The Groover Is Gone

When they buried Doug Sahm, they buried Texas music

SAN ANTONIO -- The crowd was so large that about one-third of the estimated 1,000 mourners had to huddle around an underequipped Peavy speaker outside. But even more impressive than the large turnout at the November 23 funeral of Doug Sahm, who succumbed to heart disease five days earlier while visiting Taos, New Mexico, was the way those in attendance cut across all lines of age, race and social standing. Then, that's what you would expect for a musician who could flip styles, from conjunto to blues to country to rock, and play them with as much credibility as the masters of each genre.

"We never had a set list," said son Shawn Sahm, who played guitar in the '80s and '90s incarnations of the Sir Douglas Quintet. "Dad would just say, 'Gimme some titles.'" Like a pitcher waving off a catcher's signals, Doug would finally nod on one, and the band would kick right into it. That he was a musician's musician was apparent by all the Austin and San Antonio club veterans who came to say goodbye.

But also coming to pay their respects were bikers, field workers in their best jeans, club owners, music executives, and fans from as far away as Holland and Canada. They wore black cowboy hats and Chicago Cubs caps in homage to the cosmic cowboy whose passion for life was infectious. And when they approached the open coffin, after waits as long as an hour and a half, they touched the trademark hat Sahm still wore and slipped in little gifts -- guitar picks, joints, poems -- to be buried with the Texas music legend.

"The Last of the Great Hippies": Doug Sahm, 1941-1999.
John Halpern
"The Last of the Great Hippies": Doug Sahm, 1941-1999.
Wallflowers, wallflowers: Bob Dylan and Sahm during the latter's early '70s Atlantic Records sessions.
David Gahr
Wallflowers, wallflowers: Bob Dylan and Sahm during the latter's early '70s Atlantic Records sessions.

A notable no-show was Freddy Fender, the former Texas Tornados bandmate whom Sahm single-handedly rescued from mid-'70s obscurity by covering Fender's "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" and getting him gigs in front of roots-crazed gringos. At the post-funeral jam held at a San Antonio brewery the night of the funeral, several people were grumbling about Fender's snub. Sahm was by all accounts a motormouth, and anyone who witnessed Fender glaring at a rambling Sahm during a Texas Tornados show could feel the tension between the two. Fender usually traveled on tour with the equipment truck so he wouldn't have to hear Sahm go on about baseball, herbs, pro wrestling, Amsterdam, or any number of other subjects he was an expert on. After a friendship that went back 30 years, you'd think Fender could show up at the funeral. Instead, he chose to remember his compadre in numerous interviews after Sahm's death.

"Doug would've loved this." That's what folks at the funeral kept saying when they saw the line wrapped around San Antonio's Sunset Funeral Home. He wouldn't have liked the way his final capacity show began, however, with the funeral director's cell phone going off in mid-announcement, and then a cheesy oldies radio station being piped in.

The station had planned to make a special on-air announcement at 3:45 p.m. But since the viewing took so long, the timing was off: A weather report, followed by a hit ("Hey! Baby") by another artist, came out over the public address system instead. Country singer Lee Roy Parnell, speaking for numerous grumblers, angrily confronted the funeral director, who wisely canned the inappropriate radio tie-in. After all, with the exception of "She's About a Mover," "The Rains Came" and "Mendocino" in the 1960s with the Sir Douglas Quintet and "(Hey Baby) Que Paso," the '90s regional smash for the Texas Tornados, Sahm's gritty vocals were rarely heard on the airwaves.

"You just can't live in Texas if you don't have a lot of soul," Doug sang in one of his signature tunes, "At the Crossroads." Although that line has been disproved by the likes of Ty Herndon and Edie Brickell, it was Sir Doug's motto until the end.

"He loved to be called a hippie," Fender said in one interview given after Sahm's death. "The Last of the Great Hippies" is what Fender suggested Sahm's tombstone read. The word "hippie" today conjures an image of a stoned burnout who talks like a surfer, but Sahm embodied the higher ideals of the counterculture. He was a true hipster -- hence the cowboy garb in tie-dyed '60s San Francisco -- who created music that made people dance. He'd take natural beauty over social conventions every day of the week.

"Dad could never understand why everyone didn't live like him," his son Shawn said at the services. "You know, it would be too hot in Texas, so he'd get in his Cadillac and drive to Vancouver and just hang out for a couple months." The younger Sahm recalled going to a Metallica concert with his dad, who was being courted by Metallica's manager Cliff Burnstein. "I'm the oldest one here," Doug said, to which Shawn answered, "Yeah, but you're also the hippest."

After the services let out and Doug Sahm was moved to be buried next to his father and mother at a family-only gathering, many of those on hand milled in the parking lot and told their own Sahm stories.

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