Sometimes the album art just fits. Like a vintage jukebox in a faux backwater bar, the Doobie Brothers’ Southbound tries to mix nostalgia with modernity in a way that just doesn’t quite work. Filled with the four-time Grammy Award winners’ greatest hits, Southbound features some of contemporary country’s heaviest hitters as guests on all new recordings of classic Doobie Brothers tunes. However, while the energy remains high, even the likes of Brad Paisley and Blake Shelton can’t pull that classic country rock sound out of the seventies.
The biggest problem is that country music has changed considerably since the seventies. The Doobie Brothers made their mark by combining rock and roll with country and bluegrass. They defined themselves in opposition to singers like Hank Williams and Don Edwards. But in 2014 country’s biggest stars blend rock and bluegrass like a child mixes paints – in any amount they please. This leaves classic country rock anthems like “Rockin’ Down the Highway”, “China Grove”, and “Long Train Runnin'” feeling stale and dated.
The album opens with 1975 hit, “Black Water”, a bluegrass/rock song penned after singer Patrick Simmons’ 1970s trip to New Orleans. Inspired by the Delta blues of the Mississippi, the original featured a cappella vocals, violin, and a slide guitar riff to poke at the boundaries within country music. Southbound‘s version, featuring the Zac Brown Band, who are themselves about to release a greatest hits album, sounds like any other modern country standard. More accurately, it is almost identical to the original with the differences lying in the power of 2014 production technology.
Later tracks like “Long Train Runnin'” featuring Toby Keith and “Rockin’ Down the Highway” featuring Brad Paisley fall into the same trap. From the opening chord of “Rockin’ Down the Highway”, it is clear that the song hasn’t been updated as much as it has been re-released. With seventies rock style chord work, steel string slides, whining electric guitar solos, and an anthem-like chorus, it is obvious that the focus rests squarely on the Doobie Brothers. Paisley’s contribution is little more than that of a karaoke singer with his voice being audible on only a single verse and chorus.
This trend of minutely featured vocalists extends for most of the album with the exception being the album finale, “Nobody”, featuring Charlie Worsham. Worsham’s vocals remain audible in the chorus while the verses see a balanced give-and-take between him and the Doobie Brothers. The result is a number that feels new and fresh. Perhaps it is Worsham’s youth or his billing as country’s “next big thing,” but the flexibility given to him on the track results in interesting vocal riffs that complement rather than rehash the original 1971 single.
Diehard Doobie Brothers fans and those looking for a classic country album to throw in the glove box of their pick-up truck will find Southbound a solid and well-produced retrospective of seventies country classics. For everyone else, Southbound is little more than a collection of remastered Doobie Brothers songs as sang by the Doobie Brothers. While the album does feature some of the biggest names in country music, it does not live up to its promise as an album of duets.