Doobie Brothers Founder Tom Johnston Talks New Country Collaborations Album + CMA Awards
Legendary rockers the Doobie Brothers appeared at the 2014 CMA Awards, giving one of the standout performances of the night.
They were on hand to celebrate the release of 'Southbound,' an album that features the band members re-recording selections from their past catalog with some of the biggest stars in contemporary country music, including Blake Shelton, Zac Brown Band and Brad Paisley. The album features new countrified versions of hits including 'Black Water,' 'Listen to the Music,' 'Takin' It to the Streets' and more.
Taste of Country caught up with Doobies singer-guitarist and founding member Tom Johnston after the broadcast to talk about the album, the group's legacy, the challenges of performing on live TV and more in the following exclusive interview.
How did this project come about?
Initially we were on the road, and our manager, Bruce Cohen, set up a meeting at a hotel. It might have been Las Vegas -- I forget which town it was. David Huff was there and Fred Kershaw was there, and it's my understanding that Fred Kershaw had suggested this to David because we had a lot of tunes that he thought could cross over to country.
In fact, we had some songs that are pretty much already there in a sense, like 'Black Water' and things like that. Not full-out country, but it's not a stretch of the imagination to get them there. And older songs that weren't hits, like 'Texas Lullaby' or 'Rainy Day Crossroads Blues,' or any number of picking things that Pat Simmons has written over the years, finger-picking things that would probably fall more in the niche of Americana, roots, whatever they call it now.
They thought it was a good idea, it would work really well, and would we be interested? And basically the question we asked was, 'Do you have people that are interested already?' And they said yes, and also Sony ended up backing this whole thing, and I believe Gary Overton was interested in being involved in a project like this. So we said yeah, sure, because why not? It would be a fun thing to do. We heard some of the names of the some of the people they had in mind to ask, and they already had a couple of people that were interested, so I guess David had already done some of the homework. He produced the album, and was instrumental in getting us hooked up with a lot of these people.
Then there were other people, once they found out, that wanted to be on it, and it ended up being one of the most fun things I've done in years.
We had some songs that are pretty much already there in a sense, like 'Black Water' and things like that. Not full-out country, but it's not a stretch of the imagination to get them there.
Is this something you would have ever conceptualized for yourselves, or did it take somebody saying, 'Hey, how about country?' Could you have ever envisioned this?
I'll be honest with you; no, I wouldn't have envisioned it. Not because of it being country so much as, basically what we do is we go on the road and tour and then we come home, and then go out on the road and tour and come home. [Laughs.] We've been talking about maybe doing a new album with new songs, but we've just been talking about that lightly. It's not super serious. We would like to do that at some point in the near future.
I think it took somebody coming in and bringing this to our attention, because number one, we had no idea -- and I think I speak for the band, I know myself for sure, I had no idea that anyone was a fan of the band from the country genre. I mean, we had no way to know, because we weren't interacting with them at that point. They'd be playing their shows, and we'd be off playing in a totally different musical situation.
The when we got involved with them, we found out that a lot of these people were big fans of the band. We had no idea. So that really helped make everything go faster, and made it more fun, and they were all easy to get along with, great attitudes. Everyone I worked with was fun to hang around with, from the studio guys to the artists.
Were you familiar enough with contemporary country music to know who most of the artists were?
I knew who some of them were. I've got to the point now where I don't listen to radio for just about any kind of music [Laughs]. That's terrible, but that's the way it's gotten to be. I listen to music when I'm in my car, and I have it tuned to jazz and listen to that, just because it's great to drive to. But I don't listen to radio a lot, so I don't keep track of who's doing what, other than what I see on a regular basis on TV or some of the trade mags, or online. My daughter's also a singer, and she keeps me informed on what's going on in various sectors of the music world.
We were of course familiar with Luke Bryan, because we did a show with him on 'Crossroads,' and that was a heck of a lot of fun. I started getting an idea of who was doing what in country music then, just sort of a glancing look. But I've learned a lot more now, and it's been in interesting education for me all the way around.
I've got an unbelievably huge appreciation for the musicians in Nashville. Blew me away.
It's just about the highest quality recording environment that exists in the world.
I believe you. I was completely floored, man. I mean, I've known a lot of great musicians in my life. It's not that. It's just that these guys as a unit would come in with the working man's attitude of, two takes and the song was done, and it sounded great. And the tracks were really full when you cut them, it's not like you'd have to do a lot of overdubbing.
How did the tracking process work?
When we started doing this, the three of us were in the studio for about a week, roughly, for the first sessions, and all of the session guys. Whoever wrote the song would be in there playing with that set of musicians. So if it was 'China Grove,' then I'm in there playing guitar. If it was 'Black Water,' Pat was in there playing guitar. If it was 'Takin' It to the Streets,' Mike was in there playing piano.
Those sessions weren't done in that first batch. Mike's sessions were done for the most part in Blackbird, and when we first started we were over at Starstruck. We did a lot of stuff at Starstruck, and a lot of the overdubbing at Blackbird. Both studios were phenomenal, really nice studios.
I was completely floored ... these guys as a unit would come in with the working man's attitude of, two takes and the song was done, and it sounded great.
Were you around for the vocal sessions when the individual artists came in?
First of all, we laid down some background vocal parts and whoever sang the song originally would sing the song all the way through, and then the artists would come in and they would sing it all the way through, and Dave would do the mix however he thought it would work best, as far as who was singing what verse and all that kind of stuff. He would just pull from the vocal of each person and put them in where he wanted them, and he did a killer job.
We didn't actually -- because of time considerations, and the fact that none of us live in Nashville except for some of the side guys -- we weren't always there when the artists came in to do their performances. But the first day we were putting down tracks, one of the first tracks we did was 'China Grove,' and Chris [Young] came in and did a rough vocal, and we looked at each other and went, 'Wow, this is gonna be cool.' [Laughs.]
Which artists most surprised you with their take on the songs?
One of them was the last vocal done, and that would be Tyler Farr. I don't think this is the kind of stuff he normally does. I think Tyler kinda surprised himself. He did a really, really killer, job on this song, 'Take Me in Your Arms.'
He's a great singer.
He is! And I had listened to his stuff previous to doing it, and this was not exactly in his wheelhouse as far as the style of the track and where the vocal went, and he nailed it. That was awesome, and I hope he got a kick out of it the way I did. I thought he did a really good job.
You were on the CMA Awards, which is a huge, huge piece of exposure. How did that come about?
I'd like to tell you, but I'm not sure! [Laughs.] I'm not fibbing, that's the literal truth. It was being bandied about while we were doing press. I know we wanted to do it, and Gary thought it would be a great idea as a driver for the album, plus a fun experience to get up in front of the crowd and play some stuff that was on the album -- even though we didn't utilize the people that were on the album when we got up and played. We used other people . . . Jennifer Nettles, Hillary Scott and Hunter Hayes. Hunter Hayes was on the album, but the two gals were not.
Initially for 'Listen to the Music' we had Blake Shelton singing on it, which was a session I got to watch, because we were out in L.A. I really got a kick out of that session. It was great. He's a great guy, easy to get along with, and when he goes into the studio and the recording light's on, he's all business. He says, 'I'm gonna do this until you're happy with it, and get it right.' And he did.
He's another absolutely great singer.
Yeah, I didn't run into anybody that didn't really, really impress me. Another one that I should bring up, because I'm the one that brought him into this, is Charlie Worsham. I thought he just nailed 'Nobody.' He also played banjo and mandolin on it, but I thought his vocals were phenomenal. He did a really great job.
I stuck my neck out after discovering him through some guys at another label. They played me some stuff they were getting ready to release, and his album was in there, and I was just, 'Who was that?' They told me it was Charlie, and I took it to Dave, and I said, 'This is the guy that ought to sing 'Nobody.' So we ended up doing it, and it came out really, really cool.
What was your rehearsal process like for the CMAs? Did you bring those folks in for an afternoon run-through?
Yeah, we had one run-through I think it was on the 3rd. We probably ran it three or four times on 'Listen,' and a couple of times on 'Takin' It to the Streets,' and that was it until the afternoon of the CMAs, and then we went and did a one-pass run-through on each song. That was it, then we got up and played it.
I did, yeah.
He was talking about how difficult it is to perform well on TV. What's your take on that?
I understand what he's talking about. We didn't have a guru. [Laughs.] I thought that was funny.
The pitch thing ... as long as you can hear an instrument that takes you where you're supposed to be pitch-wise, I'm okay with it. Keyboards are the best as far as I'm concerned, but a guitar is fine as well. And as long as you can hear the drums -- we had a click track, and that's pretty much it. It's not like we haven't played these songs before. It was a little different arrangement, but other than that, it's just a matter of being in the moment, because running through it to an empty Bridgestone is very different than running through it when the place is packed. That's something you always have to take into account. Everything changes when you've got a huge crowd in front of you.
The first day we were putting down tracks, one of the first tracks we did was 'China Grove,' and Chris [Young] came in and did a rough vocal, and we looked at each other and went, 'Wow, this is gonna be cool.'[/pullquotes]
Why do you think the songs of the Doobie Brothers have held up for so long when so many other bands fade away?
In order to answer that correctly, I would say it's not just us -- it's anybody who's had a song that's lasted a long time. I think it's -- I don't want to say it's a complete formula, but basically you need a hook, like you do with any other song, a hook that you can sing along with. Second, the song has to have a feel to it -- you don't know this when you're writing it, but it's what you aspire to as much as possible, a song that's going to resonate with people just from a chordal structure. What you're saying, the melody and the verse, and of course the chorus has to be something everybody can sing along with, and not be too wordy or difficult.
So you never think about that when you're writing it, but looking back at it, you take those items that I just mentioned, and you take airplay. Airplay is huge; if it gets played on radio when it comes out, and then as the years go by, keeps getting played on classic rock radio, and gets used in movies and any other number of things that bring it to people's minds, then that's what, to me, makes it.
The other thing is you getting out and playing live. Touring is another thing that helps all of that. But all those things really help a song last for years and years, and you can apply that to any number of songs that we've put out, and anybody else. We've been very fortunate to have had the radio play. I'm extremely grateful for it. And touring, of course, we're still doing.
Plus we're lucky! [Laughs.] How's that? That's a part of it, too. I really believe in that. There were other songs that I thought would be candidates for that hanging in process, and sometimes they don't.
What's next for the Doobie Brothers? You mentioned a possible album of original songs.
Yeah, and I couldn't give you a due date on that if I had to. We have to write them first. I've got a lot of songs written, but as to which ones would work ... I don't know what Pat has written, so I'm not really sure when we'll get around to that. But it is something that I'd like to do.
The other thing is hopefully we'll get to do some shows with people that were on the album. I think that would be a gas. It would not only be a smart thing to do, it would also be a fun thing to do. We're not going to end up touring with these people. That's not gonna happen, because everybody has their touring schedules, and 99.9 percent of the time they conflict. But we sat in with Zac Brown, for instance, in Boston. He invited us on for 'Black Water,' so we sat in for one song at Fenway with him, and that was really a fun thing to do. But then he did his whole set before and after that. So I know things like that are in the works. I don't know what artists they're talking to. In fact, I just saw something last night from our booking agent about that sort of thing. I think that would be a phenomenal thing.
Any chance you might have a one-night-only gig with these artists and film it for a DVD?
Boy howdy -- that would require some real logistical planning. [Laughs.] It'd be a great thing to do. I'd love to do it. It's just, that would really be a lot of work.
They've already talked about doing something like that. Without giving anything away and using any names right now, a fellow that was involved in the process when we were recording, and videoed the artists doing comments about the song they were singing for what they call a sizzle reel, they're talking about putting something like that together, and the logistics of it are huge. They've got their touring schedules, and their own albums, and a lot of these people had albums dropping while we were doing this, or close to it, and that of course is going to take the first priority in what they're gonna do with their time and where they're gonna be.
Is there anything else you want to say about the project or anything else you've got going on?
Mostly that we really had a ball doing it, we really enjoyed it. Everybody enjoyed everyone that we worked with. It was just a lot of fun. I hope that it is successful, just because of that, just to have that marriage of the two worlds.
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