Takin’ It To The Streets: Doobie Brothers Team With Country Hitmakers

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Producer David Huff is bringing one of his all-time favorite bands from the past into the present with a new project. “The Doobie Brothers are such an important band in the history of music. The hits transcend time,” explained Huff. “I listened to them growing up in Brentwood and practiced drums to their records.”

He approached The Doobie’s manager Bruce Cohn with the idea of pairing the band with Country stars for re-imagined versions of The Doobie’s classic hits. Cohen set up a meeting between Huff and the band. “I told them, ‘I think there’s a whole new audience for you, and there’s a way to make you relevant to today’s market just by doing the songs a little bit differently.’ They were curious about the project, but it took laying it out piece by piece to get them on board, specifically about how to rework the songs and ideas for touring.”

The result is Southbound, set for a Nov. 4 release on Arista Nashville. UMG Nashville had major success with Tuskegee, a similar release by Lionel Richie and Country stars in 2012, which sold more than 1 million units and was supported by a major tour by Richie.

Though The Doobie Brothers line up has changed through the years, members who participated in the new album are from the band’s earliest incarnation including frontmen Patrick Simmons and Tom Johnston, and multi-instrumentalist John McFee. Huff and Cohen also reached out to former member Michael McDonald, who was all-in on the new album after a visit to the studio on the first day of tracking.

Once the band was on board, Huff, Cohen and Sony mapped what Huff calls a “fantasy list” of Country artists who might participate in the project. He said it wasn’t an easy task because The Doobie Brothers set the bar so high with their original versions of the songs. Among those who jumped in are Blake Shelton, Hunter Hayes, Toby Keith, Brad Paisley, Zac Brown Band, Sara Evans, Chris Young, Jerrod Niemann, Vince Gill, Casey James, Tyler Farr, Charlie Worsham, and Love and Theft. “Once we started asking the artists, the overall response we got was really positive,” he continued. “It worked out that a few artists picked their own songs, and we picked for some others. Jerrod picked ‘South City Midnight Lady,’ which is a favorite of a lot of artists. He killed it.”

Pictured (l-r):  Sony Music Nashville Chairman & CEO Gary Overton, the Doobie Brothers’ Patrick Simmons, Sara Evans, Chris Young, Doobie Tom Johnston, Love and Theft’s Eric Gunderson, Doobie John McFee, Jerrod Niemann, Love and Theft’s Stephen Barker Liles, and Doobie Brothers manager Bruce Cohn. Photo credit:  Larry Boothby

Pictured (l-r): Sony Music Nashville Chairman & CEO Gary Overton, the Doobie Brothers’ Patrick Simmons, Sara Evans, Chris Young, Doobie Tom Johnston, Love and Theft’s Eric Gunderson, Doobie John McFee, Jerrod Niemann, Love and Theft’s Stephen Barker Liles, and Doobie Brothers manager Bruce Cohn. Photo credit: Larry Boothby

Huff joked, “Zac Brown didn’t have a choice. I hounded his manager Matt Maher to get him on the project. I didn’t take no for an answer because I could envision him on the songs. And Zac did a great job on ‘Black Water,’ with plenty of harmonies from his band and the breakdown in the middle.”

With so many artists involved, Huff said the recording process was a logistical nightmare. “I would get a call from an artist on a Sunday night and they’d say they could record Tuesday, and I had to make it happen.” He laughed in hindsight, “There was one time where I booked all the players and forgot to get a studio.” Still he managed to get several performers, including Shelton, in the studio with The Doobie Brothers at the same time.

The band hadn’t spent much time in Music City, and even though Huff frequently works in Los Angeles, he had a dream of building the project in his hometown. “We cut records differently in Nashville, we’ve got some of the world’s best players,” stated Huff. “So we tapped the core session players, with The Doobies interspersed. For example, Patrick wrote ‘Black Water’ and sang it originally, so he played acoustic guitar with Ilya Toshinsky and the other guys on the new recording. The Doobies also did some auxiliary parts and sang with the artists on some parts.” The Doobie Brothers flew in from California multiple times last fall and winter for sessions at Starstruck, Black Bird and House of Blues. “I don’t want to speak for them,” acknowledged Huff, “but I think they are absolutely impressed with Nashville. The musicianship was really evident to them.”

Pictured (L-R): Doobie Brothers members Patrick Simmons, Tom Johnston and John McFee; album executive producer and Doobie Brothers manager Bruce Cohn; Gary Overton, Chairman & CEO, Sony Music Nashville; Love and Theft’s Eric Gunderson and Stephen Barker Liles; Casey James; album producer and executive producer David Lyndon Huff. Photo: Ivor Karabatkovic

Pictured (L-R): Doobie Brothers members Patrick Simmons, Tom Johnston and John McFee; album executive producer and Doobie Brothers manager Bruce Cohn; Gary Overton, Chairman & CEO, Sony Music Nashville; Love and Theft’s Eric Gunderson and Stephen Barker Liles; Casey James; album producer and executive producer David Lyndon Huff. Photo: Ivor Karabatkovic

Video production company Rink Entertainment documented the making of the album, asking the artists to describe how The Doobie Brothers influenced them. “Their answers were fascinating,” said Huff. “They go into quite a lot of detail, which was especially surprising coming from the younger artists.”

He teamed with his brother, mega-hit producer Dann Huff to co-produce four songs on the album. Dann offered, “I think this will be the first time that Nashville will hear how very talented David is. This really was his baby and I see it as his entry into the Country market.”

“His talent in re-imagining these classic hits is incredible,” agreed Sony Music Nashville VP of A&R Jim Catino. “David has done a stellar job working with each of these amazing artists and creating a great energy for The Doobies and everyone involved.”

“This project has been a passion of mine from the beginning to completion,” summed Huff. “To come full circle from playing their music as a teenager, to working with the guys—I’m pretty proud of it.”

David Huff

David Huff

Meet David Huff:
“I got into music, started playing on records, and never looked back. I love Country and pop—I’m musically schizophrenic. Growing up in Nashville Country music is part of your DNA, but I switch hats a lot.” Nashville native Huff started banging on the drums in high school, usually playing with older brother Dann. He moved to Los Angeles after high school and that became his home base while touring. Dann and David formed the band Giant, which was signed to A&M Records and toured all over the world around 1989-1991. When that success faded, he became a sideman for Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, and several pop artists. About four years ago his focus shifted to production.

Besides his work on The Doobie Brothers album, Huff recently remixed the Avicii hit “Hey Brother” for Country radio. “It’s folk meets EDM. The goal was to keep the integrity of the song, but treat it so our market can absorb it. It was a challenge but it turned out well. I kept Dan Tyminski’s classic vocals and recreated everything else. Drum machines and horns don’t typically come into our market, so I replaced the horns with mandolin and fiddle. Instrumentation can be a key to unlock many doors. We captured what it needed to be for this market.”

Southbound Track Listing:
“Black Water” with Zac Brown Band
“China Grove” with Chris Young
“Jesus Is Just Alright” with Casey James
“Listen to the Music” with Blake Shelton with Hunter Hayes on guitar
“Long Train Runnin’” with Toby Keith
“Nobody” with Charlie Worsham
“Rockin’ Down the Highway” with Brad Paisley
“South City Midnight Lady” with Jerrod Niemann
“Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)” with Tyler Farr
“Takin’ It to the Streets” with Love and Theft
“What a Fool Believes” with Sara Evans
“You Belong to Me” with Amanda Sudano Ramirez of the band Johnnyswim with Vince Gill on guitar

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Sarah Skates has worked in the music business for more than a decade and is a longtime contributor to MusicRow.

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