China Grove: Is that even a real place or just a cool old song?

China Grove:  If you know the song…just the mention of it brings the distinctive guitar riff and power chords to mind

China Grove is a song from The Doobie Brothers‘ 1973 album The Captain and Me. It was written by original lead singer Tom Johnston, before he fell ill in 1975 and was replaced by Michael McDonald. The song is based on a real town in Texas with the same name and a massive population of 1179 (according to a 2010 census). The connection is obvious given its real-life proximity to San Antonio, which is referenced in the lyrics. However, the rest of the song is largely a fictional account portraying China Grove as Texas’ version of Chinatown. Notable is the mention of samurai, who in fact are Japanese, not Chinese…just saying’.

The track was originally titled “Parliament” after the band’s tradition of naming demos after whatever brand of cigarette Tom Johnston was smoking at the time. According to producer Ted Templeman, “Billy Payne played a keyboard thing on the bridge that sounded like an Oriental lick, so I told Tommy, ‘Write something that sounds oriental.’ So he came up with ‘China Grove’.”

Tom Johnston mentions: “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.” (Full interview with Tom Johnston.)

so…there you have it!

 

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