SESSIONS at American Songwriter: Jonny Fritz

Jonny Fritz has been on tour in almost every state in the U.S. So recently Fritz, alternately known by his stage name Jonny Corndawg, strapped a stack of his vinyl I’m Not Ready To Be A Daddy LP’s to one side of his motorcycle and his guitar (an archtop Indian-made “Givson”) to the other side and hit the road for the Dakotas.

Fritz is no stranger to the road either. He first began touring around the country at the age of seventeen.”I was just calling up these little towns and asking, ‘Can I play there,'” Jonny says about booking the Dakotas tour. “And they’d be like ‘Oh, I don’t know. OK.'” Fritz played a handful of shows, to mostly small (or no) audiences. Before this Fritz had been living in Philadelphia, which he admits he mostly used as a home base in between his one-man touring road trips, rarely remaining in Philly for more than three months at a time.

Jonny decided to move permanently to Nashville this past summer. When he shows up at our office to record he parks his BMW motorcycle out front. (About the Beemer he says, “It’s the nicest bike I’ll ever own.” He also has a work-in-progress 1975 Goldwing decked out in lights that he bought on Ebay which no words can aptly describe – highly recommended photos here). He’s carrying his lime green crocheted guitar case (with an embroidered border that reads “I’m not ready to be a daddy”). He’s wearing a green racing jacket that his friend found in the trash and salvaged for him and he’s sporting a motorcycle helmet with flying bears. The first song he plays is Jerry Reed’s “East Bound and Down” and in just a few hours he’ll be making a midnight drive to Virginia, where he has a gig the next day.

Jonny Fritz (who bills himself alternately as The Corndawg) has been busy. In our office, he tells fascinating and hilarious stories from his travels in Argentina, Spain and India. He tells me about a brilliant young Louisiana musician named Jimmy Cousins who Fritz befriended, recorded, toured with, and created a record label to help promote. He is most wide-eyed when discussing his musical inspirations: country singers and songwriters like Marty Robbins, Jerry Reed, Roger Miller, Waylon Jennings, Tom T. Hall and Kris Kristofferson. He introduces me to a 1950’s singer and songwriter from Georgia named Jimmy Walker who wrote strange, eerie ballads about the Okefenokee swamp and about whose musical legacy little is remembered today.

Fritz is full of free-spirited anecdotes and country music-worthy stories to write about. When he started finding his old high school friends from Esmont, VA on MySpace, he wrote “Family Tree” a tongue-in-cheek ode to youthful marriage and geographic complacency. (Jonny’s version of “Family Tree” off his I’m Not Ready To Be A Daddy LP, which was recorded in Philadelphia with The Extraordinaires, appears on our CD compilation insert in the Nov/Dec issue of American Songwriter.) It’s a laugh-out-loud but revealing view of Americans: “I love you in the first degree/So let’s start a family tree/Let’s do something that we’re going to regret.” The chorus extols the virtues of staying put in the town you grew up in: “Even if I get that job in Phoenix I won’t move/I’ll tell the district manager to find somebody new.”

Growing up in small town Virginia, Fritz was around some real American sentiments (and stereotypes). He wrote “When A Ford Man Turns To Chevy” to poke fun at how seriously Americans take their choice in automakers. In it’s hyperbole the song could be about anything that’s important to anyone; and in imbuing truck ownership in this way, Fritz makes it a truly awesome cause. It’s a short song and I think worth quoting in full:

When a Ford man turns to Chevy
An angel gets its wings
And the babies they won’t never cry no more
And there won’t be no worries or need for Triple A
When a Ford man turns to Chevrolet

But, oh, just put your hands upon that wheel
And tell me, buddy, just how does that feel?
‘Cause heaven’s hands are gonna lift you up
When you’re flying down the road in your pickup truck
The good Lord’s one and only chariot

When a Ford man turns to Chevy
The anger will subside
And all that will be left will be tires, muscle and pride!

At our office, Fritz plays a series of new and unfinished tunes. Jonny’s not the kind of songwriter who just dials up the phone and has a finished song. From the twenty or so times I’ve listened to I’m Not Ready to Be A Daddy over the last few weeks, I figured Jonny just writes a song at the drop of a hat. (And, actually, indeed when we start talking about his impending night drive to Virginia, he decides to pen an off-the-cuff original in just minutes.) But, Jonny says, he’s only written one keeper (“The Razor Song”) in the past year. He’s philosophical about where songs come from and doesn’t force inspiration. But when it comes, it comes flying.

One of the funniest things I’ve heard all year is Jonny’s yerba matte story,  which also recounts the writing of all his “married songs.” They came in a flurry at the end of a two-day matte bender in Argentina. The first of the married songs is “Oversteppin,” a quirky and tender tale of unrequited love for an older, married woman which has the perfect 21st century folk song chorus: “If you’d only overstep your vows and step into the country/ We’d be out of town, probably smoking marijuana/ So shout out loud or send a text message if you wanna.”

Another of Fritz’s marriage songs from Argentina is “Trash Day,” which laces a melancholic, Spanish melody with lyrics about neglected familial duty: “Monday is the day that the trash goes out/ I can’t forget/ Oh my god/ I better make a list…Then Monday morning I wake up as the truck rolls by/ Oh my god/ She’s gonna be so goddamn mad at me/ When she gets home/ Oh my god.” In lesser hands it would be easy to take a South American folk-song melody and write an idealistic, personal song about an American living in Argentina. Instead, Fritz chooses the most boring and mundane of activities and captures the guilt and heartache of marriage and relationships. (He also sings the lyrics a second time through in Spanish.)

Another of the new songs Fritz plays for us is based on a concept, but it remains unfinished.  “I wanted to write a song about a father who reads his daughter’s diary,” Fritz says. The song is brutally touching and sincere, both funny and sad. I played it for my girlfriend and I could tell the pitch-perfect father/daughter emotion of the song touched deep down. Like the greatest art, with Jonny’s songs, you may start out laughing but by the end you will be crying. Did I mention he also makes amazing airbrush t-shirts?