|Augie Meyers: revisiting his Tex-Mex roots with My Freeholies Ain’t Free Anymore.
On a cold January afternoon, the hulking, pony-tailed, 66-year-old music icon crosses Blanco Road and points to Mazatlan, a Mexican restaurant located next to Casbeers. Meyers recalls that the site used to be a grocery store, and at the age of 17, he worked there after quitting his job at his family’s store, Meyers Red & White, in a snit with his mom.
He remembers being raised by his grandparents in a house near Casbeers, with a wood stove, no electricity, and outdoor plumbing. He talks about playing weekend gigs with his old musical compatriot Doug Sahm at the Blue Note, on the corner of Blanco and Hildebrand, for $10 a night. And he tells of lighting up a joint with Sahm after a Blue Note gig and heading down to a nearby club called The Junction, after a Blue Note patron marveled that The Junction featured an African-American singing country music. That singer turned out to be Charley Pride, several years before he found stardom in Nashville.
Meyers’s speaking voice is virtually identical to his easygoing singing delivery, with a Texas twang reminiscent of Sahm, and a gravelly baritone that suggests a lifetime’s worth of hard-earned wisdom. In conversation, but more so when he’s playing his own quirky brand of conjunto music, Meyers affects an exaggerated gringo drawl, ironically making himself more endearing to Chicanos by mocking his own attempts to speak like a Chicano.
Meyers is unique among musicians with long and impressive résumés, because he neither shies away from talking about his past nor seems addicted to reliving it. He’ll tell you about the glory days of the Sir Douglas Quintet, the most successful rock band ever to hail from San Antonio: hitting the charts in 1965 with the landmark “She’s About a Mover”; appearing in all their Prince Valiant, fake British-Invasion glory on Hullabaloo, NBC’s prime-time pop-music show; and responding to a mid-’60s pot bust in Corpus Christi by heading to free-love San Francisco and re-inventing themselves as a psychedelic soul revue.
But he’s just as eager to discuss his new Tex-Mex album, My Freeholies Ain’t Free Anymore, and the country disc he’s got waiting in the wings. One of the fascinating things about Meyers is that while he contentedly spent most of his career as a sideman, stabbing at his Vox Continental organ in perfect conjunto time while Sahm grabbed the attention, he’s a natural showman and storyteller in his own right. He has a gift for taking mundane slices of daily life and transforming them into catchy, bilingual novelty tunes, a talent that first — and most famously — revealed itself with his 1986 cult hit, “Kep Pa So,” better known by its subsequent Texas Tornados title, “(Hey Baby) Que Paso.”
“I was going with this lady — I won’t mention her name — before I got married,” Meyers says. “She said, ‘Man, why do you play that Mexican music? I don’t like it.’ I said, ‘There’s the door, sweetheart.’ So she left. I didn’t hear from her for a couple of weeks, and I wrote: ‘Hey baby, que paso?/ I thought I was your only vato.’ About six months later, she called me and said all her friends loved that record. She said, ‘I’d sure like to get a copy.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you can buy it at Wal-Mart.’ So she never called me back.”
Meyers revisited the same territory with tracks such as “Guacamole,” “Velma From Selma,” “Una Mas Cerveza,” and the title song of his new album. The album, much like the song itself, was a loose, spontaneous creation that Meyers put together for a few laughs and a chance to hang out with his old buddy Max Baca (a longtime sideman for the Texas Tornados) and Baca’s band, Los Texmaniacs.
“Max has got a little studio in his garage and we were up there jamming one night,” Meyers says. “I went someplace and I wanted to get some bean tacos and the guy there was out of them. So on the way back to Max’s house, I came up with ‘My freeholies ain’t free anymore.’ His band was over there and we jammed and I wrote that song. That night we did five or six songs and the next night we did some covers with some songs I wrote. We said, ‘Hey, it sounds pretty good. Let’s put it out.’”
Meyers famously discovered the piano as a polio-stricken toddler, when his grandparents tied his legs to their piano to keep him from wandering away (“I’ve still got the rope,” he says). The forced proximity stirred a musical interest, which intensified when the patriach of a neighboring African-American family taught him a few chords. “I couldn’t play with my left hand, because of the polio in my left hand and leg,” Meyers says. “But he taught me to play church music, colored church music.”
Meyers says his father worked in the commercial refrigeration business and traveled constantly, while his mother devoted most of her time and energy to running her grocery store. One day, when Meyers was 12, a young Doug Sahm wandered into the store with his parents, and Meyers got a glimpse of his future. By this point, Sahm, an Eastside native, had already established a local reputation as a steel-guitar prodigy, and had performed with Hank Williams only weeks before the country legend’s death.
Meyers’s first impression of Sahm: “He was wild and crazy. He was like a horse running off in seven different directions at the same time. He had all these dreams about things we were gonna do.”
Despite their close friendship, Meyers and Sahm generally pursued separate musical paths until 1964, when both of them played opening sets for a local concert by British pop group the Dave Clark Five. The show was noteworthy for a couple of reasons: the Dave Clark Five borrowed Augie’s Vox Continental organ (a British instrument which he purchased for $290 from Alamo Music in 1962) when their organ broke; and producer Huey Meaux, the “Crazy Cajun” who’d already Svengali-ed South Texas acts such as Freddy Fender and Sunny and the Sunliners, watched the gig and took Meyers and Sahm aside after they’d finished performing.
“He came backstage and told us, ‘You’ve both got long hair. I want you to put a band together,’” Meyers says. Meaux convinced them to jump aboard the Beatles bandwagon by adopting a British-sounding name and look. Meyers says, “We bullshitted our way through interviews,” but adds that they refused to speak in fake British accents.
Meyers says he and Sahm never argued. If Sahm decided he wanted to play jazz for a while, Meyers would wish him well, and they could hook up again in a couple of years when Sahm wanted to reunite the Quintet.
In 1990, Sahm and Meyers teamed with old friends Fender and Flaco Jimenez to form the Texas Tornados, a Tex-Mex answer to the Traveling Wilburys, and the response was instantly rapturous.
“When we won the Grammy `for the Texas Tornados`, Doctor John was in the audience,” Meyers says. “He’s a good friend of ours. He yelled out when we were walking up, ‘They ought to give Augie a Grammy for hanging around Doug so long.’ And everybody cracked up, because they knew that me and Doug were like soul brothers.”
The downside of the acclaim that greeted the Tornados was backbiting from some Chicano artists, who resented the idea of a manufactured supergroup with two Anglos stepping on their turf.
“There was a bunch of groups from this area that came up to us and said, ‘Hey, man, you stole our Grammys,’” he says. It echoed the response Meyers had previously received from conjunto radio, which embraced “Kep Pa So” when it was released, but rejected it after it became a hit. “They started saying, ‘Hey, this guy’s making fun of our music.’ So they quit playing it. It didn’t bother me, ’cause I knew what was going on.”
Meyers recalls that even with the Tornados’ built-in appeal, Warner Bros. executives would say that they didn’t know where to put the band’s records. Though they contained elements of Tejano, country, blues, rock ’n’ roll, and folk, they didn’t fit comfortably into any category.
But if radio hasn’t always appreciated the richness of Meyers’s roots, heavyweights like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits certainly have. Dylan tapped Meyers to play on his acclaimed 1997 “comeback” album, Time Out of Mind, and its follow-up, the equally admired Love & Theft. Dylan also asked Meyers to contribute to his recent Modern Times, but Meyers had to pass because the sessions conflicted with his European tour plans.
Sahm passed away in 1999, and Meyers lives a quiet life in Bulverde, maintaining an active yet casual schedule. He plays when he feels like it, with people he likes, for audiences that appreciate his work. Last year, he spent seven weeks touring Scandinavia with his second wife, Sara, with whom he’s about to celebrate 10 years of
He’s also perfectly content to avoid the record-company system, and points to the fact that his greatest solo success, with his 1986 album My Main Squeeze, was achieved without any industry support, but with considerable help from the barbers of South Texas.
“I sold almost 55,000 on my label,” he says. “I borrowed $5,000 from the bank and used that money for gasoline, hotel, food. I went all over Texas, to mom-and-pop radio stations and small stores in places like Seguin and New Braunfels. I’d ask, ‘Who sells records in this town?’
“In Alice, there was a barbershop, and I said, ‘Hey man, here’s five records on consignment, and this is my address.’ A few days later, they called and said, ‘Hey, I sold them all in one week.’ So I sent them 10 the next time. And that’s how we did it.” l