Southern Pacific drummer Keith Knudsen likes to imagine what it might be like if the early Doobie Brothers or Creedence Clearwater Revival suddenly appeared on the music scene today. Just picture the double bill, Knudsen suggests: A group of San Jose longhairs singing lazy clap-along ditties about the virtues of kicking back and listening to the music. And three guys in flannel shirts playing dobros and Chet Atkins-model guitars, fronted by a lead singer with a Southern drawl so severe he could make a phrase like "There's a bad moon on the rise" sound like directions to the john.

Would these clodhopper combos stand a chance against a militia of Midnight Oilers, a posse of Public Enemies, and a nursery full of New Kids?

"They'd probably be labeled country right off," the 42-year-old Knudsen bets. "And rock and Top 40 radio wouldn't touch 'em."

Knudsen should know. Southern Pacific, which includes a couple of former Doobies members (Knudsen and guitarist John McFee) and one Creedence alum (bassist Stu Cook), has been getting the cold shoulder from rock and pop radio stations for five and a half years. A mildly frustrating situation considering, as Knudsen insists, the music he and his cohorts are making today is not a whole lot different from the down-home sounds both CCR and the DBs fiddled around with in their top-of-the-pops heyday.

"We always had at least one or two country-influenced things on all our albums," says the former timekeeper in the Doobies' dual drum corps in a recent telephone interview. "`Black Water' was our first No. 1 single, and that was very country for rock radio. And of course Creedence had a lot of hits that were country-influenced," Knudsen adds, noting such back-porch toe-tappers as "Lookin' Out My Backdoor," "Down on the Corner," and "Lodi."

Not that the members of Southern Pacific are unhappy working with the "country" label branded on their collective behinds. "John and I both started out doing country music when we were young," says Knudsen, who began his career as a professional musician at age fourteen. "So we're really just getting back to our roots."

Knudsen and McFee returned to their first love following a few Doobies reunion tours in the early Eighties and soon signed with Warner Bros. Records' Nashville division. The band's self-titled 1985 debut album put two songs near the top of the country singles chart and earned Southern Pacific an award as Billboard's Top New Country Act that year. The group's third album, 1988's Zuma, yielded its first No. 1 hit, "New Shade of Blue," and landed two more singles in the Top 10. And County Line, Southern Pacific's latest, has already catapulted four cuts into heavy rotation on country radio.

Still, Knudsen, McFee, Cook, and keyboardist Kurt Howell (a former session pro) think there are a lot more "potential fans" that the band's been unable to reach simply because of its country categorization.

"Our feeling is that if noncountry fans heard our music, they would like it," Knudsen insists. "I mean, it'd be great if we could get rid of all the labels and categories and just call it music. But it doesn't work that way, does it?"

Knudsen finds it ironic that most of his favorite old rock bands--the Eagles, the Byrds, Poco--would probably be squirming in the country category, too, if they were introduced today. "That's encouraging, actually," he says with a laugh. "It makes me feel maybe we're doing something right here."

EVEN THOUGH POP and rock musicians from Michael ("Wildfire") Murphey to ex-Byrd Chris Hillman have made successful transitions to the sawdust circuit, it's not always as easy as trading in the long hair and spandex for a beard and some Tony Lamas. Keith Knudsen says his road from rock success to country stardom has been filled with a series of potholes and detours.

"Country fans look at the rock credentials--`former Doobie Brother,' `former Creedence'--and they won't take a listen to the album," he says, recalling Southern Pacific's initial reception. "We're always hearing, `Well, that's not country enough,' or `That's a little too rock.' And then when we put out a song that's really country, like `Honey I Dare You,' the same stations go, `That doesn't sound like you guys. Who are you tryin' to be?' I mean, talk about frustration!"

Fitting rock's rule-breaking spirit into a ten-gallon Stetson can be equally buffaloing. On County Line, Southern Pacific dabbles with computerized drums, invites the Beach Boys to sing back-up on a countrified remake of "G.T.O.," and unplugs the instruments for an a cappella rendering of Del Shannon's "I Go to Pieces." None of these tradition-tromping moves sits well with the Grand Ole Opry purists who still dominate the country radio audience.

"When we put out our a cappella song, there were ten or so big country stations that wouldn't play it," reports Knudsen, adding that the tune has been a longtime crowd favorite at the group's shows. "They wouldn't even test it. We heard [program directors say] things like, `Well, there's no music on it.' That killed us!" he laughs. "Or, `Well, I liked it, but that's an old pop song [it was a Top 40 hit for Peter and Gordon back in 1964]. We can't use it.' Meanwhile, on the stations that did play it, it was the most requested record that we ever had."

Country also has its own share of image-making machinery and marketing principles to deal with. Knudsen, McFee, Cook, and Howell discovered this when they tried to continue as a four-piece outfit after lead singer Tim Goodman quit the band after the release of its second album, Killbilly Hill. "At that point, we told our record company, `Look, we think we'll sound good as a four-piece--in fact, with just the four of us, the band will probably sound the way it should sound.' The thing was, John and Kurt and Stu and I knew we could count on each other. We had a vision for this band that the fifth guy, whoever it was, was always a little out of sync with.

"But our record company, I guess, felt we needed that fifth member as a focus for the group. It was the image thing; we had made two albums with five guys, and even though Kurt and John had sung lead on a couple of songs--and sung well--the record company felt it was important to have one guy singing all the songs. So to be honest, we kind of bent to their wishes at that point and went out and got another lead singer."

After new front man David Jenkins (formerly of Pablo Cruise) quit after the release of Zuma, Warner Bros. Records finally let the quartet go it without a front man.

"And our record company, by the way, came and heard us while we were making County Line and said, `Yeah, you guys were right,'" Knudsen laughs. "So there was some satisfaction in that."

SINCE SOLIDIFYING its line-up and streamlining its sound, Southern Pacific has been enjoying more notice than ever. The foursome's first single from County Line, "Any Way the Wind Blows," was featured on the soundtrack to the Clint Eastwood flick Pink Cadillac. And earlier this year, Southern Pacific was signed on as commercial spokesgroup for Justin Boots ("Hot Country--Cool Boots," proclaim the posters showing the booted band members). The critical attention, too, has been mounting. One writer recently dubbed the band "the most exciting new country-rock group to appear since the Eagles."

And Knudsen and company are bullish on the prospects of their wayward sound eventually finding the perfect home--home on the radio.

"I think it's coming around," he says, "'cause I hear Eagles records and Creedence records and even Doobies records played on some country stations nowadays. What I think will happen is that country radio will branch off into as many different formats as rock. You'll have the traditional country stations, the progressive country stations, and eventually there'll be a station for old and new country-rock."

If Knudsen's predictions fail to materialize, the drummer has no desire to go back to big-arena rock. "This is more what I want to do," he says. "I mean, I was with the Doobies almost ten years, and I had a great time. I played in front of a lot of people, traveled all over the world and was involved in playing a lot of really good music. But I wouldn't go back to it. I firmly believe that the potential for Southern Pacific is the same.

"Otherwise," he laughs, "I don't think any of us would be doing it after all these years."

Southern Pacific will perform at Toolies Country on Tuesday, July 17. Show times are 8 and 10 p.m.

"It'd be great if we could get rid of all the labels and categories and just call it music. But it doesn't work that way, does it?"

And then when we put out a song that's really country, the same stations go, `That doesn't sound like you guys.' I mean, talk about frustration!

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