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Son Volt Gets Some Doug Sahm

On ‘Day of the Doug,’ alt-country legend Jay Farrar pays mellow tribute to the Texas hippie idol

David Meir Grossman
June 23, 2023

If you’re not a Texas music aficionado, you might be forgiven for being unfamiliar with the music of Doug Sahm. Sahm, who was born in 1941 and died of heart attack in 1999, was a musical chameleon. First came the British Invasion, where he took on the name Sir Douglas and put out his biggest hit, “She’s About a Mover.” Then came decades of honky-tonk blues and Mexican norteño, during which he became a beloved local figure in what Texas Monthly called the “carefree hippie mecca” of the ’70s, Austin.

Bigger musicians came out of Austin’s hippie-country scene, like Willie Nelson, but Sahm became the lifer who stayed local. That dedication is part of what made him a cult figure, resulting in Son Volt’s latest album, a collection of covers called Day of the Doug. Cult figures themselves, Son Volt have used Sahm’s music to make one of their strongest albums in years.

Son Volt’s main figure is Jay Farrar, who will be forever tied to a previous band of his, Uncle Tupelo, which he formed with Jeff Tweedy, now of Wilco. That band helped define “alt-country” in the ’80s and ’90s—a Nirvana to the Nashville mega-acts of the time. When Uncle Tupelo broke up acrimoniously, Tweedy became a genre-shifting wizard, bestselling author, and NPR guest. Jay Farrar founded Son Volt and continued more or less down the same path he’d started on.

Not that this is a bad thing, necessarily: Son Volt has consistently delivered deeply felt, sometimes very wordy, alt-folk music over the years. But listening to Day of the Doug, it’s clear that an album of covers, especially of songs so personal to Farrar, was just the thing he needed to break out of old patterns.

Farrar’s personal connection to Sahm is cemented on the album’s intro and outro, which feature voice messages that Sahm left for Farrar decades ago. After the intro, the album jumps into Sahm’s bitter paean to his  time in the music business, “Sometimes You’ve Got to Stop Chasing Rainbows.”

”I tried so hard in the record business / I give it all I got when I sing my songs,” Fararr sings with the deep conviction of an artist who has been touring for decades. “Sometimes you’ve got to stop chasing rainbows / Or tailing Halley’s Comet across the sky / Sometimes you’ve got to stop chasing rainbows / And get it together before you cry,” goes the chorus. Anyone who has dedicated some part of their life to creative work can surely relate.

“To me, he’s like a larger-than-life character out of a Jack Kerouac novel,” Farrar told Paste in a recent interview. Making sure to avoid Sahm’s biggest hits, like “She’s About a Mover,” Farrar pictured the album as “peeling back the second layer” of Sahm’s music, gravitating toward lesser-known work.

Of course, if you’re unfamiliar with Sahm’s work at all, one layer will sound as new as another. “Juan Mendoza,” about trying to be a regular guy in a world that’s going crazy—“Watergate is in the news, the richer live, got the blues, who cares?”—homes in on a chorus that repeats “A world is a world is a world is a world” over and over again. It’s a fun singalong, which is not the type of thing for which Son Volt is known.

Another highlight on the album, which began as a COVID side project, is “Seguin.” Singing about a small town south of San Antonio, the song’s chorus gets to the core of Sahm: “In Seguin, in Seguin / Where things they are so mellow.”

A rich keyboard and strumming guitar takes over, and you can’t help but relax—which is not something one typically says about a Son Volt song. It’s still alt-country, but here Farrar is wearing  another man’s boots, and they seem to fit. Day of the Doug reintroduces not just one great artist, but two.

David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.