Q&A: Talking classics and country with the Doobie Brothers’ Tom Johnston
By Stephen Speckman
Special to The TribuneFirst published Aug 01 2014 01:01AM
The Doobie Brothers debuted their first studio album in 1971. The band racked up a string of hits and Grammy Awards throughout the ’70s and into the ’80s and established itself as a prolific touring group.
Despite disbandment and many incarnations with members who joined and left the band (notable among them Michael McDonald), the Doobie Brothers are touring again. The band will play with Boston at Usana Amphitheatre in West Valley City on Tuesday.
Guitarist and vocalist Tom Johnston, one of the Doobie Brothers’ founding members, took time out during a break in the tour at his home in Northern California to talk about the band, what its music has meant and a new album coming out in the fall.
What is it like for you to know your music has such a visceral, emotional connection for so many of your fans?
It’s very gratifying. I’ve spoken with fans over the years — and we’re still actively touring quite a bit. … You know, it’s gratifying when you touch people’s lives in one way or another, whether you meant to do it or not or whether it was something that was planned — and it’s never planned, it just happens. You know you were a positive factor in their lives and they let you know that or you got them through a tough time or it’s something they associate with their college or high-school years. Even in some cases now, I talk to some kids in their late teens or 20s who are saying, "Wow, man, I really like listening to your band’s music, it’s great."
You’re attracting a new audience these days. How much do social media sites play into your continued growing and changing popularity?
It’s huge, because with the advent of things like Facebook, Twitter, downloading, streaming music, all that sort of thing, audiences are much more readily reached on a much larger scale than they would with just radio. And I have to say that if anybody is grateful to radio it’s this band, because it’s kept this band in people’s minds and consciousness for years and years. But we continued to put out albums. We didn’t just sit on our laurels and live in the ’70s. We put out an album in 2000, and 2010 was our most recent one. And now we’ve got this new one we just finished, which is a country compilation of hits, an idea that was brought to us by Sony [Records]. In Nashville we ended up recording for the first time ever all these hits, and that included some by Michael McDonald, with country artists. It turned out to be a heck of a lot of fun. I was amazed of the influence the band has had on a lot of the country artists. I had no idea — I don’t think any of us did.
Well, OK. I’ll give you a list of the artists. The name of the album is "Southbound." It’ll be out in November. We have people like Blake Shelton, Brad Paisley, Zac Brown, Toby Keith, Chris Young and Sara Evans. We have some new people like Love and Theft and Casey James. … The lion’s share of playing on the tracks was done by Nashville studio guys who were unbelievable.
Is anyone joining you on tour to introduce some of those songs?
Well, they’re pretty large acts and they’re out doing their normal touring. We sat in with Zac Brown recently at Fenway Park, in fact this last week, … and did "Black Water," and that was a lot of fun. You’re looking at 40,000 people out there — it was just a whole different crowd. They had a ball, and they sang along with the song. We were really grateful to Zac for inviting us. … This is all very early on. The album isn’t going to be out for a while. But as far as promoting it, there are some fun things to do. Are we going on the road with them? No, that’s probably not going to happen.
When we hear you in August, you have to play the classic hits, but will we hear songs from more recent albums like "World Gone Crazy" or "Sibling Rivalry"?
If it’s just going to be us, you’ll hear two songs from "World Gone Crazy." Basically we’re covering stuff from all areas of the band, from the front to where we are now. I’m sure there’s stuff we’re not going to catch that somebody might want to hear. Generally, if it’s just us, it’s a 90-minute set and we cover quite a bit of area.
What songs do you have to play?
Pretty much the same ones we’ve always had to play. I say "have to play," I mean if you didn’t play them people wouldn’t shoot you. We play the hits everyone is familiar with like "Long Train Runnin’ " and "China Grove" to "Black Water" to "Listen to the Music," you know, those types of things. What keeps us all fresh is that, No. 1, they’re interspersed with a whole lot of B tracks. We have a huge catalog of songs. So we can redo our set quite a bit, anytime we want. … We do one song from "Takin’ It to the Streets," which is the song we do — we’ve been doing that for a while. The thing that keeps those songs fresh is that the crowd loves them so much and they really respond to them. That’s pretty much what playing live is all about, which is getting the reaction from the crowd.
How has what the band meant to you in the ’70s and what it means to you now evolved?
To me, I tend to live in the here and now, rather than thinking about down the road. If I looked at it in the rearview mirror, I remember bits and pieces. But because we tour a fairly good amount it kind of turns into a blur after a while, to be honest with you. I’m just grateful to have been part of this. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a great run. And we’re still at it. So, I think everybody in the band is very grateful for that.
You have a break in August. How are you going to celebrate your 66th birthday?
Quietly. [laughs] Quietly. Everybody looks at birthdays different. To me it’s just another day. But I’m glad I’m still here. I’m glad I’m still playing onstage and involved in the business. We’ve been able to do new projects. I mean everything about it has been a positive. The years going by is part of the deal. That’s one of the things that has been most gratifying, which is that we’re still doing this at this age and that the crowd has not only grown larger … but that people in their 20s and teens are showing up in concerts.
Have you ever taught guitar to others?
No, I have not. And for me, teaching guitar would be probably not the best thing to do from a scholastic point of view because I taught myself to play guitar. I didn’t learn to play guitar from other teachers or people who were well schooled. … Guitar, I took up as an act of rebellion at the ripe old age of 12, and I never took a lesson. I just did it all by ear. So, me teaching somebody else, sure I could teach chords, but it wouldn’t be done in a scholastic atmosphere.
You’ve received a lot of praise for your guitar playing. Has it changed much over the years? Have you done things differently as you’ve gotten older?
I think one thing I’ve done differently as I’ve gotten older is that I practice a lot more. I’ve tried to improve my guitar skills. I haven’t tried to change anything as far as my rhythm skills, because that kind of a thing, my style of rhythm, is something I invented myself. … It comes from roots that I grew up with and the people I listened to and the people who influenced me when I was first starting out. Mostly that’s blues artists, R&B artists, Chuck Berry and people like Little Richard. That type of music just blew me out of the water at the age of 9. I never forgot it. Same thing with Bo Diddley. And he was a guitar player, and he had a very distinctive rhythm style.
The band was inducted in 2004 into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. Where does that fit in with all the accolades?
You know, I’ll be honest. I wasn’t familiar with the Vocal Group Hall of Fame until that happened. It’s an honor like anything else, to be recognized for the body of work you’ve done and that people are appreciating the time and effort and the end result. It’s pretty neat.
Your daughter Lara Johnston is a professional singer and songwriter. Has she done anything with the Doobie Brothers?
She’s been onstage with us a lot of times. In fact, just the other night in New Jersey she came onstage. She’s opened for us quite a few times. She’s played shows we’ve been on. But mostly she’s striving to do her own thing, which is how it should be. And I encourage her to do that. The music business right now is tougher than it’s ever been to make it in.
Why is that?
The competition is way, way more fierce than when we went in the door. The door has shrunk to the size of a postage stamp. And with the advent of things like competition shows on TV, so many more people who may not have thought about trying to do that for a living or to try to make it in the business have been encouraged to go on those programs. So, there’s a lot more people out there trying to be heard. And I have to give her credit. She has worked her tail off to get the voice she has. She’s a phenomenal singer. This was not my idea — this was her idea. … She did this all on her own. I’ve definitely stood behind her and given her as much support as I possibly can. I’m very proud of her.
What’s it like being in the audience at one of her concerts?
It’s pretty far out, to be honest with you. Like I said, I’m pretty proud of the voice she’s developed. She’s spent hours and hours and hours singing and practicing to get the voice she has. … Her voice is recognizable within a couple of notes. She has that kind of voice. That to me is very special. It’s a gift. She knows that. And she knows it takes a lot of work to develop it and keep it in shape. And she’s come a long way from where she started.
You’re touring with Peter Frampton and Boston. What’s it like to be touring with popular ’70s and ’80s acts?
I enjoy it, because to me you’re in front of a different audience. If they’re coming to see the bands you just mentioned, then they have a dedicated fan following. So, you’re going to be playing for their fans as well as those who came to see both acts. It’s a good thing. It’s a positive. It’s like all the tours we’ve done with Chicago — same type of thing. [Lynyrd] Skynyrd — same thing. We’ve been doing this for years with a lot of bands. And it’s a lot of fun. It’s a challenge for us, because you want to be able to get that crowd up as well and deliver as powerful of a show as the band you’re playing with. While it’s not a competition, it’s a great way to test your musical skills to see how well you can move a crowd with the music you have and the music you’ve created and how well the band is playing. And I have to say that right now the band is playing better than it’s ever played.
Any final thoughts?
The most exciting thing right now, of course, is the new album coming out. I’m really curious to see what happens with it, because it’s a hard thing to know. I mean it’s impossible to know. We’re not a country band. But our songs lend themselves to country versions. … All the songs worked out well. It’s been a pleasure to do this project. And I now have [an album] name to say. We couldn’t say anything. We couldn’t say the names of any of the artists for a long time. So, it’s been kind of liberating to mention all of the names I gave you a little while ago. … The guy who produced it, David Huff, did a phenomenal job. … He really brought a great approach to this album. … To hear those country artists play your music, it was really mind blowing.