Suggest a Songfact / Artistfact
Album: The Captain And MeReleased: 1973Charted:
China Grove is a small town in Texas, about 10 miles from San Antonio in Bexar county. Did Doobie Brothers singer/guitarist Tom Johnston know this when he wrote the song? Sort of. Here's what he told us: "The words were written last, and they were made up around this whole idea of this wacky little town with a sheriff that had a Samurai Sword and all that sort of thing. The funny thing was that I found out in 1975 in a cab in Houston that there really was a China Grove, although what happened was in 1972 we were touring in Winnebagos, and we were driving into San Antonio. And there is a China Grove, Texas, right outside of San Antonio. I must have seen the sign and forgotten about it. And when I came up with the term 'China Grove,' I thought I was just making it up because of the words being about this crazy sheriff with a Samurai Sword."
Johnston's lyrics were influenced by the oriental piano sound that Billy Payne came up with when they were working on the track. Payne was the pianist for Little Feat, and recorded with many other artists, including Elton John and James Taylor. Says Johnston: "the piano lick went, 'Dadadadun, dadadadadundun.' It was an Oriental sounding lick. And so from there I took off and went to the place I ended up with lyrically. I must have seen that sign and forgotten it. And when the cab driver told me this in Houston, I said, 'You gotta be kiddin' me.' He said, 'There really is a China Grove.' I said, 'No, there isn't.' He says, 'Yeah, there really is. And it is right outside of San Antonio.' I said, 'That's weird.' And it turns out there's one in North Carolina, too." (Check out our full interview with Tom Johnston
This song has been used in a number of TV shows, including The Simpsons
. It has a very distinctive guitar riff, which makes it perfect for certain scenes. According to Johnston, however, he didn't think one way or another about the riff when he came up with it. Johnston claims that the only time he know a guitar lick was going to become a hit was the one he came up with for "Listen To The Music
The late Keith Knudsen, drummer for The Doobie Brothers, had quite a culture shock when traveling with Al Kooper (of Blood Sweat & Tears fame) in Japan. As related in Kooper's memoir Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards
, Knudsen was dry and asked the bass player to score him marijuana - and was taken aback when informed that Japan was both a police state and very drug-free. The naive bass player tried anyway and brought back a tiny amount, wrapped in a paper packet as if it were a much higher-caliber substance. Knudsen casually lit up in the hotel room, and the bass player freaked out, stuffing towels under the door and carrying on like he thought they were going to be shot.