It ought to say something that Jonny Fritz insisted on signing his new ATO Records contract with a quill pen dipped in gravy at a Nashville greasy spoon called Arnold’s Country Kitchen. He’s serious about his career as an indie country singer and songwriter, but he makes a big show, onstage and off, of not taking himself too seriously.
There’s little danger of Fritz’s new album, Dad Country, getting lost in the sea of new releases. The perspective he offers on what he’s up to as a performer is pretty darn smart and memorable, too.
CMT Edge: I noticed that you started using the term “dad country” to describe the music you’re making, and you chose it as the album title and even painted it on the sides of your van. I’m familiar with the idea of “suburban soccer mom country,” but what are you getting at with “dad country”?
Fritz: That’s a good question. It’s kind of funny. I was pegged as an Outlaw. … I think the problem with people’s perception of country music today is it’s either new country or it’s Outlaw country, and there’s nothing in between. I like Outlaw country, but my inspiration is more ‘90s country and not as cool. I’m more into John Conlee. I’d rather listen to ‘80s and ‘90s — Keith Whitley, stuff like that, and Clint Black. Also, I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs, I’m not a bad boy. So whenever somebody’s like, “Oh, man, you’re an Outlaw,” I’m like, “No, I’m not an Outlaw at all. I’m more like somebody’s weird dad or something.”
I had toured for years on my motorcycle, and then I bought a minivan and stopped touring on the motorcycle. It was kind of a funny letdown whenever I’d see people and they’d ask, “Hey, are you still touring on that motorcycle?” I’m like, “No, actually I got a minivan.” Dad country.
You’re no longer going by the stage name Jonny Corndawg but using your given name. What difference has that made in how people respond to what you’re doing?
I never really cared about the name. It never bothered me. But it got to the point where it was just like every interaction I’d have with somebody, if it was a stranger and they didn’t know anything about me, they’d probably have enough time to have three questions, and [the first one would always be] “I’ve just got to know where the name came from.” I found myself hiding from people because I don’t want to talk about the name. The most important thing was that I got away from it, and I don’t have to explain it anymore.
It’s been sort of a mixed bag because people don’t remember who I am. They won’t remember my name. It’s also tough if you say, “I’m just a guy named Jonny Fritz. I’m gonna play some songs.” Then they’ll hear my set, and they’re like, “Oh, that’s a little dirtier than I thought. I wasn’t prepared for that.” Yeah, well, with “Jonny Corndawg,” you would’ve been prepared for it. It wouldn’t have been such a sneak attack to be singing such sexual stuff.
I saw a blog entry years ago where the writer didn’t know what to make of you. He was emphatic that your persona was laced with irony, but equally emphatic that there were flashes of brilliance in your songwriting. Do you get that sort of thing very often?
That was hilarious. When that came out, I thought, “What in the hell? I sure gave this guy a run for his money. He has no idea what to think.” That’s what I’m talking about. I’d so much rather [get] a reaction like that than somebody just middle-of-the-road, like, “Yeah, it was good. I guess it was OK. Not bad, just really average.” … I’ve had that happen [other times], but that was definitely the best one ever.
A lot of songs have been written about the romance of restlessness and the lure of the road. You have songs that capture how unglamorous touring can be and what it’s like to have to travel when you’re sick. Do you pride yourself in finding new angles like that to explore in your songwriting?
Not really. I just like to tell it how it is. … I love just writing about everyday stuff. That’s kind of my favorite thing. I find there’s just so much more weight [to it], at least to me.
You’re sitting in a van for eight hours a day. You’re pissed at everybody in the van. Everybody has to pee, and you’re late and can never make soundcheck. … There are just so many things that I feel like people won’t even talk about, and those are the things that I think are the most powerful to talk about when you’re talking about the road.
There’s a great Hank Jr. song. I think it’s called “Hamburger Steak, Holiday Inn.” He’s [talking about] eating shitty food and sleeping in hotels. You go into a diner, and you’re like, “Better grab a damn picture because we’re gonna get harassed. Bring a picture for the waitress.” That’s so cool. I would so much rather hear somebody tell the honest truth.
Obviously, I don’t have much fame or success or money or anything. So the things I’m writing about are being really sick.
When you write about relationships, the result is songs like “Trash Day.” You give a sense of how an itty bitty thing like not remembering to take out the trash can make the tension boil over. There’s an element of the absurd there, but it’s also really effective. Is that what you’re aiming for?
Yeah, absolutely. There’s so much absurd stuff in everyday life that gets skimmed over. That could create such a heavy message, and it could point out so many things. I feel like I actually captured that with “Trash Day.” … [The idea is] you don’t say very much, but whatever you do say, make sure it’s fun and funny and heavy and sad and all those things. And there are only two chords in the whole song. Whew, that’s one of my favorite songs for that reason.
There’s an instrumental number on the album and lots of fiddle and steel guitar solos. You even call out the players’ names. Why is it important to you to spotlight them?
Because they’re so good. These guys are just so damn good. [Steel player] Spencer [Cullum Jr.] is a British guy, and he always jokes that he’s been listed on a lot of records as, you know, it’ll be whoever he plays with that’s this huge name, then in the fine print on the back it’ll be like “additional musicians: Spencer Cullum.” Or they’ll spell his name wrong or something. I always think, “Man, these guys are among the best. They work just as hard as everybody else. I think they really deserve to be put out there and showcased.”
The thing with [fiddle player] Josh Hedley is if anybody ever finds out how good this guy is, I’m gonna be out of a [fiddler], and it’s gonna be real quick. I just feel it’s my responsibility since I’m the one bringing ‘em out there and putting ‘em on the record. You should know this guy’s name since he’s such an important part of my life and my career. It is not just me that you’re hearing.
Humor can be tricky to talk about because what makes something funny is so intangible. But how would you compare the role humor plays in your music with the way Roger Miller or Jerry Reed used it?
Believe it or not, I never think when I’m writing a song that it’s actually gonna be funny. First it’s just kinda what comes out.
I heard an interview from Roger Miller that kind of blew my mind because it was the exact same method that I have really — or the same problem, whatever you want to call it. He said when he was a young adult, he was writing all these songs that everybody thought were so funny. He didn’t realize that they were funny. He thought he sounded like the classics. He was trying to write songs like Red Foley, you know, and he thought he was. But it was just the kind of person he was. He was an inherently hilarious person. It just came out that way.
I think my nature is just so jokey. Things are either fun or they’re funny, or I don’t really mess around with ‘em. That’s just how it comes out. It really is. Humor is so important to me. So I guess there’s a reason there because if I didn’t love funny stuff so much, it wouldn’t just be the first thing that comes out, funny lyrics.
All these things we’re talking about, your band, your storytelling, have clear ties to country tradition. To me, the biggest departure from country — old or new, mainstream or alternative — is your singing. Is there anybody that you consider a vocal influence? How did you arrive at your thing?
Well, I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it, to be honest. Singers that I really admire and probably subconsciously try to sing like are like Lucinda Williamsand Dolly Parton. Then, you know, John Conlee and Keith Whitley and Clint Black, those guys. I haven’t thought about it, really. I really don’t know if I sound like any of those people at all. I just know that I really love their style.
But you’re not a deep, blue honky-tonker like Keith Whitley, and you’re not crooning, and it’s not a Southern or country-rock thing.
I’ll try to sing [Keith Whitley’s] “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” and I’m like, “God, I wish I could do that.” Or Guy Clark. I try to sing like Guy Clark a lot, and I can’t. I can’t sing like anybody but myself, I guess. I don’t know where it came from, but I hope it sounds all right.