An Interview with The Doobie Brothers: A Country Rock Invasion

Immortality clearly exists—just take a look at the ever-lasting, four-time Grammy winners, the Doobie Brothers. From their self-titled first album released in ‘71, these indestructible, mustachioed musicians have continued to pour their hearts and souls into their music, unleashing a hearty 14 studio albums—not to mention their live albums and several compilations made throughout the ages. Along the decades, these guys have gathered quite the following. Yet, it continues to grow steadily through younger generations. Of course, you wouldn’t expect anything less from these super heroes of songs. Who wouldn’t be rescued from a day of stress and tension by their melodic harmonies and utopian lyrics?

Founded in 1969 by Patrick Simmons and Tom Johnston, the group continues to grow and produce with vim and vigor. Their most recent album, Southbound, brings their audiences new material with a twist—rather than sticking to their usual rock and R&B sound, these guys have taken to the country rock groove. Tom Johnston explained why when we spoke about the Doobie Brothers, their success, and current tour.

How’s the tour been going so far?

            This has been an extremely busy year. We’ve been out basically since the beginning of March, so we’ve been through a lot of gigs.

You added a ton more venues from the initial list—why did you add so many shows?

            That was something that was done through booking and management. It wasn’t really a conscious effort made by the band. Generally, we don’t get out and get involved in the booking process. We make requests for certain places we’d like to play, but the booking process runs through management.

How do you feel about all of those new additions? Excited?

            Yeah! A lot of them have really been great. We’ve played a lot of fun shows this year, I’ve gotta say. And the rest of them are very much like the ones we play every year.

Oh! So what’s the most exciting show you’ve performed so far?

            I would say probably the International Summer Festival up in Quebec. That was the best. It was incredible—I don’t know the exact count, I don’t know if anybody does, but it was a six-day event with hundreds of people playing and I know the Stones played it, Foo Fighters played it. I kinda forget who was on before us… Anyway the crowd was somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 people, take your pick. I don’t know exactly, but it was huge. And they were really a great crowd.

The 2015 tour ranges from basically the middle of March to the middle of November. How do you guys handle all of those performances?

            The same! I mean, no matter where you’re playing, it’s a matter of going out and doing your show, and of course what varies is the venue, but it’s up to us to go on and put on the best show we can no matter where we’re at. It doesn’t vary much from that.

How do you prep for the shows?

            There is no exact prep, I mean we’ve been doing this stuff for quite some time and the set we’re playing now, we’ve got a couple of additions to very recently by sticking a couple of acoustic songs that we’ve never played before, but a lot of it, we’ve been playing for quite some time and we know it very well.

            And we’ve done a few alterations on how the song might be played as far as small amounts of jamming, if you will, and that type of thing. But other than that, it gets set in place and you keep it that way. You don’t want to vary it every night. You want it to be something that you’re used to and you don’t have to think about it a great deal, you just go out there and concentrate on doing the best show you possibly can.

I’ve seen some reviews about the first bit of your tour—for example, how, even after all of these years of playing and performing, you guys still come on stage and give your audience a fresh and exciting show each time, and manage to continue to improve. How do you manage to keep each show so interesting after having played so many over the decades?

            That’s more of an individual thing. It’s really the guys in the band—each of us— to try to keep up by practicing your instrument and your vocals. It’s not really about the specific songs in the set, but just keeping it all in tune. I know I always practice when I’m at home, and I’m pretty sure the other guys do as well. We didn’t really do that in the ‘70s, we just went out and played. It really does make a difference. A huge difference.

Practice makes perfect, right?

            Yeah! And it gives you a comfort zone and that’s really imperative to putting on a better show. I think that’s why we’ve been getting such positive press for quite some time now. And the harmonies, the vocals, whoever is singing lead, the soloing, the overall performance of the band…

            Parts of various songs, we have some really great guys playing in the band. It’s just a damn good show—and I’m not saying that from an egotistical point, it’s just the observation that I get given to me on a regular basis. Every night, no matter where we go.

Right, and you’ve been performing for so many years now, you must be used to putting on a good show and working the crowds.

            Oh yeah. That’s one of my favorite things to do—go out there and get the crowd involved in the show.

But you guys aren’t touring alone, either. I saw you’re touring with Gregg Allman for several shows.

            Yeah. I’m very much looking forward to that. Gregg is a wonderful talent. He’s a good guy, puts on a great show, big fan of his music and the Allman Brothers—he’s just a class guy all the way around and it’s just gonna be fun to get back with him and do some shows. We’re all looking forward to that. It’s a really good match-up and I think it’s gonna be a really fun show for the crowd.

Not only are you touring with Gregg Allman, but your daughter, Lara Johnston, is also touring with you for a few shows. What’s it like to tour and work with her?

            She’s already done most of the shows. She gets the crowd going. It’s amazing. I’m always super pleased to see how well the crowd responds to her. She’s got an incredible voice, extremely talented, and she’s learning how to work the crowd. It’s just all going in a very positive direction. And she’s got an ungodly killer voice. Which you’d expect a dad to say of a daughter, but I would say that about anybody who could sing like that, whether I knew them or not. And, so I’m extremely proud of her; she’s doing really well.

That’s so sweet—and you must be proud, especially since she’s got a debut album coming out. She’s been performing her original songs from it?

            Yeah, she’s been doing songs from that and pretty much even stuff that’s brand new and not even on the album. Recently written, too. The crowd is diggin’ it, too. I wanna get her out in front of a more age… I don’t wanna say “appropriate,” but I’m amazed at our crowds, especially at outdoor venues, you’ll see people in their teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and so on.

            And an indoor venue, you don’t expect to see a younger crowd, but outdoors, or a theatre or at something in like a college town, you’ll see younger crowds. If you’re playing something like the festival I mentioned up in Quebec, we get a great response. And because we just finished doing an album with somebody in Nashville, we collaborated with a lot of country bands and that probably helped us become better known through those fans and the younger generation probably hears about us through parents, or streaming.

            But they really responded well [to her]. I really want to get her in front of younger crowds. But she gets the privilege after she plays to go sit at the merch booth and sign autographs and she’s been selling 30-40 CDs at each show she’s played.

That’s good to hear! She’s getting her music out there. And you, too, have a new album out with the Doobie Brothers, Southbound. I know some of your hits are on there—have you been playing the updated tracks, or the originals?

            Well, essentially, here’s how that worked. What we did, and this is gearing over to basically was the driving point, was we wanted to do a collaborative effort with people from Sony, but we have artists from all labels. For instance, we have Zac Brown, and Sarah Evans, I believe she is on Sony. Toby Keith who’s on another label, but it’s with a lot of different people.

            And when that came out, it familiarized, or re-familiarized the country crowd which has been growing by leaps and bounds. A lot of people who are into classic rock, or rock ‘n’ roll period have moved over to country music these days. And it is currently the largest platform for selling music. So that was a big boost and we also played at the CMAs which was another boost.

So, why do you think country rock is the largest platform these days?

            One of the reasons is they have the largest amount of radio stations. They have, and I don’t mean this in any negative way, it’s just a fact of life. I think they have something like 2,000 stations across the country. It’s pretty much a U.S.-based audience; I don’t think it crosses over to Europe or things like that.

            But as far as the U.S. goes, I think there are like, 800 stations that play pop/hip-hop/R&B that type of thing. So if you match that up, if you have 800 pop stations and have 2,000 country stations… You’re gonna get a lot more attention from people if you’re country. Also, modern country is rock ‘n’ roll, basically.

I can get that—I can hear it in some country songs. But back to Southbound, it not only propelled you guys to the forefront of the music world, but it also reunited the Doobie Brothers with Michael McDonald. What was it like to play with him again?

            Well, we see Michael [keyboards, synthesizer] on a regular basis, so it was nice. We do a couple of shows with him a year, and we all like him. He’s a good guy. And he’s easy to work with, fun to be around, extremely talented and, so it was great to see Mike again.

Taking a look back at the first decade of the Doobie Brothers, the band released 10 albums in 12 years. Who did all of that writing?

            The main writers were myself, Pat [Simmons; singer-songwriter, guitars], and Mike. Once in a while, we would do a cover, but not often. So, that’s basically the people who did most of the songs.

About how long does it take you to write a song?

            That varied all over the place. It really depends on the tune. Some come really fast, they just seem to write themselves, like you’re channeling somebody else or something. Others take a little longer—for me, the lyrics take longer than the chord structure. I can’t speak for Pat or Mike because I would never be around when it was going on.

            But for whatever reason, there just was never a lot of co-writing. We’ve always written our own songs, brought them in, and everybody filled in their own parts in the studio and then the song comes out. Put in those parts together and you’ve got the final product.

Why were lyrics more difficult to come up with than the music?

            Well each person does it differently. It really depends on the song, like some tunes, like “Listen To The Music,” that wrote itself. The lyrics and everything were there. So that came really fast. I’m trying to think of some songs that were more difficult to write lyrically… Right off hand, I don’t remember any that were extremely difficult that are on a record. Some that were really difficult usually don’t get recorded!

            I’m trying to think of tunes on the last album, the one just before Southbound, World Gone Crazy… I can’t think of any that were too difficult. I was happy with those tunes. I liked that album, it was a good album. We had lost a drummer, who was a very good friend of ours and if you’re close to somebody, any number of things can just turn that key, but, oddly enough, as sad as that was, it unlocked these ideas.

            And you never know what’s gonna be the precedent for these tunes, or what you’re gonna end up writing. In that case, it was one of those things for me. Most of the songs on that album, not everything but a lot of them, were written in a sense, a tip of the hat to having all of those years working with Keith [Knudson; drums, percussion, backing vocals].

That’s art, though—you take any kind of experiences and turn them into something beautiful, or cathartic.

            Yeah! Sometimes you might write a song and—well, the other thing is with a song, write it all the way through. Don’t just write a drum pattern, or whatever, because if you don’t finish it, it’ll just sit there. For a long period of time and you lose that thought pattern you had. It’s really advisable to finish a song when you start it.

You mentioned your song, “Listen To The Music” in an earlier answer—it’s such a big hit and so iconic. What did the song mean to you when you wrote it, and what does it mean to you now?

            It was just all about the Vietnam War and at that time, it was basically sending out the suggestion that world leaders use music to figure out what was going on as opposed to just sitting down and talk, because they have a tendency to screw things up on a regular basis.

            I pictured them sitting in someplace that was pleasant to be in—outside, preferably—and listening to music, but the one thing that everybody has in common is the music itself. It’s something that everybody can enjoy together, can get a positive experience together… It’s a really utopian way to think—a bit naïve, I’m afraid, but it didn’t work. But that was the idea behind it! I wanted the whole world to benefit from it. When I look at it now, it’s sort of anthemic. We play at the closing and the crowd gets up, singing along. They’re just roaring—it’s a rush. That one always works.

You said before that you lost one of your drummers. Since the band’s birth, there have been so many different members, switching in and out as the band grew. How were those transitions?

            Well, it’s gonna be different for each person involved. We lost another drummer in ‘12, but the thing with Keith was, I was very close with him outside of the band, so that’s why it had such a huge impact on me. And I just sort of, for a lot of reasons, sort of locked myself in the studio and wrote as a way to… I don’t wanna say “grieve” but kind of deal with it. And I got some really incredible songs out of that.

            Like I said, it was the key to unlock any locks I had about which way to go. I’m just sad that that’s what it took. But it did work. And as far as people transitioning in and out of the band, you just have to find somebody to fill the space and just keep on moving.

Looking ahead, what will you be up to once this tour is over?

            Well, we’re actually taking some time to catch up—we have two weeks off now, one of the longest breaks we’ve had so far. So, just taking the time to catch up on the mundane stuff. And once we get done with this very lengthy—I mean, there are people out there who do more shows than us, but we’re doing over 100 shows and that’s more than we normally do. We’ll normally do 85-95 a year and it’ll be time to relax, do other things, be a family, repair work around the house. When I said mundane, I meant it! You know, pay bills and all that kind of stuff.

            And then, we’ll get back into the writing process and we’re talking about writing another album. I don’t write on the road, so we’ll just have some time in the studio and get things going. You know, one of the things Keith used to say, and I thought it really nailed it was, he said, “We get paid for the 22 hours it takes to get to the show, and then we play for nothing.”


The Doobie Brothers will be pulling into the PNC Bank Arts Center on Aug. 28 and Atlantic City’s Borgata Resort And Spa Casino on Aug. 30. Their most recent album, Southbound, is available now. For more information on the Doobie Brothers, check them out at