The Hippo


May 27, 2020








Doobie Brothers & Gregg Allman
When: Saturday, Aug. 22, 8 p.m.
Where: Bank of NH Pavilion at 
Meadowbrook, Gilford

Doobie and then some
John McFee talks to the Hippo

By Michael Witthaus

 Before he became a Doobie Brother in 1979, John McFee was a member of Clover, a band that included Huey Lewis and had the distinction of backing Elvis Costello on his first album. He was also a go-to session musician, playing steel guitar on albums by Van Morrison, Boz Scaggs and Steve Miller, and he’s likely the only musician hired for a Grateful Dead studio album. During an early 1980s break from the Doobies, McFee enjoyed country music success with Southern Pacific. McFee, who plays with the Doobies and Gregg Allman at Meadowbrook Aug. 22, spoke with the Hippo from his home in Southern California.

How well did you know the Doobie Brothers before you joined?
The name first really connected when I heard “Listen to the Music” on the radio. I thought, “Wow, that’s a great-sounding record. Who is that? I’m going to make a point of going to see those guys.” Then I got hold of an album and realized … they’re incorporating a bunch of musical styles, which is something that I always admired in groups and aspired to do in my own efforts. So I did see them and followed them a bit before I was in the group.    
One Step Closer was your first studio album as a Doobie; you co-wrote the title song with Keith Knudsen and Carlene Carter, at the time married to Elvis Costello’s producer Nick Lowe. How did that happen? 
I had written all the music, [but] I didn’t have the time to write lyrics because … I had to go to England to record with Elvis Costello — I committed to doing some work with him — so I turned it over to Carlene. She said, “I have this title idea, but I really don’t know where to go with it.” So Keith and I were good buddies and I had worked with Carlene before — she is such a smart girl and a great lyricist, so I felt comfortable turning it over to them to see what they could come up with. … They wrote the lyrics, I wrote the music. 
Clover backed Elvis on his first album, My Aim Is True. How did an obscure California band get that project? 
Clover was a great band, but we couldn’t get it going. Then one day we got this phone call out of the blue … a guy with a British accent who said, “I’m a drummer [and] a whole bunch of musicians in London think you guys are right up there with The Band … the best of North American music.” We said, “What?”  He said, “Some of my buddies have the No. 1 album in the U.K.; they’re playing Winterland next month [and] want to meet you.” We bought Billboard to see if he was telling us the truth. Sure enough, here’s this group Dr. Feelgood. … That is how we first met Nick Lowe and Jake Riviera — Nick Jakeman. Unbelievably, within three months we had signed a deal and moved lock, stock and barrel to England. The drummer’s name was Pete Thomas. … I tell him he changed my life more than any other single person with that phone call out of the blue. 
Did you play on Grateful Dead’s From the Mars Hotel because Jerry Garcia couldn’t cut it on steel guitar? 
That’s the rumor. The fact is, the Grateful Dead don’t use studio musicians. I might be the only one really. … I guess they weren’t happy with whatever Jerry was coming up with on the steel guitar and wanted something more. They hired me because I was the guy in the Bay Area and I was lucky enough to come in. … I was surprised when they called. I said, “Why not let Jerry do it?” They said, “Well, uh, we want you.’ As for the real story, honestly, you’d have to ask them. But I was a hired gun on that one.  
Southbound is the latest Doobie Brothers album, made with help from some big names in country music. Given your background with Southern Pacific, how was playing with performers like Brad Paisley and Chris Young?
I spent a lot of time in Nashville doing gigs and sessions when Keith and I formed Southern Pacific [and] I played with some of the guys. … I grew up playing country music [and] discovered rock and roll later on when The Beatles came out. Everybody wanted to have a band and they’d say, “Well that McFee kid already knows how to play, let’s get him.” I really started getting exposed to pop music and then blues and jazz. It opened up my musical world almost in a backwards fashion. But my roots are country, so playing countrified version of Doobie Brothers songs — that felt pretty comfortable for me.  
How is a kid from Santa Cruz, California, such a big country fan?
I am from Santa Cruz originally, but we moved around the state; my dad worked in oil fields. I’m part of a subculture known as oil field trash. Country music was huge in California when I was growing up in the 1950s. Merle Haggard and the Bakersfield Sound came out of that. That’s my background. A lot of people think it’s strange that I’m a surfer and [also a] guy that grew up playing hillbilly music. That’s one of the cool things about California — it’s got everything.  
What’s the best thing about touring with the Doobies now?  
It’s always been about the music. That’s what attracted me to the band in the first place [and] that’s what keeps it interesting. We’re dinosaurs in a way, I guess, but we’re guys that just like to play music. So that is what keeps us going and gives us energy. We’re lucky enough to still have fans that still want to hear us. ... We’re really lucky guys.   
As seen in the August 20th 2015 issue of the Hippo. 


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