Interview: The Doobie Brothers Go Country on ‘Southbound’

By Brian Ives 

Few bands have the stylistic range that the Doobie Brothers have: from the country rock of “Black Water” to the smooth R&B of “You Belong To Me” to the chunky rock of “China Grove,” you’d be forgiven for not realizing all of those songs came from one band, albeit one band with several talented singer/songwriters.

Songwriting is something that Nashville knows something about; the town’s economy is practically built upon the constant flow of catchy, hit songs coming through the publishing companies. So it’s no surprise that today’s country stars all have a great appreciation for the Doobies.

David Huff, brother of famed country producer Dan Huff (the two used to play in a Christian rock band, White Heart, together, and later on co-founded hard rock band Giant), helmed a country music tribute to the Doobies that would include current members Tom Johnston (guitar, vocals), Patrick Simmons (guitar, vocals) and John McFee (guitar, violin, vocals) and Doobie alumni Michael McDonald (keyboards, vocals) playing along with the genre’s biggest stars and Nashville’s hottest session musicians.

Southbound, due out November 4, sees the Doobies revisiting some of their biggest hits with some of today’s biggest country hitmakers: the tracklist includes “Listen to the Music” with Blake Shelton and Hunter Hayes, “Rockin’ Down the Highway” with Brad Paisley and “Black Water” with the Zac Brown Band.

Radio.com sat down with Johnston, Simmons, McFee and McDonald to talk about the album, country music in general, and how the music industry has changed since they dominated the FM radio dial.

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Were you guys surprised when you found out that all of these artists were interested in paying tribute to you? 

Johnston: I think we all were taken aback by the interest of the artists as well as the studio musicians. I was blown away. I had no idea.

McFee: It was great… when we found out that all these artists wanted to be a part of this, I think we all felt great that they  liked our music.

McDonald: For us, it sounded like a fun thing to do.

Did this album give you a chance to “fix” things, or re-do parts on your  on your old songs?

Johnston: We weren’t asked to change anything. Basically, each of use would write and play on the songs that we originally wrote. Pat was on his songs, Michael was on his songs, I played on my songs and John played on a lot of the songs as well. [note: John McFee joined the band in 1979; none of the songs that he wrote were used on Southbound]. The rest of the band was made up of studio musicians. They would do the tracks really rapidly. [snaps] Two takes, and it’s done! It’s kind of humbling, actually [laughs].

McFee: It was neat for me, because these guys [Johnston, McDonald and Simmons] played on the original versions. I didn’t, because I’m still the new guy, 35 years later! But some of the songs I’ve been playing [live] for that many years, so it was cool for me. But it was cool to hear what the session players came up with.

Did you guys listen to country music growing up?

McFee: That’s what I grew up playing, and I snuck into rock and roll. But country music was my background.

Was there much rock and country crossover in the ’70s?

Simmons: You mean like the Eagles and Poco?

Right. But was the Eagles accepted in the Nashville scene back then?

Simmons: I think they were accepted in the Nashville community, but they chose to be a bit more pop. If you talk to people in Nashville, they are familiar with all of that music, and more.

McFee: But country music was resistant to playing that music for whatever reason, it was different back then.

Simmons: But Buffalo Springfield had a huge fanbase in country music. I think it’s a bit of an illusion as to who likes what kind of music. Just cause you’re a country artist doesn’t mean you don’t like rock and roll, and just because you’re playing rock and roll doesn’t mean you don’t like country. But that cross-pollination of music is more evident now than it ever was.

Country seems a bit less conservative now; a few years ago, the CMT Awards closed with Rascal Flatts and Journey singing “Don’t Stop Believin’.”  That would not have happened in the ’70s. 

McDonald: A lot of the bands like Poco weren’t any less country than anyone from Nashville. The only thing that probably separated those guys was their lifestyle: the guys in California were all “hippied out,” and the guys in Nashville were a bit more conservative and church going.

Johnston: You mean like George Jones?

McDonald: For me, my first introduction to country music was Ray Charles‘ Modern Sounds in Country and Western. Some of those songs, I’d never heard before.

McFee: The Beatles covered Buck Owens, “Act Naturally.” It’s like Pat was saying, for musicians it wasn’t as separate as it may seem to the public.

Simmons: Today, country music is more like classic rock, with a country spin. It’s an interesting deal. That made it easier for us to go in and do the album.

Do you think that country is the new rock radio?

Johnston: It kinda seems like it.

McFee: There’s a greater tendency in country music for people to actually be playing instruments.

Simmons: But when you’re listening to the radio, and you’re in our age group, and you dial past the heavy metal, and you dial past rap, and all of the sudden you hear a song come on, and someone’s singing it, and there’s great instrumentation and it’s melodic, it’s country. Sometimes I don’t know what artist I’m listening to, but I always know that I’m listening to some cool country music. For people who like hearing a song that tells a story, sung by someone who can really sing, that’s where you’ll end up.

 

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