Chances are, if you listened to rock radio in the 1970’s or listen to any classic rock music station today, not a day will go by without you being able to hear the music of the Doobie Brothers. With a song catalog that includes, “Listen to the Music,” “Jesus is Just Alright,” “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” “China Grove,” “Long Train Runnin,’” “Black Water,” and “Another Park, Another Sunday,” the Doobie Brothers have made an everlasting mark on American rock music.
As good as the Doobie Brothers were on their studio recordings, they were even better live. Fans of the band will get a chance to see the Doobie Brothers live on Saturday April 5, 2014 at the Good Life Festival at the Encanterra Country Club in San Tan Valley, Arizona.
Just before the band’s upcoming trip to Arizona, The Doobie Brothers’ co-founder, Tom Johnston, writer of numerous Doobie Brothers’ hit songs such as “Listen to the Music,” and “China Grove,” was kind enough to chat with me about the past, present and future of the Doobie Brothers.
Q: I was looking at your upcoming tour schedule and you just never stop do you?
Tom Johnston: It’s quite busy right now. We’re still playing a heck of a lot, not over 200 plus shows a year like we used to, but we’re doing about 90 shows a year. We just finished doing, well it’s not completely finished, but we’ve finished the hard part of the album anyway, an album with a bunch of country acts. It’s really been a gas.
Q: Tell me about this new album. How did it come about?
TJ: Gary Overton, who is the CEO of Sony Nashville, wanted us to do this. He asked us if we’d be interested in doing a collaborative album with a bunch of the top country folks. And I said, sure why not? He said you know you’ve got a huge following back here, which we didn’t know. It’s been really interesting. Everyone has just been a gas to work with, really great people.
Q: The album is comprised of old Doobie Brothers’ songs. Did you redo the songs or do the songs sound like the versions that were originally recorded?
TJ: We tried to redo them. I almost wish we would have redone them even more on a couple of songs. The idea was that you want to have something different. You don’t just want to sound like a retread of something you’ve already done. There are a couple of songs that are real departures from what they sounded like. I love it. It’s very cool. Everyone we’ve worked with (artists such as Brad Paisley, Zac Brown, Toby Keith, Sara Evans and more) has been very down-home, very laid back, easy to work with. Good people.
Q: What was the recording process?
TJ: Whoever wrote a certain song was playing on the track with all the guys that were in the studio. If it was Mike’s (Michael McDonald) song, he was only doing his music. If it was my song, I was doing the playing on it. If it was Pat’s (Patrick Simmons) song, he was doing the playing on it. But that’s it. We used as much of the people out of the country realm as possible. That was the whole general idea, to give it a different flavor. It wasn’t like we were cutting an album with brand new songs that nobody heard before. But when you hear these guys singing on it and you hear pedal steel in spots and you hear someone’s incredible acoustic picking, or a mandolin or a dobro, it’s just amazing. It takes the song in a totally different direction and it’s very cool.
Q: Did you ever foresee your music having such a long term effect on people?
TJ: No. It’s impossible to tell. If you’re writing a song, you’re thinking about it right now, you’re not thinking about how it’s going to affect people. The only song that I ever wrote that I could even semi-think in that direction was “Listen to the Music“ and it was a real utopian way to think. My idea behind that song was that if the world leaders used music to communicate rather than talking and getting off on their ridiculous political agendas and power trips, they would be a hell of lot better off and so would everybody else. Needless to say, it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. But it was a great idea.
Q: It’s admirable that artists like you are not content just to say, “hey we did a bunch of great stuff in the 70’s, I don’t need to do any more.” Your last album, 2010’s, “World Gone Crazy,” was a great album.
TJ: We had a ball doing that album. We had a lot of different stuff on it. For me as a writer, I got to do stuff I had never done before. We weren’t trying to rubber stamp anything we’d done in the past. It was a great album and it was a shame it didn’t get more attention than it got. But the critics loved it, they really thought it was a great album. And the people that have heard it really loved it.
Q: Is it frustrating that there really is no outlet for new music by classic rock artists?
TJ: It’s really hard to do now. The whole music industry has definitely changed. If you’ve already had success at some point and you’re trying to get back in, the chances of you having success with a new album are not real good, even if the album is incredible. There are a lot of people who are now discovering a band like us through streaming because streaming will team you up with other songs from people that you didn’t know about. A lot of kids have come up and said “hey, I didn’t know about you guys, I love your music” and they didn’t know a thing about it, they didn’t hear about it from mom and dad or whatever. Streaming is a plus. Now if they can figure out how to pay the songwriters, we’ll have it made.
Q:. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 40 years since the release of albums like “The Captain and Me,” and “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits.” One of the popular things to do these days is to play an album from start to finish in concert. Have you guys ever entertained that idea?
TJ: We haven’t done it so far. We haven’t sat down and said, well let’s do “The Captain and Me,” front to back or let’s do “Toulouse Street,” front to back or let’s do “Stampede” front to back. What we do is we take songs from all those years and run them through our set, including “Takin’ It to the Streets” and “A World Gone Crazy.” And the crowd really loves it. To me, that’s the most important thing. If you’re making the people in front of you happy, then you’re doing it right.
Q: And you’re still writing?
TJ: Yeah, I’m always up for creating new music. It keeps the batteries charged. I like doing new stuff. I don’t like just sitting on your laurels and whatever happened way back when. You have to play some of the old songs live because the crowds really want to hear it and they’re always grateful when you do and it makes for a better concert for the person listening. But it’s also fun for the band and the audience to take old songs, dress them up, change them around a little bit and put them in the set. It keeps it fresh for the band and it keeps it fresh for the audience so you don’t hear the same thing every time we come through town. To me, that’s important.
Q: Other than the country artists who will be covering your work on the new album, has anybody else come up and said “you guys really influenced me?
TJ: I have heard that from tons of people over the years. It’s usually in the rock vein. I’ve never had someone come up from a symphony orchestra and say “God, you are such an influence.” Never happens.
Q: No first chair violinist?
TJ: It never happens.