In all his years with The Doobie Brothers, singer-guitarist Tom Johnston – who founded the group in 1970, left for a temporary solo career in 1977, then rejoined a decade later – never seriously considered extended involvement with Nashville.
The town revolved around country music, he thought, and his Grammy-winning combo stood for classic roots-rock – or, in its Michael McDonald-led era, R&B. But a year ago, when Nashville came calling, Johnston, 66, had to rethink everything.
“It’s become a mecca for songwriters, and it’s not just country, either. There’s a lot of pop music being written there, and blues, too,” he says.
So The Doobies – opening San Francisco’s Stern Grove Festival this weekend, took up an offer from Arista Nashville Records to to retrack some of their greatest hits as duets with Music Row’s biggest stars backed by top session players. The resulting collaboration, 2014’s “Southbound,” is a surprising stylistic success, featuring Sara Evans on “What a Fool Believes,” The Zac Brown Band on “Black Water,” Brad Paisley on “Rockin’ Down the Highway” and Toby Keith (with Huey Lewis on harmonica) on “Long Train Runnin.’”
“When they pitched the idea to us, we’d never really thought about re-recording any of our old stuff, because there was really no point,” says Johnston, who was swayed by interest in the project from all of the artists involved.
“It was both humbling and flattering, and getting to do it in Nashville with the top players in town, the studio guys that play on everybody’s records? Those guys were killer. They could play the paint off the walls, so we knocked out every song in only two takes.”
“Southbound” was accomplished in piecemeal fashion. Bass, drums, keyboards, pedal steel and three tandem guitars were cut live at Starstruck Studios, with the composers singng their own tracks: Pat Simmons on “South City Midnight Lady” and McDonald on “What a Fool Believes.” (Jerrod Niemannn and Sara Evans, respectively, taped their parts later).
Johnston was able to watch only one co-vocalist do his session. Blake Shelton recorded Johnston’s “Listen to the Music” with Hunter Hayes on guitar in Los Angeles.
Now, Johnston’s got the bug. He recently has been co-writing in Nashville with its most talented composers, and his soul-crooning daughter Lara Johnston is heading there for some collaborating herself.
What has he learned from the metropolis? “Uh, that I have a lot of learning left to go!” he says, laughing. “These guys write three songs a day there, day in and day out. And I have never worked like that before.”
IF YOU GO
The Doobie Brothers
Where: Sigmund Stern Grove park, 19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard, S.F.
When: 2 p.m. June 14
Contact: (415) 252-6252, www.sterngrove.org
Note: Stern Grove’s benefit Big Picnic, which begins at 11:30 a.m., includes premium seating for the concert. Tickets begin at $250.
Stern Grove Festival
All concerts begin at 2 p.m.; visitors are encouraged to take public transit.
June 21 – Pacific Mambo Orchestra
June 28 – Randy Newman
July 5 – San Francisco Symphony
July 12 – Amy Hanaiali‘i
July 18 – tUnE-yArDs
July 26 – San Francisco Ballet
Aug. 2 – Mary Chapin Carpenter
Aug. 9 – Morris Day and The Time
Aug. 16 – Talib Kweli