prologue: A Real American Joe
- Chapter 1: A Cajun Two-Step Tex-Mex Polka
- Chapter 2: Song and Dance Men
- Chapter 3: Summers of Love
- Chapter 4: The Real Old Texas Me
- Chapter 5: Crossroads
- Chapter 6: Austin after Dark
- Chapter 7: The Coast-to-Coast All-Star Bands
- Chapter 8: Are We a Group?
- Chapter 9: Soap Creek
- Chapter 10: Groovers Paradise
- Chapter 11: Country Boogie
- Chapter 12: Sometimes I Cry
- Chapter 13: Wanderlust
- Chapter 14: Borderlands
- Epilogue: Guitar Slim
- Selected Discography
Doug Sahm loved Texas but was never married to the place. For one thing he despised the heat. He took its Augusts and hundred-degree days personally. At varied times Doug arranged his life so he could chill out in New York, Chicago, California, Oregon, the Missouri Ozarks, Scandinavia, British Columbia. He disliked airplanes but loved the open road. Doug once explained the itchiness that often overtook him in Austin, his adopted hometown. "I can't stand to get bored here. When you get bored here, and nothing's happening, you can get pretty weirded out. But if you can keep some kind of edge going—that's why I leave all the time. You know, jump in the car, get in my Cadillac and drive to Seattle, drive to Minneapolis, see the Dead, go to spring training. It keeps you going."
The Dead of his reference were his old friends of the Grateful variety, and he was an ardent baseball fan. His favorite team was the Chicago Cubs, though he also was known to cheer for the New York Yankees, the Houston Astros, and Toronto Blue Jays. He used to drive band members to distraction by blowing off regular gigs and arranging his life so he could go to Florida or Arizona to watch spring training. One year a casting representative of George Lucas, the famous producer of Star Wars, called Doug and offered him a part in a sequel to American Graffiti. Eventually it worked out, and he landed a nice role in the movie, but friends who witnessed the conversation were thunderstruck. At first Doug told the caller from Hollywood that he didn't think it was possible—the shooting schedule cut into too much of baseball season. During the spring training jaunts he drew on his stature as an entertainer to outwit gatekeepers and hang out with the big leaguers in the clubhouses and dugouts. He spouted major league stats until people rolled their eyes, and his kids would moan with boredom and embarrassment when he spotted a night game in some town, any town, and stopped to watch teams of strangers play a few innings. He was like an insect drawn to the lights.
Doug's trademark mode of transportation was a Cadillac or a Lincoln Continental. One of his Lincolns was a model that had been used in the TV series Hawaii 5-0. Before hitting the road, he would load a variety of instruments and small set of amps, the little gourmet coffeemaker he carried everywhere, and about a dozen suitcases. He'd tie up hotel elevators, trapping other guests in the cramped space, because suddenly he had to stop and count the bags carefully, making sure he had them all. In transit he was always writing, scribbling down a line of conversation or a highway sign that caught his fancy. He might linger in Lincoln, New Mexico, gathering material for a song about the murderous jailbreak of Billy the Kid, or stop and pay his respects in an old Spanish mission the highway offered up. He was known to drive from Texas to California to get a haircut or relieve a toothache. One long sojourn in western Canada resulted in a new band, a new audience, an acclaimed record, and a tour of Japan. He'd drive out to the West Coast to see his friend Bill Bentley, a onetime Austin protégé and publicist who became a top executive in the recording industry. Bentley made him the head of "artists and repertoire" of a new independent label called Tornado. Doug would swoop into Bentley's office in Burbank and blurt, "Write this down, Billy, it's important," and off he'd ramble about how to sign and promote some new artist or band he'd found.
But sooner or later, when Doug went off on his gypsy sojourns, he would call his elder son Shawn, a guitarist who grew up playing and writing songs with him, and announce, "Coming home, son. You know what to do."
Though it was a three-hour round-trip for Shawn, he would zip over from his home northwest of San Antonio to his dad's place in Austin and set the lights and air conditioner just the way Doug wanted them, because when Pop came home he wanted to park the car and dash inside, no hassle and, especially, no sweat.
All the early signposts pointed Doug toward a career in country music. The Sahm side of the family had emigrated from Germany to Central Texas in the early 1900s, landing at Galveston and establishing farms near the small towns of Selma, New Braunfels, and Cibolo. Doug's paternal grandparents, Alfred and Alga Sahm, owned and worked a prosperous cotton and grain farm in the Cibolo area; Alfred supplemented that income by playing in a polka band called the Sahm Boys. Doug's parents were named Vic and Viva Lee Sahm, and his older brother, born in 1933, was also named Vic. Doug's father had married into a working-class family called the Goodmans. His mother had ten siblings. The men on her side of the family carried lunch pails to work and often found their recreation in honky-tonks on Friday and Saturday nights.
Doug's parents had eighth-grade educations. Like many people uprooted from Central Texas farms in a time of drought and bank failures, his dad sought work in San Antonio during the Depression, laboring as a carpenter's helper, and then he made a somewhat better living on jobs at an army air corps base called Kelly Field. They lived in a succession of small apartments and had very little money. As times improved for them they saved enough to buy an acre on the eastern outskirts of San Antonio. With his elder son's help, Vic Sahm built a frame house of about four hundred square feet. It had a privy out back. They had butane for heat and, in time, electricity for light, but attempts to drill a water well failed; the younger Vic would fill up a milk can with water at a service station while his dad bought gas and kept the attendant talking and looking the other way. The second son, whom they named Douglas Wayne, was born in San Antonio on November 6, 1941. A month later, the younger Vic Sahm heard his mother sobbing one day and ran inside to see if his infant brother was hurt or sick. She had just heard the news about Pearl Harbor.
One of the boys' grandmothers loaned the family enough money to add on a little side structure so they would have a room of their own. In time San Antonio spread out to them, bringing its running water and sewage lines. What had been mostly countryside built up around them in scattered neighborhoods of poor black people. Viva took and passed the test for a beautician's license; she and a friend offered permanents to women acquaintances in yet another addition to the house and brought in a little more income. Shaded in summer by a crepe myrtle tree blooming in pink, the little house in east San Antonio gradually looked more and more like a testament to the ordinary and triumphant American middle class.
Doug Sahm's dad was never a musician, but he came from a family of accomplished players, and both parents knew that not just any little boy could watch a grown man play a guitar, go home, and make the family instrument produce the same sound. Doug cut his teeth on western swing, the Texas- and Oklahoma-born hybrid of hillbilly string bands and big-band jazz—dance music exemplified by Bob Wills and his band's big hit "The San Antonio Rose," first recorded the year Doug was born. He had some fine teachers and mentors, for even a boy wonder could not just teach himself to play the triple-neck steel guitar; it was a complicated instrument, with three different tunings required. But when he was six, to his parents' enormous pride, he won a competition to appear on a local children's radio show and performed a hit by the Sons of the Pioneers, "Teardrops in My Heart." That same year, on one of the earliest live television shows in San Antonio, he played two steel solos between elders' renditions of "Liebestraum" and "Cincinnati Dancin' Pig." Doug's brother Vic was serious about playing football and drag-racing cars, not music. (He looked, dressed, and combed his hair like James Dean in Rebel without a Cause.) But Doug taught him to play enough rhythm guitar to accompany him so they could perform while passing the hat at weekend dances, and Vic appeared with his little brother on Shreveport's hot barn dance show, Louisiana Hayride. Years later Vic would chuckle about his biggest moment in show business: "This young guy on the show came over to say hello. I wished him luck and all. He told me his name was Faron Young." Doug was featured on Mutual Network broadcasts out of Texas's storied cowboy town, Bandera. He played with Hank Thompson and Webb Pierce. He was invited to join the lineup of the Grand Ole Opry, but his parents didn't want him boarding with strangers in Nashville. They wanted him to finish school and grow up in their home in east San Antonio.
Doug's dad regularly worked evenings part-time at a dance hall called The Barn, helping a brother who was one of the owners. Another owner was a local disk jockey and country music personality known as "Poke Salad" Charlie Walker. Hank Williams would play at The Barn on his swings through Texas. As an adult Doug would reminisce about seeing Hank Williams play gigs when he was a little kid. "He'd be up there, and I'd watch people watch the face of this guy, and I'd just go, look at this, man, they just stand there spellbound. And I'd be spellbound, too, as he was singing 'Lovesick Blues.' . . . He was the biggest thing in the world at that time. And, man, we talked one time when they had this birthday cake for him, and he saw me play and he said, 'Boy, you can really play that steel. Don't ever quit.'"
Doug had just turned eleven when a relative took a snapshot of him wearing a cowboy hat and sitting in the legend's lap at Austin's Skyline Country Club in December 1952. He didn't look comfortable. He said he mostly remembered how skinny and hard the man's leg was. It felt like he was perched on a fence rail. Two weeks later Williams dosed himself with morphine and vitamin B-12 and eased off on his last Cadillac ride.
In 1954 a booking agent named Charlie Fitch launched a remarkable enterprise called the Sarg Record Company. Discharged from the military in San Antonio after the Korean War, Fitch had built a record store and little recording studio in Luling, an oil and farm town in rolling country east of San Antonio. The label is mostly associated with the doo-wop period of postwar music, but one of Fitch's claims to fame was turning down Willie Nelson's earliest known recording, "When I've Sang My Last Hillbilly Song." (Willie had recorded the demo over a used tape of a country station in nearby Pleasanton, where he then worked as a disk jockey. As Willie's career took off, Fitch reconsidered the wisdom of that decision and released it on his label—one could hear background talk of pork bellies and other farm commodities on a morning price report.) In 1955, Fitch failed to sell Doug's first song to the Mercury Record Company, which was then one of the music industry heavyweights, and put out on his Sarg label "A Real American Joe" and "Rollin' Rollin'" by Little Doug & the Bandits. The jacket copy said the junior high student was then four-feet-seven and weighed eighty-one pounds. The publicity photo showed him grinning and holding a fiddle against his ribs, attired in a fringed Roy Rogers-style shirt, western bow tie, and a white cowboy hat pushed back on his head. His voice was the unchanged soprano of a boy. He was just a barefooted lad, he sang, goin' fishin' with his dad—"a real American Joe."
Doug never lost his affection and feel for the country-western tradition he was born to. He once remarked that he made up his mind to spend his life playing music the night he watched Lefty Frizzell punch out a drunk and jeering cowboy and then leap back onstage and resume singing. A friend of Doug throughout his days was J. R. Chatwell, a renowned country fiddler who played with the Czech-German bandleader and singer Adolph Hofner, a man known in the Thirties and Forties as "the Bing Crosby of Texas." Doug not only learned music from his mentor and pal; he got practical instruction on how to live the bohemian life. Doug called him "Chat the Cat." But even as Doug played with the country bands and wore the costume of a drugstore cowboy, he spent many nights holed up in his room with a cheap record player and a neighborhood pal named Homer Callahan who brought over 45 rpms by artists with names like Lonesome Sundown and Howlin' Wolf.
Rhythm and blues and its thrilling offspring rock and roll blared from powerful AM stations flung across the continent from New Orleans to Chicago, from Gallatin, Tennessee, and Ciudad Acuña, Mexico. The same year that Charlie Fitch recorded "A Real American Joe" on the Sarg label, Doug was mesmerized by the music and televised performance antics of Little Richard, and he got to see a live concert by Elvis Presley in San Antonio. Doug's brother Vic gave up his dream of playing college football and joined the marines; when he came back to his hometown he worked for a while in a post office, watching a guy who for decades had been pitching mail in the same bin. Vic enrolled at Trinity, a local college, and studied business, which launched him down a completely different life's path—the brothers seldom saw each other and were not close. Doug's parents were relatively uneducated people who struggled to make a living; they were extremely proud to have a boy in the house who could attract such attention. The reflected limelight added to their sense of worth.
Doug began to sneak out of the house and prowl a few hundred yards to an exotic world inhabited by black people who danced till the sun came up. Across a ploughed field from their home was a dance hall called the Eastwood Country Club. "He took me there once, years later," said his friend Bill Bentley. "The show started at midnight, and the first band break was at four in the morning. What a night." The dancers writhed, whirled, and strutted to the rhythms and tempos of T-Bone Walker, Junior Parker, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Hank Ballard, James Brown. The white kid was so persistent, lurking out in the shadows, listening and trying to peek inside, that the owner, Johnny Phillips, let him come in and have a soda pop sitting off to the side of the stage. Doug's mother couldn't fathom what had gotten into the boy she called Bootie. The pedal steel prodigy who had smelled some of the last whiskey breath of Hank Williams was learning new dimensions of slide guitar from the great Chicago bluesman Elmore James.
As Doug roamed farther about the city and deeper into its night life his parents occasionally threatened to pack him off to military school. He made friends with gifted young Chicano musicians on the city's sprawling West Side, and they introduced him to the traditions and music of the Texas-Mexico borderlands. They included Rocky Morales, who blew his tenor sax like he had the lung capacity of a whale, and Johnny Perez, a drummer and diminutive Golden Gloves fighter who decked troublesome guys on Doug's behalf on more than one occasion. The older "J.P." got, the cooler he got; he began to speak in rhymes. They joked with Doug that he was so Mexican he needed a proper name, and they gave him one, Doug Saldaña. Asked to perform at an assembly at Sam Houston High School in 1956, Doug was first warned by the principal not to do anything ugly. "They had this fear of rock, they didn't want anybody 'Blackboard Jungle-ized,'" Doug later described the gist of the principal's lecture. So of course he launched into a little Elvis routine, which got the curtain dropped right on top of him and all but set off a riot in the auditorium. In his senior class photo for the 1957-58 annual he wore a white sport coat, a dark, loudly striped shirt, a well-oiled pompadour, a grin full of characteristic bravado, and an oversized pair of sunshades. A cool cat and working pro.
One of Doug's high-school rivals became a lifelong friend. A year older than Doug, Augie Meyers was tall and dark-haired, and walked with a built-up shoe and a limp—one leg was shorter than the other. Childhood polio didn't allow him to walk at all until he was ten. Doctors wanted to amputate Augie's crippled leg, but one of his grandfathers had employed folk medicine, packing his limb with poultices made from the nests of mud dauber wasps. He had also been born with a malformed auricle of one of his ears. Music enabled him to overcome his self-conscious shyness.
Augie came from stock of rural Germans and Poles, whose tradition of the polka morphed into a distinctive norteño style of Mexican dance music that for centuries had been evolving in northern Mexico; the cross-fertilization of ethnic cultures stood out in communities of both sides of the Rio Grande, in the brush country called the chaparral, and San Antonio. Augie went to Brackenridge High School but dropped out. He said he realized that school and ordinary jobs were not his calling when he watched some Chicano boys playing rock and roll with the first electric guitars he'd seen. "My daddy spoke great Spanish," Augie said, "and he loved Mexican music. He said, 'Boy, get you an accordion, and play that kind of music, and you'll go somewhere.' I'd say, 'Come on, Daddy. I wanta play like Little Richard or Jimmy Reed!'"
On East Houston Street Augie's mom owned a little store where the youth sacked groceries. One day in 1953 Doug wandered in and they started talking, not about music at first, but baseball. Soon Doug and Augie were breaking packages of bubble gum open to get cards of Doug's favorite major league stars. They talked periodically about getting together in a group, but they had their own things going. Augie eventually did learn to play the accordion, piano, and rhythm guitar very well, but he made his reputation playing the keyboards and singing backup for a popular teen dance band, Danny Ezba and the Goldens. Doug, meanwhile, was a hipster who fronted a succession of local combos called the Knights, the Mar-Kays, the Dell-Kings, the Pharaohs, and the Doug Sahm Big Band. "I came up in the sock-hop days," he reminisced. "Disk jockeys would let you play, and girls would go crazy. When you're fourteen or fifteen it doesn't matter that you're not getting paid." But he kept careful count of his progress. On sheets of notebook paper, he recorded in meticulous pencil each of his eighty-five gigs between October 1959 and May 1960—high school dances, NCO clubs on army posts and air force bases, the Green Hut in Corpus Christi, the Chicken Shack in Del Rio. The column on the right was headed "Bread." The most he got paid for any of those gigs was thirty-five dollars. Once he played two hours and made five bucks.
When he was twenty-two the massive audience swing to British rock and roll gave his vertebrae a profound yank and sent him in a new direction. Doug's breakthrough band was the Sir Douglas Quintet. All the members of the band were youths from San Antonio; Doug played guitar and sang lead and Augie poked the keys of a portable Vox organ. Briefly masquerading as an English group, the San Antonio band cracked the Top 20 of the United States and Britain with three hits between 1965 and 1968—"She's About a Mover," "The Rains Came," and "Mendocino." Those hits, which were recorded when Doug was in his mid-twenties, would be his biggest commercial successes, but his career bridged five decades. Among Texas musicians, only Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Janis Joplin, and Stevie Ray Vaughan rival Doug's importance in the evolution of rock and roll.
Just as he was gaining his initial fame, he ran afoul of the law in Texas and hostility directed at rebellious youths with long hair. On probation for what today would be a minor drug bust, he joined the mass youth exodus to California. "Them days," Doug said, "if you had long hair you could be risking your life. I remember one time we had to be escorted in and out of a town, touring with Little Richard and Jay and the Americans. I was saying, 'Please, sir, just let me go back to San Antonio, and I'll never come to Lynchburg, Virginia, again.'" He lived in California for five years and often claimed he didn't care if he ever set foot in Texas again. In November 1968 Rolling Stone ran an ensemble cover story about the Texas contingent in San Francisco music. The artist chosen for the cover was Doug; it could have been Janis Joplin. For the shoot, Doug wore his cowboy hat, a sport coat, and corduroy pants. Instinctively he grabbed his little boy Shawn, who wore hippie beads and his own cowboy hat, and set him in his lap, reproducing the image of that family snapshot of him perched on the leg of Hank Williams. Readers of the magazine knew nothing of that history, of course. But that was the year of the Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations, the Tet offensive in Vietnam, and American cities aflame in riots—and Richard Nixon had just been elected president. Was this longhair with the boy in his lap mocking people who revered country music and proclaimed themselves the Moral Majority? That's the kind of visual message that occurs to editors who design covers of magazines. But Doug was never much into politics. And he did have an undeniable claim to wearing a cowboy hat.
Staying true to his Texas roots and his early stage regalia, he invented or at least prefigured the fashion of the cosmic cowboys. Austin was still half a decade away from the cowboy hippie fad that blew smoke at the paranoia of the movie Easy Rider and the sneers of Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee," and in the process established the Texas state capital as a major American music town. Playing a blend of country, rock, and blues spiced with the conjunto and norteño music of the Rio Grande borderlands, Doug articulated Texas country-rock, when he was in the mood for it, at a time when most of the hip world was enchanted with flower children, LSD, Haight-Ashbury, and the Summer of Love. And he was in the thick of all that.
When Doug came home to Texas in 1971, he and the mother of his daughter and two sons separated, tried to reconcile, and over several months came to the painful decision of divorce. For that and other reasons he chose Austin as a residence over his birthplace and fertile training ground, San Antonio. Doug's move to Austin set off a tremor that rivaled and coincided with the arrival of that charismatic Texas native son and Nashville dropout, Willie Nelson. Doug and Willie soon found a common groove in their music, their record label, and the weed they famously inhaled. But Willie's home was always his bus, as much as anyplace. Doug was a much more constant figure in Austin. Austin in the Seventies was a place where one could get stoned some afternoon, poke around the streets listening to music, and find inspiration in the form of a downtown junk store called Snooper's Paradise, which is how Doug conceived his song "Groovers Paradise." Doug called his band in those days the Tex-Mex Trip. He was literally all over the map.
Doug was widely loved, but he could also be a pain in the ass. He quivered and jabbered, all but threw sparks. The beatnik and hippie argot came spilling out of him in such a riffing torrent that some people recoiled from him, certain the fuel he ran on was mixed up in a bathtub in some foul-smelling house trailer. One of his Austin homes was in a tattered outlying subdivision notorious for its redneck hippies and speed labs. But he probably would have exploded if he had gone that route. He eagerly partook of the psychedelics he came across, and he sniffed up his share of cocaine when it became popular, but many people who knew him well—and were not always disposed to cast him in the best light—swore that his enthusiasm for those hard drugs rather quickly faded, and that his drug of choice was not amphetamines. Doug was regularly stoned on choice grass morning, noon, and night, but he blew right through the haze, running on heavily sugared coffee and a natural speed of metabolism, curiosity, and rebellion. It never occurred to him to change aspects of his lifestyle, once attained. One time his younger friend Joel Selvin, an author and rock critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, told him that he had gone straight and quit taking drugs. "Wow!" said Doug, utterly dumbfounded. "Why would you want to do something like that?"
For about five years in the 1970s, I chronicled the birth of Austin as a music center that was a junior cousin of Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans. I controversially branded the style of play ascendant in those days "redneck rock," out of no more than a smart-aleck impulse and need of a book title. Doug brushed off a couple of my interview requests, and in Rolling Stone I would first read that he wanted to head up a tour of the cosmic cowboys, then very quickly he announced in the same magazine that people in Texas were tired of this shit and ready to rock and roll. I was one of those who thought he was indeed a speed freak, and how many of those do you really want to add to your conversations? I didn't know quite where he fit in Austin, and in the first edition of my book I didn't make as much of his importance and talent as I would when I had another chance. But I didn't write about any music again for two decades. So I never got to know him well, and I regret it. But my quitting the chase of backstage passes and loopy stoned interviews freed me to become once more a consumer of the wealth of music around me. That was when I gained a real appreciation of Doug Sahm.
Doug never quite got his due. He sold himself hard and was known to exaggerate. Part of him was a virtuoso and another part was a snake-oil salesman. There were times when his stock fell so low that he played in dives for crowds of fifty or sixty people. But he never lost his optimism or belief in his exceptional gifts. Doug played electric lead, electric bass, and triple-neck steel guitars; the fiddle; piano; organ; mandolin; dobro; tenor sax; and the bajo sexto, a Mexicano hybrid of bass and twelve-string guitars. The songs he chose to cover were as impressive as the ones he wrote. He was an ethnographer of old blues moans and country-western tearjerkers, and he was an aficionado of jazz. He had a wonderful sense of humor that always dwelled near the core of his music. Doug managed to construct his entire working life around playing music, and he lived well, enjoyed some wealth. He never had to hold a day job. How many musicians can claim that?
One of his brainstorms later in his career was the Texas Tornados, in which he led his old pal Augie Meyers, the crossover country and soul singer Freddy Fender, and the San Antonio-born accordion wizard Flaco Jimenez in a quartet that Doug pitched as a Tex-Mex reincarnation of the Beatles. The Tornados had a splendid commercial run and won a 1991 Grammy for a conjunto song in Spanish. But as a showman Doug was much closer to the Rolling Stones than the Beatles—a Jagger who could play, a Richards who could sing. Doug was a blur of continuous motion, and in moving so fast through life, in such a public venue, he achieved a measure of privacy. He thrived on being a moving target. This book is not offered as an all-embracing account that leaves no stones about his life unturned. I did not follow him all the places he went, did not track down all the friends he made, and a critique of his total creative output is not a realistic undertaking. Not counting the recordings on small labels that first caught radio listeners' attention in San Antonio, Doug is credited with more than 140 records released in the United States, Europe, and Canada; he played on or his songs were performed on albums by Willie Nelson, the Grateful Dead, Ringo Starr, Rick Danko, Augie Meyers, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Uncle Tupelo, Los Super Seven, and the Gourds, among others, and he contributed to the scores of several movies. My hope is 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 people who got to know him well, or at least chased after him and left the tape recorder rolling, and to demonstrate the sheer knowing of his music.
One afternoon in the late Seventies I watched him play a solo set beside a swimming pool for some friends of mine whose Austin restaurant had run out of luck and money. Without the accompaniment of the terrific bands he always had around him, I heard for the first time how fluent, melodic, and crystal-clear his guitar playing was. As Chuck Berry phrased it in that anthem of my generation, "Johnny B. Goode," he hit those notes and chords like he was ringing a bell. But Doug's musicianship was the lesser part of what moved me that day. He couldn't have gotten paid much for playing that gig. He didn't have to do that. It was an act of generosity and brotherhood, of bringing some happiness to what was otherwise a melancholy occasion. I thought: there's a man with a good heart.
Over the years, Austin changed in ways that annoyed Doug. He was so out of sync with the times in the Nineties that he still put people down by calling them squares. By the time he started obsessing about yuppies, even that expression was passé. For all the degrees from Stanford and M.I.T. and the gated mansions junking up the beauty of Austin's limestone ridges and gleaming lakes, most of those people were, in Doug's opinion, a bunch of high-tech dipshits. He had more in common with the cedar choppers that the developers rousted out of those hills.
Doug was a celebrated technophobe. For the first several years of his residence in Austin, he refused to have a telephone, on the theory that it wasn't good to be too easy to find. He received his calls at a venerable head shop called Oat Willie's, returning the important ones and billing the long distance to patient friends who had the phone line there. Doug paced frenetically when he was on the line. When he consented to have a phone installed in his name, he was always getting a foot or a lamp stand or one of his cats tangled up in his cord as he walked about talking. His children thought a cordless phone was a great invention for him and bought him one as a gift one year. Doug didn't trust it, didn't like it, couldn't figure out how to make it work, and in short order he crammed it back in the box and told them no thanks.
One of Doug's few concessions to changing times and modern technology was an answering machine with a message of famed elusiveness. It was blunt and good-humored but very clear about the things that had the most meaning in his life. The message began with a clearing of his throat, then: "I'm not home right now, I'm out milking the cows—uh, so, uh, [you] might call back if it's, uh, baseball or Guitar Slim or something that's interesting. I'll give you a buzz; have a good day. Adios."
“Doug was like me, maybe the only figure from that period of time that I connected with. His was a big soul. He had a hit record, ‘She’s About a Mover,’ and I had a hit record [‘Like a Rolling Stone’] at the same time. So we became buddies back then, and we played the same kind of music. We never really broke apart. We always hooked up at certain intervals in our lives. . . . I’d never met anyone who’d played on stage with Hank Williams before, let alone someone my own age. Doug had a heavy frequency, and it was in his nerves. . . . I miss Doug. He got caught in the grind. He should still be here.”
“I once made the analogy that Doug was like St. Sebastian—pierced by 1,000 arrows—but instead of blood, talent coming out of every wound. I really regard him as the best musician I ever knew, because of his versatility, and the range of his information and taste.”
Jerry Wexler, Atlantic Records producer