The Doobie Brothers
Great songs never fade away. They 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 Southbound, they revive those classic hits with a cadre of enthusiastic Doobie fans who happen to be some of country music’s biggest stars.
Far from being a tribute album, Southbound is a collaborative effort that brings together the top names in the country format 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,” says Johnston. “Everybody was giving equally of themselves to do this, and it was a collaborative effort. I was blown away.”
The album opens with Zac Brown Band joining the Doobies on “Black Water,” before Blake Shelton – with Hunter Hayes on guitar – delivers his take on “Listen to the Music,” the 1972 hit that became the band’s breakout single. “In music, there are all kinds of artists that make an impact in their genre,” says 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. They have had an impact in a lot of different ways on so much of music.”
Shelton is just one of many artists who viewed the project as a labor of love. “I have always been a fan of The Doobie Brothers and love ‘Long Train Runnin’,’” Toby Keith says of his track, which includes Huey Lewis on harmonica. “It was a natural choice for me to pick that song to sing on this record.”
Sara Evans trades vocals with Michael McDonald on “What a Fool Believes,” and she says, “My family and I grew up listening to The Doobie Brothers. I’ve been a huge fan of their music my entire life. I’ve covered several of their songs in my live show throughout the years, but singing with Michael was an extreme honor. I picked this song because I love the lyric. It is challenging. The chorus and the verses are in different keys, so it pushed me as a vocalist, but there is nothing like trying to match vocals with Michael to motivate you.”
Putting a fresh spin on some of the most-beloved songs in American rock & roll, Southbound is the brainchild of musician/producer David Huff, who got the idea for the project when he attended a Lady Antebellum show. “They did a mash-up of ‘American Honey’ with ‘Black Water,’ and I saw these twenty-something people singing ‘Black Water’ as much as they were singing ‘American Honey,’” he recalls.
Huff and The Doobie Brothers’ manager Bruce Cohn took the idea to Sony Music Nashville Chairman & CEO Gary Overton, who immediately embraced the concept. “The first concert I ever attended was The Doobie Brothers in Phoenix in 1972, and I’ve been an avid fan ever since,” he says. “There were so many people who wanted to be on this album. What a lot of the artists were very excited about is that these guys were going to be on the tracks, too.”
Inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004, The Doobie Brothers have won four GRAMMYs® 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 diamond record status. They continue to tour extensively and are staples on classic rock radio.
Indeed, the iconic vocals and stellar musicianship that have made The Doobie Brothers one of the most successful bands in history are readily evident on Southbound. Huff says, “Tom’s got that signature rhythm electric guitar part which he always does. McFee was the coolest utility person. He’s one of the best players in the world, and he was so cool about how he approached it. It was a true collaboration from playing, singing, and their background vocals.”
“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 real 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. “They each added their flavor, which makes this album unique,” he says. “We didn’t go to make a karaoke record. I wanted the personalities on this project, and we got that.”
The album remains true enough to the original songs to earn the respect of longtime Doobie Brothers fans, yet offers a fresh take that is sure to earn the veteran band new admirers. “I don’t think I was sure of it,” Simmons says, confessing he was initially a bit skeptical. “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.”
Huff enlisted Nashville’s top session players including drummer Chris McHugh; bassist Jimmie Lee Sloas; steel guitarist Dan Dugmore; fiddler Aubrey Haynie; and guitarists Jerry McPherson, J.T. Corenflos, and Tom Bukovac, among others. And the Doobies are singing and playing throughout, including McFee’s guitar solo on “Takin’ It to the Streets” and his amazing steel solo on “South City Midnight Lady,” featuring vocals by Jerrod Niemann.
“David Huff did a great job in bringing in people,” says McFee, who in addition to his work with the Doobies, has history in the country format as a member of the band Southern Pacific, and has played on albums by Emmylou Harris, John Michael Montgomery, and Ricky Skaggs. “The players were so good. Dan Dugmore did some steel work, and he’s one of my favorites. It was neat to get to work with him, and it’s nice to hear some really good players. And it was so great to hear a totally different approach, to hear people bring some new and fresh things.”
Johnston agrees. “The biggest light bulb for me was seeing how other people perceive our music because you don’t think about how other people perceive your music,” he says. “We love what we do, but after a while, you play these songs for years, and you don’t think about it anymore. You just do it. So to have people come in that you don’t know and have them say, ‘I love you guys’ music,’ that is really wow! Really? I had no idea these guys even knew about this music.”
Among country’s young guns joining the Doobies is Charlie Worsham, who tackles Johnston’s “Nobody” – a track from the band’s 1971 debut – while Tyler Farr kicks up their ’75 smash, the Holland/Dozier/Holland-penned “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me).”
“The best part is that this is NOT a tribute, that we are getting to sing it together with them,” Love and Theft’s Stephen Barker Liles says of recording “Takin’ It to the Streets.” It is so much more than a tribute. We get to trade off on vocals with legends!”
Chris Young, who sings on “China Grove,” offers, “The Doobie Brothers are one of those legendary bands that no matter your generation, you know their music and can’t help but sing and groove along to every song,” he says. “Getting to record with them was an amazing career milestone.”
Johnston is equally complimentary of his new country pals. “I met Chris in the studio when he came in to do his vocal,” says Johnston. “He’s a great guy. I had a good time chatting with him and getting to know him.”
Industry insiders got a first taste of the project when Overton announced it at Sony’s annual boat show during the 2014 Country Radio Seminar. Evans, Young, and Brad Paisley took the stage with the Doobies for a four-song set that featured “Long Train Runnin’,” “China Grove,” “Black Water,” and “Listen to the Music.” That’s the night that Paisley got on board to do the project. “We played on the boat and had a great time,” he says. “They’re nice guys. They said, ‘Do you want to do “Rockin’ Down the Highway”?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ It was simple as that. I took it in the studio, played some solos and sang it, and it couldn’t have been more effortless. I had a great time.”
Like the other participants, Casey James grew up listening to The Doobie Brothers. “It is not every day you get to do something with a legendary band,” says James, who joins the Doobies on “Jesus Is Just Alright.” “For me, this was really big because they were such a part of my life. To me, The Doobie Brothers are just funky. It’s rock & roll, but it has so much soul. I was six or seven when I first heard the Doobies, and I have listened to their music my whole life.”
The Doobie Brothers also hold a special place in Niemann’s heart, and he was thrilled to perform on “South City Midnight Lady.” “I have a really unique reason why I just had to be part of this project,” he shares. “I grew up in a really small town. My parents decided to buy a roller rink. The Doobie Brothers’ hits, one after another, were always playing. It is like the soundtrack of my life! The Doobie Brothers were my parents’ favorite band, so this is a really big deal. They would never admit it, but now they think I’m cooler.”
“I love Jerrod Niemann on the song,” Simmons says. “I just thought that it was kind of a country song in a way even back in the old days, but now it’s for real. And I love what Toby Keith did with ‘Long Train Runnin’.’ I thought the country blues edge he brought to the song was just really cool. And I was in the studio when Chris did ‘China Grove.’ It was so amazing because it’s pretty much a rock & roll song, and all of a sudden with his voice, it became this other kind of a song, and I love that. I love that it didn’t change the song at all, but because he was singing it, it took it from pop/rock to country. It’s amazing how much a personality and a voice can change a song.”
McDonald is also a big fan of the vocalists on the record. “Sara did a great job on ‘What a Fool Believes,’” he says of working with Evans. “I didn’t have any doubt she would knock it out of the park. Most of my favorite country singers can sing pop music along with the best of them. It’s not any real hurdle for them.”
McDonald also enjoyed working with Amanda Sudano Ramirez, daughter of the late Donna Summer. “It was such a treat because the last time I met her she was a little girl. That’s when Donna was living out in L.A., and I was living out there,” McDonald says. “Amanda and her husband have a duo called Johnnyswim. The two of them remind me of Richie Havens, that strange, beautiful area between folk and R&B. They do that really well. And Amanda just killed it on ‘You Belong to Me.’ She had such a natural affinity for the song, and Vince Gill plays guitar on it and does a fantastic job!”
On Southbound, Huff brought together one of rock’s most legendary bands and the cream of today’s country crop to create a record that is teeming with nostalgia, yet offers a contemporary take on songs that have captivated music lovers for generations. “It is really cool to see that these people love music so much,” Love and Theft’s Eric Gunderson says of the Doobies. “That they all got back together to do this is a gift to music. Country has so many different sides. If The Doobie Brothers came out right now, I bet they would be released into country. They fit perfectly, and I just know country fans will embrace them. There are already many country fans that love The Doobie Brothers.”
Bruce Cohn feels the project will also introduce the Doobies’ legendary repertoire to a new legion of fans. “I truly hope lots of people hear and enjoy this as much as we all did in putting it together,” Cohn says. “I believe it will appeal not only to The Doobie Brothers’ audience but also I’m hoping there will be a bunch of new listeners. I’ve heard these songs more than most folks, except the band themselves, and I play this CD and can’t help but think of how much enjoyment this new release will offer those who hear it.”
The project was a labor of love and creative joy for those who participated. And 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, that translates into something that people will feel on the other end. If you’re sitting there listening to it, you go, ‘This is fun,’ and it was really fun to do. That’s something that people will hear.”