China Grove is a real town in San Antonio, Texas. Billy Payne’s bridge stirred Tom Johnston’s subconscious mind. And without realizing it, Tom started painting a picture of this little town. But he thought he was making the place up. It turned out to be a real town!
Adam Reader’s Interview with Pat Simmons and Tom Johnston
AR: If you’re lucky, you can write a song whose first few chords are recognizable on classic rock radio. And you guys have written like four or five of those. You’ve got that distinct guitar, whether it’s Long Train Running or China Grove. Tell me about China Grove and how it came together.
TJ: It came together on 12th Street. I think everything was coming together on 12th Street at that point, that’s where we lived.
TJ: Once again I was in the bedroom fooling around on acoustic (TJ plays chords). And I didn’t have all the chord changes yet. But I went and grabbed John Hartman, who was in the back of the house. I said, “Man we gotta go downstairs, we gotta turn the amps on, this has to be real rock and roll, it has to be loud.”
TJ: This is like 11 at night. The neighbors probably hated us. But most of the neighbors were kids so actually they probably didn’t really care. We went down and cranked it up, and it started coming into its own as far as the feel of it. It didn’t have any bass players, it was just him and me. But at the time it gave us the start.
And then I added changes as the song developed, the… (TJ plays bridge)
The China Grove Guitar Chords Become a Standard
…All that. This thing became a standard. You’d play for people all over the place. And you never know. You have no idea, when you’re writing a song, who it’s gonna affect or how it’s gonna affect anybody.
TJ: But years later I talked to guys who are metal heads… everybody goes, “Oh man that’s first rock and roll song I ever learned.” I go, “Really?” And it was kind of a surprise.
The Origin of the Lyrics
TJ: As far as the title goes and where the lyrics came from… I can’t play it because I don’t know how he played it. I do play keyboard a little but I’m not what I call a keyboard player. But Billy Payne was playing on the track again. And when we were doing that bridge, he played that part…
TJ: I hadn’t written lyrics yet. And again, we had the whole track cut and no lyrics. I said, “Jesus, that’s crazy. I like that.” Then I started going off on this thing about the sheriff. And China Grove is actually a town, and in ’72 we were touring in Winnebagos and we were driving the damn things. Actually, we did drive right down the highway into San Antonio, right past China Grove. Now I remember it specifically, that there’s a road sign that says
TJ: And we called it China Grove. Still, I didn’t really realize that there was a place called China Grove. Up here, in the frontal lobe, anyway. I got told about it by a cab driver in Houston about three years later. He said, “What made you write about that town?” I said, “What town?” He says, “China Grove.” I said, “I didn’t know there was a town called China Grove. It must have some place.” He says, “Yeah man, it’s right down where you’re singing about.” So then I learned that you know, it actually exists.
China Grove’s Impact on Pop Culture
AR: And it’s become a pop culture touchstone. Grand Theft Auto… It was used in King of the Hill… Field of Dreams… And Dolly Parton.
TJ: Did you ever see her version?
TJ: It was amazing, I must say. I just got turned onto that last year, I never saw it before. I went, “Wow, really?” She comes down in this like big swing. I said, “Yeah this feels just like it, I understand …”
PS: I think more than anything, having the enthusiasm and the love for the art form, really for music in general, is a big accomplishment for people that are enmeshed in this business as much as we are. I think a lot of people they sort of get tired or they grow sour, and there’s a lot of other people out there besides us that have retained this enthusiasm. And I’m glad to be a part of that group, the Brian Wilsons, and we were talking about him earlier, people that still love what they’re doing, which is something we always dreamed about that I don’t think for a minute growing up that I ever would have thought that I ever would have these kinds of opportunities, to be able to play with great musicians. It’s a dream for me. I don’t take it for granted.
A Moment of Gratitude
TJ: Yeah we are extremely lucky. A lot of it is luck, you have to say that, because you don’t plan any of this, it just happens. And we’re very fortunate that this has happened. Radio’s been really good to us, and extremely helpful.
AR: Well you have to write the songs that-
TJ: Well that’s nice, it is all about the songs. And it is always about the songs. But the fact that we get to go out and do what we love the most, which is play music and interact with people, that’s another part of this thing. I think everybody on stage tells this way, but I love interacting with a crowd and getting them up and getting them to respond and show their enthusiasm, that’s a high that nobody can explain unless you’re doing it.