Critics are quick to credit alt-country icon Gram Parsons as the visionary who first imagined a blend of disparate genres into a single sonic stew he dubbed "cosmic American music." For Parsons, it meant creating a style where self-described "longhairs" could perform everything from gospel to psychedelia under the same wide-ranging banner. And while Doug Sahm might not have articulated that particular concept as eloquently as Parsons, he labored a lifetime creating sounds that defied genres and conventions in just such a way.
The late Sahm spent the better part of five decades making music that mixed rock, country, blues, Tex-Mex and Western swing -- joyously distilling the essence of each with a casual ease that belied his intense dedication to such adventurous alchemy.
Released almost three years after his untimely death at age 58, Bloodshot Records' new tribute disc, Songs of Sahm, pairs the Texas tunesmith's catalogue with Festus, Missouri's favorite sons, the Bottle Rockets. If the combination seems less than perfect on paper -- the BoRox's often grim blue-collar narratives somewhat removed from Sahm's good-timey vibe -- the record ultimately succeeds because of the band's intuitive understanding of the roughhewn roots aesthetic that the Lone Star legend favored.
For a man eulogized as the "last of the great hippies," it's appropriate, then, that the BoRox draw most of the inspiration and tunes for Songs of Sahm from the singer's late '60s/early '70s heyday with the Sir Douglas Quintet -- a period that found the San Antonio native living and working in the flower power mecca of San Francisco.
Five of the 13 cuts here originally appeared on the SDQ's 1969 album Mendocino, while the balance of the tracks are culled from various Sahm singles, LPs and greatest hits collections from the era (the album's artwork is also a loving, lysergic nod to the bright colors and broad strokes of the rock illustrators of the day).
Things open with a churning gut-bucket take on "Floatway," with BoRox singer Brian Henneman's charred pipes and broad country phrasing a virtual double for Sahm's own beautifully bruised twang. Predictably, Sahm classics like the organ-fueled "Mendocino" and garage nugget "She's About a Mover" are given readings here. However, the majority of the cuts on Songs of Sahm traipse far less familiar territory: the sawdust floor shuffle of "Be Real"; an aching, angular stab at "Song of Everything"; the swirling Wurlitzer waltz of "At the Crossroads."
One gripe with the song list, however, is the absence of "Texas Me." A Lone Star-boy-lost-in-the-Haight-Ashbury anthem, this bittersweet fiddle dirge is one of Sahm's most affecting numbers -- and one that Henneman covered memorably as a member of Coffee Creek, an early '90s St. Louis supergroup featuring the guitarist and members of Uncle Tupelo. Fortunately, the similarly themed "Lawd, I'm Just a Country Boy in This Great Big Freaky City" -- featuring lead vocals by bassist Robert Kearns -- fills the gap, effectively capturing Sahm's redneck melancholia.
Kearns proves himself a capable vocalist on a trio of other numbers, bathing the songs with a stoned sincerity that tugs at the emotions -- much as Sahm's homesick longing for the pool halls and Pearl Beer of his beloved San Antone did.
While album producer Lou Whitney isn't able to muster the same amount of muscle from the BoRox as longtime studio foil Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, he does establish a loose and lean atmosphere that allows the group to get appropriately groovy on cuts like the norteño workout "Nitty Gritty" and the slash-and-burn blues of "I'm Not That Kat Anymore."
Overall, Songs of Sahm is a wonderfully rendered affair, carried forth with a brand of humor and exuberance that's too often absent from other overly somber "tribute" records. To listen to the band cruising through the bubbly coda of "I Don't Want to Go Home" or hearing an overjoyed Henneman chuckle his way through the chorus of the cheeky "Stoned Faces Don't Lie" is to hear Sahm's spirit captured in a way that he surely would have appreciated. A fitting memorial indeed.
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