Not everyone is old enough to remember this, but before The Doobie Brothers sold 40 million records and developed a stranglehold on classic-rock radio, the band earned a following among gnarly bikers in California in the early 1970s. Back then, the Doobies donned leather jackets and cultivated a badass image with hard and heavy riffs to back it up. You can hear their gnarly, rough-and-ready origins in the muscular power chords of hits like “Long Train Runnin’” and “China Grove.”
But it was when the band brought in layers of acoustic guitars and added a dash of country-rock to their sonic recipe that the pot boiled over with chart-toppers. Thus, it was hardly unexpected when, in 2014, the Doobies teamed up with some of the brightest stars in contemporary country to re-record the band’s best-known material for an album called Southbound. Doobie founder, frontman and principal songwriter Tom Johnston was humbled and flattered by how many serious fans his band has in country music’s top tier: Blake Shelton, Toby Keith, Sara Evans.
“That, and surprised,” he said during a recent phone chat with Vegas Seven. “Our jaws were on the floor when we saw how well these artists played our songs. Every track was done in two or three takes, with pedal steel, dobro—the complete package. We’d be tracking a song as the next one was being recorded.”
Speaking of the studio, the Doobies are recording new material with an eye toward releasing an album, their first since 2010’s World Gone Crazy. That record’s title track was a good song, but it’s actually a better song in 2018. The sentiment certainly suits our political moment, while also serving as a real and heartfelt tribute to the American working man, who has been largely forgotten today.
“I wished that album had had a chance to enter the mainstream,” Johnston says. “We made that record to support our tour. It used to be the other way around! But that song states my views about honoring people who work with their hands.”
Johnston, 69, has never been afraid to offer social commentary. “People Gotta Love Again,” from 2000’s Sibling Rivalry album, for example, makes his views clear on the need for Muslims and Christians to get along. However, a few of Johnston’s musical brothers have passed away in the last decade. Fortunately, he has the music to help him deal with the loss of Doobies-in-arms—namely bassist Dave Shogren, drummers Keith Knudsen and Mike Hossack and saxophonist/keyboardist Cornelius Bumpus.
“When I think about our younger years and how much fun we had compared to how it is today, the idea of people passing is a drag,” he admits. “I don’t dwell on it, because it’s pointless. I am often surprised by how it happens, because you are never prepared for loss.”
The one thing that keeps the Doobies running is the fact that their musical mission is bigger than the egos of their members. These dudes have always bonded over music; the music always comes first. Johnston himself is mellow and humble about his role in the band, even when I ask him about songs made famous during his decadelong exit from the band, when Michael McDonald came on as lead singer for hits such as “Takin’ It to the Streets.” Johnston doesn’t bristle in the slightest, saying he’d love to have McDonald join him on stage in Las Vegas.
“Music is the only reason you should be doing this,” he says. “If you’re not, why are you in this business? Especially if you’re a writer. I don’t know what it’s like to have someone else write your songs for you. And even if you’ve written the song and are singing it, a good song requires everyone bringing something to the table. It’s what this band has always been about. We came up with this style together, and we still want to pay our rent. We still have fun adding fingerpicked blues to rock, throwing those together with the [vocal] harmonies. It doesn’t get any better.”
At the risk of overstatement, the Doobie Brothers do the Lord’s work, creating positive energy in a largely negative world. They’ve been the musical oxygen that several generations have survived in over the years. We all have memories of hearing the band’s music (“Jesus Is Just Alright,” “Listen to the Music,” “Black Water”) at the skating rink, shopping mall, tailgate party, campus bar—and on and on. For Johnston, it has to feel like a dream sometimes, right? Or is it just hard work?
“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” he says. “Less a dream and more a blur, I guess. We’ve been doing this a long time, but it doesn’t feel like so much time has gone by. When we’re on stage it feels the same, but when we interact with fans in the moment, time fades away and there’s only the music.”
The Doobie Brothers play The Chelsea in The Cosmopolitan on April 7.