Brad Paisley, Chris Young, Zac Brown Band, Toby Keith and Sara Evans are among the country acts teaming with the legendary Doobie Brothers to record a new album covering the Grammy winning band's classic hits.
Country radio programmers, media and industry VIPs got their first taste of the project last week on Sony Music Nashville's annual Boat Show when Paisley, Evans and Young joined the Doobies' Tom Johnston, Patrick Simmons and John McFee for a surprise performance onboard the General Jackson showboat. At the end of a four-song set that featured "Long Train Runnin,'" "China Grove," "Black Water" and "Listen to the Music," Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO Gary Overton announced the album would be released later this year.
"That was an interesting night. I met a lot of cool people and really enjoyed myself," Johnston tells Billboard of his experience on the invitation only Sony boat show.
To say it was an interesting night is an understatement. While Sony was showcasing their roster, tornado sirens wailed and torrential rains pelted the boat, prompting Paisley to quip it was Armageddon and he thought he had just seen a cow fly past a window.
Johnston credits Overton with spearheading the album. Overton is a long time fan. His first live concert was a Doobie Brothers show in Phoenix in 1972. "Their iconic rock has spanned generations as the Doobies carved out their own unique place in American music," he tells Billboard. "We're very proud to share in a chapter of the Doobie legacy by bringing them together with some of country's top artists for an album that honors both the band and their music."
Johnston is enjoying working in Nashville. "Having been in the studio with both the studio guys and some of the artists, it's amazing," Johnston says. "It's been more fun that I ever could have imagined. It's really been a kick."
Johnston says they've been recording at Starstruck Studios and Blackbird. "There are a couple of nuts and bolts that still need to be tightened, but it's pretty close," Johnston says when asked if the album was finished.
The track listing for the new album is still being kept under wraps, but Jerrod Niemann and Love and Theft are among the other acts slated to participate with additional names to be announced soon. "What I'd like to accomplish is showing country music fans just how much influence the Doobies Brothers really have on country music today," says Niemann.
Young agrees. "The Doobie Brothers are one of those legendary bands that no matter your generation, you know their music and can't help but sing and groove along to every song," he says.
"I met Chris in the studio when he came in to do his vocal on the song he's on," says Johnston. "He's a great guy. I had a good time chatting with him and getting to know him."
In addition to the Doobie's founding members Johnston and Simmons, who continue to front the band, the album will feature McFee, whose history with the Doobies dates back to 1978, and legendary singer Michael McDonald, who exited in 1982 but is returning for this project.
"We don't see each other a lot because he's on the road a lot too," Johnston says of McDonald. "We always look forward to catching up and seeing how the families are doing and all that kind of stuff. Michael is a great guy. He's always fun to hang with."
Johnston says rumors of bad blood between McDonald and the group isn't true. "It amazes me how long that has hung around because it have never been the case, ever," he says adamantly. "A lot of people wanted that to be the case because of the two different styles of music, but it never was. I always got along really well with Michael and vice versa."
In the past few years, the Doobie Brothers have developed increasingly strong ties to Nashville, and have even performed on the Grand Ole Opry. "A lot of that had to do with when we put our last album out, which was 'World Gone Crazy,'" Johnston says of the band's 2010 release. "We released a song ["World Gone Crazy"] to country [radio]. It didn't do what we wanted it to do, but nevertheless we gave it a shot and we were in Nashville a lot pushing that. We went to Country Radio Seminar and went around town doing interviews. And at the time we didn't know we'd be doing CMT Crossroads. That was a lot of fun."
On Crossroads, CMT pairs an iconic rock act with a country artist to perform songs from both acts' repertoires. "CMT Crossroads: The Doobie Brothers and Luke Bryan" premiered on the country network June 24, 2011. "The was one of the most fun things we've ever done," says Johnston. "That and the thing we did the other night [the Sony boat] are two of our highlights."
Johnston says the Doobies are thrilled at the enthusiasm the country community has for their music. "In all honesty, this band didn't know we had the fan base we do in country music because we live in this box called the touring machine," he says with a laugh. "We're driving all over the country playing. I was surprised, and happily so, that so many people are fans of the band."
Evans is among those fans. "I've always been a huge Doobie Brothers fan and jumped at the chance to record one of their many hits," she tells Billboard. "I've covered several of their songs in my live show for years and am so proud to be on this amazing album."
Love and Theft's Stephen Barker Liles echoes that sentiment. "This is going to be an incredible album and we couldn't be more honored to be a part of a project with one our favorite iconic bands and musical influences," he says.
Since the group launched in 1969, the Doobie Brothers have become one of rock's most enduring bands well known for such timeless hits as "Jesus Is Just All Right," "Rockin' Down the Highway," "Long Train Runnin,'" "China Grove," "Takin' It to the Streets," "Minute by Minute" and "You Belong to Me." They've earned multiple Grammy Awards and have sold 22 million albums in the U.S., according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Among those is the 10-million selling "Best of the Doobies" album.
Johnston is honored that today's crop of country artists are excited about covering their classic tunes. "I'm humbled. I had no idea all these people were into the band," he says.
When asked why he feels the Doobies' music lends itself to country interpretation, he replies, "The Doobies cover a wide swath musically. We're an American band. We cover everything from blues and R&B to bluegrass, and even a little bit country. At the same time we do rock and roll and these days it seems country has adopted a good bit of rock and roll to go along with the country style of singing and the banjo and pedal steel. It all works together and I think it's fascinating."