Keep Your Soul: Son Volt Salutes Doug Sahm

Frontman Jay Farrar talks about the band’s tribute to an American legend

Jay Farrar of Son Volt (Image: Facebook)

Tribute albums can be a precarious proposition.

Oftentimes they’re seen as a gratuitous means of gaining acceptance from one’s peers. On the other hand, they can be simply a stopgap effort that buys time between releases, an album that’s not meant to be considered a credible reflection of the band’s real worth ethic. 

Fortunately, Son Volt’s new album, Day of the Doug doesn’t fall into either of those categories. Borne from a personal relationship that began when the band’s erstwhile helmsman, Jay Farrar, had the chance to work with the late Texas legend on Anodyne, the fourth and final album recorded by his earlier outfit, the ground-breaking Americana ensemble Uncle Tupelo. Still Farrar considers Sahm a mentor of sorts and even now has fond memories of the time the two had to  become acquainted.

“It is informed by my own personal perspective,” Farrar notes, speaking on the phone from his home in St. Louis. “Uncle Tupelo was recording at Cedar Creek studios in Austin, and at the time, we were just sort of thinking, well, he lives around here and maybe we could get to him to participate in some of the sessions. He was right at the top of our list. It was a great experience to get to work with Doug. He came in like a whirlwind. He was open and amiable. I was under the impression that it got set up through both management and the record company at the time, because they must have known the right people to get to speak to him. But regardless, certainly, Doug was certainly amenable to it.”

While the songs Sahm’s mostly known for — “She’s About A Mover,” his seminal hit with his ‘60s band The Sir Douglas Quintet, and “Mendocino,” the recording that brought the band an even higher profile — aren’t included on the new album, Farrar said there’s a specific reason for those omissions. 

Son Volt Day of the Doug: The Songs of Doug Sahm, Thirty Tigers 2023

“The Bottle Rockets did a tribute record to Doug a few years back,” Farrar recalled. “They sort of did the first layer of Doug songs, maybe the songs that were a bit more well known. This recording is about peeling back the second layer and getting to the lesser known stuff. And a big part of that was that I had time over the pandemic, when I was not touring, to kind of dig into this and talk with the Texas guys who were in the band and who live in Austin. Doug is just sort of woven into the fabric of Austin, Texas. He’s kind of a folk hero. So the subject would always come back around Doug. I just did some more digging and came across the complete Mercury Masters album, which has almost all of Doug’s recorded output from the 1960s. I just thought that there were some amazing songs on there that need to be heard.

To many people, Doug Sahm is remembered primarily as the man at the helm of the Sir Douglas Quintet, the mid ‘60s band that served as a counterpoint to the so-called “British Invasion.” However, too few people know him for his solo career or even as part of the Texas Tornados, a super group of sorts that included Sahm, Freddy Fender, Flaco Jiménez and Augie Meyers. 

“I hope that this record in some way brings a further level of awareness, to what I would consider his musical genius anyway,” Farrar said. “Just the whole story of Doug is how he was a larger than life character. He was like a steel guitar prodigy, at the age of like 10 or 11. He had a photo op with Hank Williams playing the Louisiana Hayride and stuff like that. And then he reinvented himself when The Beatles came along because you had to kind of ride that wave. So he came up with the name Sir Douglas. Everyone thought they were a British band back then, but then from that point on Doug just sort of did his own thing, which I thought was amazing. He was a musical shapeshifter in a way, just exploring all of his various interests from Tex-Mex to country to blues, and from San Antonio R&B to ‘60s pop and Cajun fiddle music. The list just goes on and on. To me he was kind of an underground icon. At certain times, he had some hit songs, but he always sort of went back underground.”

Even today, Farrar remains in awe. 

“He was hard to categorize,” he marvels. “And at times, it was hard for people to kind of latch on to him. But from my perspective, that’s what made him great.”

In that regard, Day of the Doug focuses on deeper tracks that are less known. At the same time, Son Volt puts their own singular stamp on the music — taking an energetic approach to the infectious rockers “Sometimes You’ve Got To Stop Chasing Rainbows,” “What About Tomorrow” and “Juan Mendoza,”while emphasizing a celebratory stance that embellishes  “Beautiful Texas Sunshine” and the supple sway of “Dynamite Woman.” So, too, the honky-tonk of “”Huggin’ Thin Air” and the twang embedded in “Keep Your Soul” reflect Sahm’s cool country roots.

The connection is further ensured given the fact the album opens and closes with actual soundbites of Sahm’s voice.

Farrar cites one episode in particular that revealed the kind of character Sahm really was. 

“I remember we were at FarmAid in 1996 or 1997,” he muses. “Our crew was setting up our gear early. They turned the corner and there was Doug. He was there with the Texas Tornadoes, and he was kind of holding court. He was talking to Willie Nelson and Neil Young and Bob Dylan. The crux of the story is that Doug had Bob Dylan doubled over with laughter.”

Farrar’s own personal recollection of Sahm was that he was indeed quite a character and a generally amiable individual. “He absolutely was, as long as there was this sort of implicit agreement that he did all the talking,” he laughs. “But as you can hear, in the tone of the phone message, he was completely open. He reminds me a little bit of Guy Clark in that regard, a non nonsensical kind of guy, just straight ahead, and everything like that.”

Son Volt 2023 tour dates (Image: Son Volt)

As far as Son Volt was concerned, Farrar suggested that it was ideal timing as far as doing this particular album was concerned.

“It was the right time to kind of mix things up and try something different,” Farrar explains. Doing a tribute record just seemed like the right thing to do. We had come off a couple of stops and starts post covid, where we sort of canceled some gigs and that’s when we decided to record this over five days in between the tours that did happen. Someone mentioned that this record has kind of an upbeat mood. And yeah, I suppose it does reflect that. Normally, with your own recordings, doing your own songs, there’s a lot of heavy lifting involved from start to finish, but with this, we were kind of following a template and just adding our own elements here and there. So, I think we were just glad to be back out playing music and some of that’s reflected on this recording.”

In that regard, Farrar suggests that there was no real push or pull when it came to finding a balance between the seminal arrangements and the band’s signature style. “We tried to stay true to the originals,” he insists. For the most part, I think adding our elements was more along the lines of perhaps just adding effects on a guitar sound and maybe a few more subtle elements. In a couple of cases, we did do slight rearrangements of the songs, but for the most part, we tried to stay true to the originals.”

They’ve certainly succeeded. With Day of the Doug, Farrar and company have brought renewed recognition to a true musical icon and, in a sense, brought his music forward towards the future.

“I hope that that’s the case,” Farrar says. “For me, it’s mostly just about following inspiration. And Doug was certainly an inspiring guy.”





Lee Zimmerman
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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville, Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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