Great songs are continually rediscovered by new generations of music lovers. For more than four decades, The Doobie Brothers have delivered some of the most timeless songs in America’s musical lexicon. On their new album Southbound, they revive those classic hits with a cadre of enthusiastic Doobie fans who also happen to be some of country music’s biggest stars.
“In music, there are all kinds of artists that make an impact in their genre,” says Blake Shelton. “In country music, we have Hank Williams and George Strait. In pop, there is Michael Jackson and others. Then there are artists that span all genres. That is what The Doobie Brothers are to me.”
Singer-songwriter-guitarist Pat Simmons says, “We have entered a territory that we never imagined for ourselves, as far as being a part of the cultural landscape. It’s kind of odd when you see your songs in television commercials and hear yourself as background music in a commercial business, but it’s cool. I hear B.B. King in the same places. We’re in good company.”
Putting a fresh spin on some of the most-beloved songs in American rock & roll, Southbound is the brainchild of musician/producer David Huff. Far from being a tribute album, Southbound is a collaborative effort that brings together the top names in country music with current band members Tom Johnston, John McFee, and Patrick Simmons, as well as former Doobie Michael McDonald, who returns to the band for this project. “I’m humbled. I had no idea all these people were into the band,” Johnston says. “Everybody was giving equally of themselves to do this, and it was a collaborative effort. I was blown away.”
“It was a lot of fun,” McDonald says, “because it allowed us to get in there with some of the Nashville players and work on the tracks together. I’ve always had great admiration for Nashville’s session players, and I’ve known many of those guys for years. It was just a really fun project all the way around for us.”
Huff says that the session musicians and guest artists approached the project with a definite reverence for the material. Pat Simmons confesses, “I don’t think I was sure of it. I wondered, ‘What would it sound like? How do these songs even translate to country?’ And after we started doing it, I realized, ‘Wow, this really works!’ It’s like they’re almost exactly the same songs, but with the other performers and a little bit different instrumentation on the tracks, it really gave them all the right things to put it in that country bag without sounding corny. It wasn’t such a far leap.”
Southbound was a labor of love and creative joy for those who participated. McDonald thinks that sense of camaraderie and fun will translate to the listener. “Hopefully, it has something that will ignite people’s imagination a little bit – the collaboration between all those different musicians from different backgrounds and the common thread being this music,” he says. “I’ve always felt that when records are a lot of fun to make it translates into something that people feel on the other end. If you’re listening to it, you go, ‘This is fun,’ and it was really fun to do. That’s something that people will hear.”
Inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004, The Doobie Brothers have won four GRAMMY® Awards and sold more than 45 million records worldwide (including three multi-platinum, seven platinum, and 14 gold albums). Their 1976 Best of the Doobies has sold more than 11 million copies, earning rare RIAA Diamond status. Their No. 1 gold-certified singles “Black Water” (1974) and “What a Fool Believes” (1979) lead a catalog of hits that includes “Jesus Is Just All Right,” “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” “Long Train Runnin’,” “China Grove,” “Take Me In Your Arms,” Takin’ It to the Streets,” “Minute by Minute,” “You Belong to Me,” and “The Doctor.” In all, The Doobies have tallied five Top 10 singles and 16 Top 40 hits.
“We’re basically an American band – we cover a lot of areas,” says Johnston. “We cover blues, R&B, country, bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll. It’s based on rhythms, rhythm structures, picking, and harmonies. That’s been the signature of the band.”
He continues, “You take Pat, who comes from a folk/blues background, with a lot of picking and stuff like that; he was a big fan of Rev. Gary Davis and Dave Van Ronk. I come from a blues, soul, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll background. Then you stick John McFee into that mix. John came from a country background when he started out and was in the country band Southern Pacific. And he is a session musician – he’s played with everybody from Steve Miller to Van Morrison to Elvis Costello. If it’s got strings, he can play it.”
Simmons notes, “We didn’t really sit around and think, ‘Oh, we need this element or that element.’ The music has always been an honest representation of whatever we happen to be working on at the time. We had all been playing music for a long time before we put the band together, and our roots influences are what come out. Those influences always overtake whatever conceptual ideas you might have. It’s always been that way with this band — you always return to who you really are.”
Formed in 1969 by Simmons, Johnston, founding drummer John Hartman, and bassist Dave Shogren, The Doobie Brothers made their mark with a run of punchy, melodic hits on Warner Bros. Records. They attained radio ubiquity in the late ‘70s, when the group’s expanded lineup was augmented by Michael McDonald, whose soaring lead vocals pushed the band to new commercial and critical heights. The band took a five year respite before regrouping in 1987 for a series of gigs benefiting veterans’ groups and children’s charities (ultimately raising over $3 million).
Simmons says, “We have a hardcore fan base that has handed our music down through the years to their children and their children’s children. Repeatedly, people go to our concerts and come up to us and say, ‘My dad turned me on to you guys years ago, and I’ve loved you guys all this time, and my kids are listening to you now.’”
“The songs that people all know–be it ‘Listen to the Music’ or ‘Black Water’ or ‘China Grove’–still getting played,” Johnston adds. “Any song that stands the test of time for 40 years or is getting played around the country on a daily basis –to me is a testament to the quality of the tunes, and that they had something to say that resonated with people. I’d like to say this band has been relevant: it’s been relevant musically, it’s been relevant lyrically, and we’ve always put out a high quality of music.”
The co-founders of the Doobie Brothers sometimes struggle to define the characteristics that have led their band to become one of the country’s most enduring musical institutions. The fundamental appeal may be best expressed by Simmons:
“In a certain sense, what this band has always had in common with everyone else is the word ‘hope,’” says Simmons. “We hoped we would make some good music, and we hoped there would be some acceptance, and we hoped that things would get better in the world. In that respect, we’re just the same: we’re still hopeful about the future. In my lifetime, there has always been struggle and challenge and some darkness, but with the sun shining through, and that’s what we all live for. You have to look towards the future and recognize that as long as there are thoughtful, intelligent people on the planet, there’s hope for the rest of us.”