Michael McDonald Talks Doobie Brothers' New Album, Donna Summer and Retirement

The "yacht rock" royal talks Doobie Brothers' 'Southbound' album of country collaborations and how he unwittingly became a hipster icon

Michael McDonald performs in Washington, D.C. Credit: Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Back in the Doobie Brothers' Seventies heyday, singer Michael McDonald most likely viewed genre boundaries the same way he does today: as "absolute bullshit." The legendary group was, for the most part, considered a rock band, but would fit right in on country radio with its chugging rhythms, infectious melodies and down-home lyrics. On Southbound, out today, they're hoping for that long-awaited crossover — with the help of some country music heavyweights. Joining the Doobies on the collaboration album are Blake Shelton, Brad Paisley, Toby Keith, Zac Brown Band and many other leading country artists on some of the group's biggest hits, including "Black Water," "China Grove" and "Listen to the Music."

McDonald, who left the group more than 30 years ago for a solo career, has sporadically joined his former bandmates for special projects over the years, and happily came back on board for Southbound. Each of the album's 12 tracks feature a country crooner paired with either McDonald, Tom Johnston or Patrick Simmons (the Doobies' lead vocalists) — marking the first time those three have shared credits on an album since 1976's Takin' It to the Streets. (See Southbound's full track list here.)

McDonald, whose instantly identifiable, soulful vocals have made him a pop culture icon, talked with Rolling Stone Country about the new music, his unintended hipster status and why a forthcoming album could sell very well — for more comical than musical reasons. 

What did you think when you first got approached for this country duets project?
It's always fun for me to get back together with the guys for whatever reason, whether it's a live gig or just a personal thing, [such as] weddings. I try to make a point to see those of us that are left whenever I can. We had a great time in the studio. We had some great artists on it, and we're really thrilled to be able to work with them and watch them do their thing. 

Sara Evans, who sings with you on "What a Fool Believes," said it is a very hard song to sing. Would you have made it a little easier on yourself if you'd known you were going to be singing it for more than 35 years?
I probably would have written it differently today. [Laughs] I'm always toying with the idea of lowering keys a half step and if I ever lower one, that's going to be the first one that comes down. You certainly couldn't tell it was the least bit difficult for her to sing. She still sings it better than I do.

On "You Belong To Me," you sing with Donna Summer's daughter, Amanda Sudano. How did you meet?
I only met her once when she was about 10 or 11, and I think she was being grounded at the time. I was working with Donna at their house in Beverly Hills. I met [Amanda] just before it was time for her to go to bed, and her mom was giving her instructions about how she was going to have to stay home tomorrow or something like that. She was a cute little girl, and she's grown up to be a beautiful woman. She has a wonderful voice. It's spooky because there are moments where she almost sounds like her mom when she's singing… It's funny, she was not our first choice. We didn't even know about her when we started looking for singers for the song. Vince [Gill] plays guitar on it and originally I had approached him about singing it, but he wasn't up for that. And then when we got down to Amanda, she was everything and more than we would have ever hoped for. It was meant to be. 

Performing with her must have been bittersweet.
It was. It was such a surprise when her mom got sick and was gone so quickly. I don't think anybody was ready for that or even suspected that might happen six months earlier. But I know her mom would be and is so proud of her today because she's a formidable talent on her own. I know she's going to do great things. 

How familiar were you with Love & Theft, who sing with you on "Taking It to the Streets"?
I wasn't… but then I'm not familiar with anything anymore. [Laughs] I could be tied to a tree somewhere and be just as good as I am out in the public. I'm tragically unhip at my age. But it was great that they were willing to do it. They're a great young duo. 

Were the Doobie Brothers fans of country music?
We were huge fans of country music. Everybody says that, but we truly were. One of our best memories of the Doobies was we played Bakersfield, and Buck Owens came down and sat in with us and played on the encore. We did "Crying Time" and "Together Again," and he did "Tiger By the Tail." We had a great time and went out to dinner with him afterwards. We were huge fans. It was a real thrill for us. 

Have you thought about doing a solo country album?

I've thought about doing every conceivable kind of record possible, but getting around to it is the other part. I've got a couple of things I'm hoping to do before I hang it up. It's not so much strictly a country western record I would do; I've always loved a lot of the old ballads, and they always seem to cover both pop and country. I always loved the 6/8 feeling records, songs by Etta James, Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, that sort of thing. 

An album of you singing the female greats, perhaps?

Yeah, and I'm going to come out as a tranny on that one! In my mind I'll be Edie Adams, but I'll look more like Totie Fields. That's got to be good for at least a couple hundred thousand dollars in sales. The cover [alone]… 

You mention hanging it up. Are you thinking about doing that any time soon?
Not consciously, but probably subconsciously. I'm thinking about it every minute of the day. [Laughs] No, I'm having too much fun and we're playing more than ever. 

You're now part of the pop culture lexicon, whether it's from gags in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, SouthPark or Family Guy…. Do any of the jokes ever bother you?

Mostly everything I've heard was pretty hilarious and, of course, I've heard every bit of it because of my kids. Whether I like it or not, I was going to hear it. I told my son one time, "When your music becomes less relevant, your pathetic comic value might come in handy." 

You recently posted photos of yourself on Facebook in the studio with Nile Rodgers. What are you working on? Are you on the next Daft Punk album?

We did a song for a DJ out of Ireland, Krystal Klear. I sang live to loops and a track. Basically you go in and sing the same line about 37 times. I'd sing it a little differently each time. They go back and pick the ones they like, and they have the freedom to put them where they want. 

You say you're tragically unhip, but you just did that and you've recorded with Grizzly Bear and with Holy Ghost. You've become a hipster whether you want to be or not.

I'm certainly multi-genre! [Laughs] I never really look at genres all that seriously. I think there's been too much categorization, especially in recent years where you're either this or that and never the twain shall meet. I think that's absolute bullshit. 

You've sang backup on some huge hits, including Steely Dan's "Peg," Christopher Cross's "Ride Like the Wind" and Kenny Loggins' "This Is It." What's your favorite?

I like "Peg" quite a lot, I loved working with Donald [Fagen], Walter [Becker] and Christopher [Cross]. They were people I had become friends with. To be working with Donald all these years later is really a thrill for me. Did I still think I'd be on the stage with Donald or the Doobies? I wouldn't have bet on that because of way things go in life, but here we are….