By Brent Hill
August 3rd, 2014
We’ve all had those days. A flat tire. An ill-timed fever. A fight with the wife. Those shitty, good for nothing days that threaten to obliterate our memories of all the happy ones. It’s in the free-for-all fallout of those days that fringe-country singer Jonny Fritz finds his songs and sincerity.
It’s been over a year since Jonny Fritz (formerly Jonny Corndawg) released his third album, Dad Country. Produced by Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes (much of the band plays on the record, too), and recorded at Jackson Browne’s studio in Los Angeles, Dad Country is an ample slice of old school Americana pie served up with a side of Jonny’s vagabond wit and truck stop humor. It’s also been over a year since NPR Music applauded the new, more serious Jonny, and Rolling Stone named him as an artist to watch. After all the critical acclaim came a 2013 Bonnaroo appearance, an opening slot on The Alabama Shakes’ tour, a host of shows in Japan and Australia, and a new house in Nashville. The list goes on and on. It’s been a good year for Jonny, except for the fact that his doctor told him he needs to stop talking and singing for awhile.
“I’ve got these nodes and polyps on my vocal chords,” Jonny confesses over the phone from Montana, where he just finished changing a flat tire (one of those days). Despite the circumstances and the subject matter, Jonny is friendly and upbeat. The kind of guy that can and will talk to anyone (sorry, Doc). “Yeah, it’s been a bummer,” he continues. “I’ve been feeling pretty shitty for the past year and half. I get sick real easily. Which sucks, because it all started right when Dad Country first came out, and I haven’t really been able to tour like I used to. I can only do a few weeks at a time. I’m used to doing six week tours and maybe 250 shows a year. My doctor tells me no more running, singing, talking, or stress– that doesn’t really work for me.”
The prognosis doesn’t seem to get Jonny down for long as he steers the conversation toward some highlights from the past year. He points to the new documentary film Heartworn Highways: Revisited in which he, along with several other contemporary Outlaw Country musicians, including John McCauley of Deer Tick, are featured alongside greats like David Allan Coe and Guy Clark. “Oh man,” Jonny gushes, “being a part of Heartworn Highways and getting to hang out with my hero Guy Clark…that was the highlight of my year. He’s like this wise old sage who passed all these great songwriting tips down to me. It was an an incredible experience.”
Critics in the past have accused Jonny of being an “ironic hipster” — a rhinestone jester poking fun at country music and its people. Those critics are wrong. To hear him talk about Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and his buddies in Dawes and Deer Tick, you realize that Jonny is nothing if not sincere about who he is and what he does.
And what he does (besides leatherworking and marathon running) is write songs that balance the highs and lows of a life fully lived– a life filled with beautiful sunsets followed by raging crapstorms. Jonny’s songs remind us to revel in both the momentous and the minutiae. From his someone-better-call-the-guidance-counselor ballad “Have You Ever Wanted to Die” to the hilarious after-party anthem “Goodbye Summer” to the sad sack sing-along “Trashday,” Jonny’s sincerity is as infectious as his melodies. He writes like he lives– in the moment. “I just want whatever is happening in my life to come out in my songs,” Jonny says. “I was going through a really bad break-up when I wrote Dad Country, so it’s a little darker than I tend to be. I usually laugh everything off. I tend to write when things are going really good or really bad. The last two years have been really great, except for the whole vocal chord thing, but otherwise I’ve been having a really amazing time. So, I don’t know what the next record is going to be like, but I know it will be awesome, because it will be real.”
The reality is that the road that led Jonny to Jackson Browne’s studio was not an easy one. He dropped out of high school around 9th grade citing “irreconcible differences” and claiming that the breakup was amicable. Then early on in his music career he toured with a Goth band whose lifestyle seemed to match his, but his twang-tinged sound stood out at the shows like an infected navel piercing. He felt alone out on the road and at one point he decided he was done with music. “I never thought this would work out,” Jonny recalls. “I figured I would give up before anything happened, anyway. And I did. I gave up about five years ago. I just quit. Then by luck I got a little bit of a break and I thought ‘okay, fuck it, I’m going to give music everything I’ve got, put everything into it. If it works out, great. If not, oh well.’ And it started to work out. I have no idea how, but it did.”
Jonny is careful– and very aware– about staring too long into the proverbial gift horse’s mouth. “I’m a leather working weirdo country singer,” he jokes. “Nobody’s gonna respect anything I do until I’m at least 55. Nobody gives a shit about a 30 year-old country singer. I’m too young.” Spend a few minutes talking to Jonny and you’re able to picture the sensitive, well-liked kid (probably with crazy hair) from high school who had just had enough of the bullshit that comes with being a creative kid trapped in the confines of the public education system. He needed to leave, to hit the road, to find others like him out there.
For a traveling musician the idea of community can be a lost cause — a new town and a new venue every night makes it difficult to develop real connections with real people. Community, once found, has the power to heal. To open you up to all sorts of possibilities. Jonny has found his community in the likes of Deer Tick, Dawes, Robert Ellis, Spencer Collum Jr. and countless others in and out of the Nashville area who are creating authentic Americana that seeks to reconnect listeners to the side of country music that’s been lost to the beer-soaked, bikinis and bitches bravado of today’s Bro-country.
Jonny Fritz and his fringe-country brethren are a nationwide network of friends who support each other in selfless ways–producing each other’s albums, inviting each other on tour, opening up their homes and studios to each other. In a true community you learn to give as much as you take–that’s brotherhood…that’s real Bro-country. “I’ve been doing this for eight years now,” Jonny says. “Up until about three years ago, it was really rough. There weren’t many of us out there doing what I was doing. Now it seems like there are so many of us, and everyone is really good and sincere. It’s wonderful to know I have this incredible community now. And it’s spread out across the whole damn country.”
Finding out who you really are is one thing, but finding out who you really are in the context of a community is something else entirely. And Jonny Fritz knows exactly who he is. He’s one lucky son-of-a-bitch. “I’m just now realizing what’s been happening over the last year. It’s all so surreal when you’re just hanging out and Jackson Browne walks up to you and asks you to record your record in his studio. You’re like ‘sure thing Jackson Fucking Browne. I’ll get right on that.’ And then you’re there and the record is made and you’re like ‘what’s next?'”
What is next for Jonny? He can’t really say right now, but he claims that he’s beginning to see the flicker of some new songs on the horizon. But maybe he’s waiting for a few more of those bad days. Or maybe he just needs to look back at the magic of the past year or two for inspiration.
“It’s taken me a couple years to let all this amazing stuff that’s been happening to me really soak in– and I’m just now realizing that I’ve got a pretty charmed life.” Not a bad outlook for a guy who just finished changing a flat tire in the middle of nowhere.
Listen to the album Dad Country
Jonny Fritz plays at God Save the Queen City at Chop Shop on August 9 with several of his Nashville friends.
For more info about God Save the Queen City please visit www.gstqc.com.