A Conversation With Jay Farrar (Son Volt)

As tribute albums go, Son Volt’s Day Of The Doug (Thirty Tigers/Transmit Sound) is about as close to a labor of love as it gets. An outsized legend in his home state of Texas, Doug Sahm could use a little more posthumous love elsewhere. Gone 24 years now, he’s best known for a few late-’60s hits with the Sir Douglas Quintet and his Grammy-winning early-’90s work with Freddy Fender, Augie Meyers and Flaco Jimenez in Tex-Mex supergroup the Texas Tornadoes. He was also a child prodigy on steel guitar, performing with the likes of Hank Williams and Faron Young before he’d reached his teens.

Sahm had already been through the music-industry ringer by the time he met up with Uncle Tupelo in Austin, Texas, in the spring of 1993 to trade lead vocals with Jay Farrar on his own “Give Back The Key To My Heart.” Sahm became somewhat of a mentor to Farrar, who’s now returning the favor with Day Of The Doug. We checked in with Farrar to get more details on Son Volt’s heartfelt celebration of a wildly versatile 50-year career.

When it comes to Texas music, you could argue that all roads lead to Doug Sahm.
He’s woven into the fabric of Austin, Texas, for sure. He jumped around from Tex-Mex to country to blues to R&B to ’60s pop to Cajun fiddle music. We got the idea for this project through informal conversations with the guys in the band. It’s just something we talk about: Doug’s old records. I came across this collection of Doug’s stuff called The Complete Mercury Masters. The quality of the songs on there—some of which I’d never heard before—blew me away. We just felt like this was the right time to do this project.

Was your first introduction to Sahm at the Anodyne sessions at Cedar Creek Studio in Austin?
Yeah. Our manager reached out to hometown heroes of sorts—Doug being one of them, Joe Ely the other. We did that song with Doug, and it definitely left a lifelong impression. “Give Back The Key To My Heart” resonated with me. It had those great lyrics about “a friend named cocaine” that “has drained life from your face.” Doug didn’t mince words, and I felt like it fit with what we were doing at the time.

What do you remember about that day?
He was there probably two hours, tops. He just blew in there, took most of the air out and left when the oxygen was gone. He definitely brought a lot of enthusiasm to the session. There was a point when he was treating it almost like a live performance. He really started getting into it, and he bumped into the mic. I remember it being the headstock of the guitar; someone else said it was his cowboy hat. Nobody could really see how he did it, but the engineers were pulling their hair out.

How did you go about selecting the tracks for Day Of The Doug?
The stuff I was focusing on the most was the ’60s pop stuff—that pop sensibility he had. I’m a sucker for that. He definitely understood what it took to write a great song.

What was your approach to recording these songs?
We did it on the fly. It was just five days tacked onto the beginning of a tour. It’s probably a bad analogy, but one I’ll throw out there anyway: A normal Son Volt recording is like carrying your skis up a mountain and skiing down. It’s both exhausting and exhilarating. When you’re doing a tribute record, you get to take the ski lift and then ski down—so it’s all just exhilarating. These songs were like a template, and we were just adding different colors and textures. 

Did Sahm ever feel like he got his just due?
He did get to go through that whole Texas Tornadoes period. He was on cloud nine for that. I just remember him being really enthusiastic and excited about those gigs. 

Tell us about the spoken segments that bookend the album.
Doug would often show up at Son Volt gigs, and we’d do “Give Back The Key To My Heart.” We’d run into each other around the country from time to time—and that’s basically the foundation of what you hear on that phone message. Luckily, I had a cassette player that worked, and I dug it out. Now it has a home.

—Hobart Rowland