A passion project pays tribute to one of the great Texas songwriters

Son Volt brings the songs of the late Doug Sahm to Variety Playhouse on July 12.
Son Volt will play Variety Playhouse on July 12. The band's latest album is a tribute to the legendary Texas songwriter Doug Sahm.

Credit: Auset Sarno

Credit: Auset Sarno

Son Volt will play Variety Playhouse on July 12. The band's latest album is a tribute to the legendary Texas songwriter Doug Sahm.

Son Volt’s new album, “Day of the Doug,” which they’ll heavily feature in concerts this year, is completely centered on the songs of the late Doug Sahm. It’s a passion project that Son Volt founder Jay Farrar latched onto early in the pandemic.

But the seeds of the project go back considerably further than that.

In the early 1990s, Farrar’s band Uncle Tupelo frequently played at a tiny, underground St. Louis live music dive called Cicero’s Basement Bar. There, the group would also often come together to perform sold-out shows as a country cover band known as Coffee Creek, adding multi-instrumentalist Brian Henneman to the original UT lineup of Farrar, drummer Mike Heidorn (also later of Son Volt) and bassist Jeff Tweedy (who’d go on to found Wilco). Eventually, Sahm would even appear on Uncle Tupelo’s 1993 swan song, “Anodyne,” singing and playing guitar on his own cut, “Give Back the Key to My Heart.”

Son Volt's latest album pays tribute to Doug Sahm called "Day of the Doug."

Credit: Courtesy of All Eyes Media

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Credit: Courtesy of All Eyes Media

It was Henneman who’d originally brought the songs of the Texas songwriter to Coffee Creek’s attention. He and his then-band the Bottle Rockets eventually did a full album of his work, “Songs of Sahm.” To Farrar, Henneman and company’s 2002 effort provides a neat complement to the work that Son Volt’s now offering up a couple of decades later.

“The concept of doing the tribute record was born out of informal talks over the course of the pandemic,” Farrar said in a late-June phone interview. “I had time to dig deep on his songs and found ‘The Complete Mercury Masters.’ A ton of these songs are ones that I hadn’t heard before and I thought that they needed to be heard. Speaking of the Bottle Rockets, they did their tribute to Doug and that was the first round. This one’s about peeling back a second layer of his songs.”

Some of the tracks were ones that singer/guitarist Farrar and his group – Andrew Duplantis (bass and backing vocals), Mark Patterson (drums), John Horton (guitar) and Mark Spencer (keys, guitar and backing vocals) – were toying around with during idle moments on tour. In total, 12 songs are featured on “Day of the Doug, along with an intro and outro spoken by Sahm, who died in 1999.

With their session booked for just under a week in April 2022, Farrar joined his band at Jacob Detering’s Red Pill Studio in his hometown of St. Louis, where Son Volt focused on creating as “live” a sound as possible.

“What you hear on this record came during a time when we were touring and there’s an energy associated with that touring,” Farrar said. “That live chemistry just sort of happens and we captured it here.”

Released earlier in June, Son Volt offered up a batch of Sahm songs based in what Son Volt’s press suggests is an amalgam of “country, Tex-Mex, rock, rhythm and blues, folk, and psychedelia.” The talents of Farrar’s current group allowed for a really neat ability to color atop the template that Sahm’s songs provided.

“I think we’d dug into a few of them before going into the studio,” Farrar said. “Some we’d been messing around with, but it was definitely a crash course, or a boot camp, to get them all done in five days.”

In early 2022, Son Volt had lost some touring due to an outbreak of COVID-19 within the band’s ranks. By the time that group reconvened to work on the Sahm sessions, more touring was on the way and the sort of spiritual vibe of that moment that emerged as the world was reopening to touring, Farrar said, may have added some spark to the recordings. Fans are suggesting “Day of the Doug” is an “upbeat” record, a notion Farrar seconds, thinking the vibe of going back on the road came through in the songs.

Those songs will feature heavily in Son Volt’s 2023 shows. Farrar said the set list for the summer and fall came together “pretty easily, really. We’ll probably wind up doing about eight Doug Sahm songs, mixed in with the full record of ‘Trace’ (Son Volt’s 1995 debut album) and other songs that’ll represent the different time periods of Son Volt, the whole 28 years. It’s a dual personality tour, doing some songs that’re high energy from the new record. Then there are the songs of ‘Trace,’ some of which we’ve been doing over the years and then the others that we’re picking and choosing from. That’s the plan.”

Farrar has some new songs, or at least sketches of them, coming together via home demos, but there’s not necessarily a long-term plan for those, at least not yet; no release date for new material is set and live dates aren’t penned in beyond this calendar year.

After this run of dates is completed, Farrar’s open to the idea of recording an EP, noting that many musicians are moving toward shorter works, releasing them more often.

“I always have some things cooking,” the songwriter said. “And we’re somewhat winding down. I don’t know how much touring we’ll plan beyond these dates, so we’ll see where things go.”


Son Volt with Peter Bruntnell

8 p.m. July 12. $27-$199. Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave NE, Atlanta. variety-playhouse.com.