NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - When they recorded their new album "World Gone Crazy," the Doobie Brothers remained true to their rock 'n' roll roots. Then, the title tune began getting airplay on country radio.
Now, more than three decades after mega-hits such as "Black Water," "China Grove" and "Takin' It To the Streets," the Doobie Brothers are sensations in Nashville, right up there with younger upstarts such as the Zac Brown Band.
Even they are a bit confused by their crossover success.
"We were hoping someone could explain that to us," singer-guitarist Tom Johnston said only half-jokingly in an interview with Reuters.
In fact, after the band has toured the world and sold out stadiums and major venues for years, Johnston said he grew nervous when the Doobies recently played Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, often called the Mother Church of Country Music.
He surveyed the venue and the audience, thought about all of the history that had taken place on its stage and considered that now, the Doobies would be part of that.
But after Little Jimmy Dickens introduced them and the band struck their first chords, his nerves calmed. The audience began singing along, and the fit -- Doobies and country -- seemed natural.
As he and the band relaxed in their Nashville hotel, they explained why. The song resides firmly in the tradition of musical storytelling for which country is known.
"The lyrics are about a guy working the streets of New Orleans and trying to make ends meet," Johnston said. "He works at a government job and goes through the daily struggle, as people do, the way the economy is now."
The guitars on the record also have a country feel and, as much as anything, the industry has changed in ways that has allowed more acts to cross genres.
"In the modern era that we're in, music has taken some twists and turns for a band like ours," guitarist Pat Simmons said. "Country audiences are more apt to embrace our music than younger hip-hop type audiences or alternative or metal audiences. We're more of an adult kind of band."
Simmons and instrumentalist John McFee said the band's music always had a roots feel, and in an era when many acts use recorded music and devices like auto tune, the Doobies work the old-fashioned way -- they actually play and sing.
"People who are looking for real musicians who play real music," Simmons said.
Then, there is the Willie Nelson factor.
The country legend co-wrote one tune and sings on the album. Simmons, who has been friends with Nelson for years, had written one verse of a song he was working on and gave a recording of the melody to Nelson. The next day, Nelson came back with a finished tune.
Also on the "World Gone Crazy" album is a new version of the Doobies' "Nobody," which was the first single off their first self-titled album, which never caught fire.
"Young Man's Game" is an autobiographical reflection on the band's 40-year tenure in music. Johnston called it, "an observation, in hindsight, of what it's like to have been doing this for so long, then watching the kids come up doing it."
And if the album, which was released in last September and was the Doobies' first new record in a decade, sounds like the band had fun making it, that is because they did.
Along with Nelson, the group was joined by Norton Buffalo, who died in October, and former Doobie Brother, Michael McDonald. Both brought their own influences to the album.
"The excitement comes from feeling good about what you are recording," Johnston said. "Each layer, like the vocals and the lead guitar, adds excitement to what you are doing.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte