50 Years Ago: The Doobie Brothers Forget ‘China Grove’ Is Real
The song started simply. "I wasn't quite sure what it was," Johnston recalled in 2022's Long Train Runnin': Our Story of The Doobie Brothers. "I just had the chords and little else, but I really liked the chords."
Johnston felt he was onto something. He grabbed drummer John Hartman so they could try it out with a harder rocking sound. The next step was bringing the song, which still didn't have any lyrics, into the studio.
At Hollywood's Amigo Studios, Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne joined in, offering a piano part that Johnston immediately recognized as the missing link to the song.
"I remember when I played that little bridge on what would become 'China Grove,' and [producer] Ted [Templeman] just freaked out," Payne recalled in the book. "He loved it. He kept saying that it sounded 'Chinese' to him, and I wasn't sure what he meant. Looking back on it, I kind of get it. But at the moment, I had no clue. I just liked that he liked it."
Listen to the Doobie Brothers' 'China Grove'
As it turned out, that bridge helped inspire Johnston to write the lyrics.
"Rarely when I sat down to write would I be very specific about things. It would just be what I was feeling at that moment, making up a story on the spot," Johnston explained. "And then you never know what will get stuck in your brain from being on the road. In this case, it was a leftover from driving toward San Antonio on a tour in '72. There was a road sign that said 'China Grove city limits.' I completely forgot about that until Billy played that piano line. And even then, I didn't remember the road sign, but that's where the idea for the sheriff and the samurai sword came from."
Johnston may not have realized it, but he was painting a fictionalized portrait of a real town called China Grove, about a 20-minute drive outside of downtown San Antonio: "When the sun comes up on a sleepy little town / Down around San Antone / And the folks are risin' for another day / 'Round about their homes."
When the song was released as a single on July 25, 1973, it reached No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100. The track was also released on the band's third album, The Captain and Me, which came out four months earlier. Johnston got another surprise not long afterward when he was in a cab in Houston and his driver asked him why he had written a song about the nearby little town. It turned out there was a second China Grove, this one located just outside of Houston.
Dolly Parton took a liking to "China Grove" and performed the song on her TV program The Dolly Show during its 1976-77 season. It wasn't until decades later that Johnston finally saw her performance and was blown away. "I just saw this six months ago for the first time," he told The Tennessean in 2014. "I had never heard of it. I was shocked, going, 'You're kidding.' But I've got living proof: It's on YouTube."
Watch Dolly Parton's Performance of 'China Grove'