STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
Country singers and country music fans adore The Doobie Brothers.
The band’s core members, Tom Johnston, Pat Simmons and John McFee, got an inkling even before the likes of Zac Brown Band, Blake Shelton and Brad Paisley jumped at the opportunity in 2014 to duet with them, and occasional-Doobie Michael McDonald, in re-recording many of their most popular songs for the Sony Music Nashville album “Southbound.”
According to Johnston — who wrote and sang lead vocals on “Long Train Runnin’,” “China Grove,” “Rockin’ Down the Highway” and others — Vince Gill, Alison Krauss and the late Little Jimmy Dickens were all in the house in 2011 when The Doobie Brothers took the stage at The Grand Ole Opry.
“Country now isn’t what country used to be — it’s like classic rock now. I was really humbled by the whole experience,” Johnston said in a phone interview, adding that he still remembers the crowd singing along to “Black Water” and his composition “Listen to the Music.”
Speaking of classic rock, Rhino Records, the king of re-issues, recently put out a 10-disc box set of the Doobies’ 1971-1983 Warner Bros. albums. The Doobie Brothers have also been touring with Journey and Dave Mason (That tour makes its way to BB&T Pavilion in Camden July 15). A break in that package tour is allowing the band a chance to headline July 3 at the Sands Bethlehem Event Center.
“This is a special tour for us. We’re getting in front of crowds we haven’t before,” Johnston commented. “We’ve completely changed our set list to include songs we haven’t played in a long time.” Among the numbers being rotated: “Another Park, Another Sunday,” late ‘80s reunion hit “The Doctor” and “Sweet Maxine” from the “Stampede” album.
The guitarist said that thanks to streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, people that weren’t even born when “Jesus is Just Alright,” “Take Me in Your Arms” or “Without You” came out are showing up to see The Doobie Brothers.
Johnston went as far as saying that the current lineup of the Doobies — which includes keyboard player Billy Payne, whom he said came up with the piano lick that inspired “China Grove” — is more committed to getting the crowd involved, better rehearsed and “much more professional” than it was in 1974, when Jeff Baxter, Tiran Porter, John Hartman and the late Keith Knudsen were in the group. “Back in the old days, we were pretty nuts — we don’t do that anymore,” he chuckled.
Having to leave the band back in the ‘70s due to bleeding stomach ulcers aggravated by a grueling touring schedule, Johnston said the band’s concert schedule today keeps preserving their singing voices a priority. “In the old days, we’d do four to five shows in a row, with one day off,” he said.
When asked where he was the first time he heard The Doobie Brothers on the radio, he said it was 1972 and the song was “Listen to the Music.” “I was in my VW and I almost got into a wreck. ‘Holy (expletive), it’s us!’,” Johnston said.
He said the band name was not a deliberate coded reference to the marijuana subculture, and it was a roommate at the 12th Street, San Jose house where Johnston was living who said: “You guys should call yourselves The Doobie Brothers.”
“We thought it was a dumb name, but we couldn’t come up with anything else,” he said.
Flash forward to 2016, and The Doobie Brothers are in the midst of writing songs for their first album of new music since 2010’s “World Gone Crazy.”