♫ China Grove ♫

I just played this one last June, but back by special request …

According to Doobie Brothers singer/guitarist Tom Johnston …

“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.”

Songfacts did an interview with Mr. Johnston …

Tom 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. In his Songfacts interview, Johnston said: “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.”
This song has been used in a number of TV shows, including The Simpsons, Entourage and House. 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.
China Grove
The Doobie Brothers

14 thoughts on “♫ China Grove ♫

  1. The best line in this song is “They just keep on lookin’ to the east.” Eastern philosophies were becoming known, and this added a whole new level of thought for European-based cultures. Eastern philosophies were much more concerned with peace and live than wuth the trappings of capitalusm. If cituzens of Texas could “look to the East,” then so could everyone else!

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    • Jill, great to revisit. I agree with Clive on the guitar riff. This song requires cruise control on the highway when it comes on or you will end up speeding. A favorite memory is a senior girl (who had a cool name of Renate) we all had a crush on loved this song so much, she ran across a field to hear it being played on her car stereo when it came on at a cross country meet. Her love of the song was infectious and since it is a nice ear worm, it stuck. Keith

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