My love affair with Texas roots music began in the Cambridge Public Library. The main branch of the library was located in the open space between the two high schools, Rindge Tech and Cambridge High and Latin, and if you had a note from a teacher saying that you had no classes, you could use it during school hours. I spent some time browsing in the stacks, but mostly took advantage of the fabulous record collection. The music librarian, a tall, quiet jazz enthusiast named Ken Williams (who I recently learned was a pioneering activist against Apartheid), had assembled a relatively small but wonderful assortment of LPs, and there were a couple of turntables where you could listen to them, and I spent hours and days and weeks sitting with a pair of old gray headphones on my ears, getting an education. Among other treasures, that’s where I discovered Guitars of Africa, with Jean-Bosco Mwenda’s “Masanga” (I have an earlier post about studying with him in the Congo), and one of the albums that forever shaped my musical taste, Doug Sahm and Band.
I can’t begin to describe how unlikely and unusual that album was in the mid-1970s. We’ve since had forty years of “roots music” and “Americana,” and all of us are at least glancingly aware of Tex-Mex accordion, and bluegrass, and traditional fiddling, and classic R&B, and blues, and New Orleans music, and roots rock, and have heard bands that attempt various fusions of those styles. But back then no one had ever attempted a fusion even vaguely comparable to Sahm’s, and no one before or since has assembled a comparable band. Jerry Wexler, at the height of his powers at Atlantic Records, had decided Doug was the quintessential American musician, and between them they assembled… well, let’s put it this way: Bob Dylan, then in his hermit period, came out of the shadows to sing harmony, contribute a new song, and play occasional harmonica; Flaco Jimenez was on accordion; Dr. John was on piano; David “Fathead” Newman was there from the Ray Charles band on tenor sax; David Bromberg played dobro; Charlie McCoy played steel; Andy Statman was on mandolin; Kenny Kosek was on fiddle… and of course there was Doug, on fiddle and electric guitar and vocals, and his Texas buddies, Augie Meyers and Jack Barber… there were a few others, but you get the idea.
As for the songs, they ranged from T-Bone Walker to the Delmore Brothers, to… I’m going to stop now, because you should just check it out, though I should mention that Sahm had a couple of good ones on there as well.
I listened to that LP over and over, probably wore out the library’s copy, and then, because the American record-buying public inexplicably failed to share my tastes, I found a copy in a cut-out bin and wore that out as well. But, oddly enough, I only learned one song off it, Doug’s version of this Charley Pride hit about his home town — which he leads off on twin fiddles with Kosek, after shouting, “This is a song about my home town!”
I still have that intro etched in my brain, along with the horn chart from “Dealer’s Blues,” and have made some attempt to capture it on guitar.