Donnie Fritts: Ready For His Close-Up

photobyAllisterAnn
photo by Allister Ann

 

This article appears in our September/October 2015 issue, now available on newsstands.

Imagine the scene projected larger than life on a theater screen. A grizzled old musician and actor named Donnie Fritts, a hearing aid planted in his ear, plays an ancient Wurlitzer 200a piano while he sings a song called “Errol Flynn” and peers out the window at the Muscle Shoals landscape. His voice may not be pretty, but it does convey a long life full of hard luck and hard work.

Behind him stands a young man named John Paul White, late of The Civil Wars, his hair long and his countenance slightly quizzical. He is not sure why he is in this living room. As the song proceeds, Fritts leans back to gauge White’s interest. The young man finds himself holding back tears. “Errol Flynn” ends, but another begins. Then another. In our imagined movie, this is a crucial scene: the climax of our Act 1, when the old man proves that he still has some fight left in him.

Flashback: After cutting his teeth in R&B bands touring the South during the early 1960s, Fritts worked at the legendary FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and penned hits for Joe Simon (“Easy To Love”), The Box Tops (“Choo Choo Train”), Dolly Parton (“We Had It All”), and Dusty Springfield (“Breakfast In Bed”). In the 1970s, he not only began a forty-year stint as Kris Kristofferson’s keyboard player but also stumbled into a second (or by now is it a third?) career as a character actor in Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia and Convoy, among other flicks.

“I knew the legend of him,” says White. “I knew the story of him touring with Kris and hanging out with Johnny and Willie and Waylon and folks like that. But I never knew him as an artist. I’d seen him play around town for years and known him as the guy who typically would be playing a bar with a PA that didn’t do him justice and an audience that didn’t appreciate him. I’d never seen him in the light that I saw him in when he was playing for me in his living room.”

Cut to: a montage of Fritts and White recording an album together in Muscle Shoals. They labor over a song called “If It’s Really Gotta Be This Way,” which Fritts co-wrote with the soul singer Arthur Alexander and which in a different movie is a stone classic instead of an obscurity. Fritts jams on a funky number called “Memphis Women,” which he considers his signature song. He tackles another called “The Oldest Baby In The World,” which he penned with John Prine.

A parade of Yellowhammer State musicians passes through the montage: Jason Isbell, Ben Tanner and Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes, Allen Bransetter and Ben Griner of St. Paul & the Broken Bones, and Muscle Shoals natives The Secret Sisters. “We started with the Wurlitzer and just built around that,” says Fritts. “I wanted it to be a different-sounding album – but still funky. So we used a lot of younger musicians and they played stuff I never would have thought of playing.”

Finally, the camera settles on Fritts and his old friend Spooner Oldham, huddled around a piano playing a song they wrote together decades ago, the slow, quietly hymnlike “Oh My Goodness.” It’s a beautiful moment, one that not only acts as the album’s closing track – a benediction, of sorts – but also provides a title. Oh My Goodness emphasizes Fritts’ influence on a whole new generation of Alabama musicians even as it surveys his long career in Muscle Shoals and beyond.

This is Fritts’ long-overdue close-up. For years he has hated to hear his own voice. Even in his prime, he never considered himself a singer, and his own solo albums, just a handful over four decades, were packed distractingly with famous friends and well-known admirers. But Oh My Goodness bravely puts that burr of a voice right in the foreground, and his barbed Shoals twang disguises a bruised vulnerability, as though all the years have taken an emotional as well as a physical toll on him.

“I’m prouder of this record than anything I’ve ever done,” he says. “I know people say that about every record, but hey, I’ve never said that before. There are a lot of things I didn’t like about my other records – mostly me! But I found a way to do these songs where it didn’t bother me to hear them played back. That’s never happened before.”

Roll credits.