Country is probably the most self-obsessed form of popular American music. It turns its own history over and over in its head, venerating its heroes and commenting on its progressions and digressions, its failure to live up to the myths the tradition has created. As a genre, it’s rivaled only by rap in its tendency to sing about itself and its evolution, to take itself as its own subject and find the emotional resonance of something like a style or a tradition. Waylon Jennings classic song “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” was a lament that country music had given itself over to glitzy self-delusion: “Lord it’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar. Where do we take it from here? Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars. It’s been the same way for years.” But it’s also a song filled with guilt as the singer knows he too is leading the genre into new terrain, further and further from Hank Williams and country’s roots: “Lord, I’ve seen the world, with a five-piece band. Looking at the back side of me. Singing my songs, and one of his now and then. But I don’t think Hank done ’em this way, no. I don’t think Hank done ’em this way.”“Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” is a song about change, new sounds and new attitudes, but the progress that Waylon is singing about is only visible if it’s framed by a tradition which makes that change legible.
The following interview with Jonny Fritz is excerpted from Fowre: Country, an upcoming collection of interviews country musicians, singers, and songwriters that tracks the complex relationship between the conventions of a genre — its accepted rules, conventions, its dominant narratives and assumed subjects — and the creative forces that force those conventions to change, adapt, or rupture. Each of the interviewees navigate the straits of country music in their own way, but Jonny Fritz really exemplifies the thoughtfulness and good humor that characterizes the collection. Fritz is an L.A.-based musician who plays a weird, riotous, sometimes mordant country music all his own. Often pegged as an inheritor of the outlaw tradition, Fritz bucks any neat genealogy, pushing his songs into emotional terrain typically unexplored in country music and refusing to become a gimmick or mimic. We spoke by phone last fall, shortly before his latest studio album Sweet Creep was released on ATO records. A virtuoso storyteller, we covered topics ranging from the importance of sincerity to the creative inspiration born of shitty traffic patterns in Nashville. Follow him on Instagram and pre-order Fowre: Country.
JESSE MONTGOMERY: Since 2008, when you released your debut album I’m Not Ready To Be A Daddy, you’ve moved around a lot and played with a bunch of interesting people.
JONNY FRITZ: I’ll start from the beginning. I started making music in Virginia. I was born in Montana, but I was raised in Central Virginia. And I kind of started writing music as a retaliation against modern country music. I always thought, God I hate this music so much and I want to write songs about, you know, everyday stuff — stuff that’s interesting to me and that I think is interesting. I started singing acapella country, I didn’t know how to play guitar and I started opening for this goth band in Charlottesville, Virginia. They took me on my first couple of tours. I was 17 or 18 and I started touring that way. So that’s kind of where I got started. From there I moved to Philadelphia and was there for like five years, then to Nashville for seven or eight. Back in those days I toured the whole country on a motorcycle, which was fun but pretty exhausting. I just moved to Los Angeles about a year ago and now I’m here for good I hope.
You’re into LA?
I love it. I really really love it, it’s exactly where I want to be. I’ve realized that I really like performing and being on stage, but man, when it’s time to get off stage I like to be anonymous. I like nobody to know who I am and just observe people. LA is perfect for that. There are so many weirdos here, and even if you are a celebrity people don’t really bother you. There’s a lot more respect here for anonymity, and that part I really get down with. And just the neutrality of non-Southern culture. It’s really nice. It’s not the South. There’s less of the stigmas of the South that really got to me after a while.
Were you running into a lot of that stigma playing country music?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I’m definitely in the “fringe” country scene. I’m not playing at the airport or anything. Ever since I started chasing down country music and my dream of what it was — it has been long dead. By the time I got to country music it was Gary Allen and 9/11. And that’s real country, that’s what the people I grew up with in Central Virginia want to listen to. They don’t listen to George Jones and stuff like that. I kind of felt like some Eastern European tourist going to Memphis trying to find Elvis. But it’s okay, because there are enough people like me in Nashville who want that stuff to still be alive, and they still make that kind of music. So in the music scene there wasn’t much of that conservative stuff, the town’s pretty open minded as far as music stuff goes, but I think it was just the day to day, going to the grocery store and pumpin’ gas and the hardware store. That’s where you can really feel the weight leftover from so many years of slavery and that country defeated bullshit. A lot of people aren’t that sensitive to it, but I think it just really affected me and I couldn’t take it.
In Nashville you’ve got a lot of what you just called “9/11 country music,” but you also have a pretty sizable group of people who, for them, country music is George Jones, and Kris Kristofferson and Guy Clark.
Exactly, yeah. And you could go your entire life without running into the 9/11 country music. It’s very polarized, people are usually one or the other. Or, everybody’s kind of into George Jones but some people are only into George Jones. You know?
You were in the documentary Heartworn Highways Revisited that covered a lot of current Nashville songwriters who were really influenced by the outlaw country movement in the 1970s. It must be a real honor to be positioned as an inheritor of that music, but do you ever feel like there’s a nostalgia for that music that prevents people from making country music that’s engaging with more contemporary stuff?
Absolutely. It was such an honor to be featured in that thing, and what a cool project. I mean there was a lot of good music in that thing, but, I mean, there’s been a lot of good music that has happened since then, and it does feel like people can get stumped or a little nerdy. I think that Americana was born when the creative parts of country music came to a halt. I think it kind of stalled out and was just hovering, like, What do we do? I dunno, let’s just keep making a copy of a copy of a copy. It just keeps getting more and more boring and basic and restricted. That’s what I feel like can happen if you aren’t careful.
What are some good ways to stay careful?
If I’m not careful I will only listen to Mickey Newbury and Bonnie Raitt. So I am as guilty as anyone else when it comes to listening habits, but I think you have to work to broaden your musical horizons. I watched a Billy Joe Shaver interview one time and he said, “You know, this new country bullshit that’s happening it’s just the same old thing that I’ve been hearing for the last 30 years and I don’t really listen to it. But you know what I do listen to are these new hip-hop guys.” Which is funny — a lot of the Merle Haggard- and George Jones-only fans will complain: it’s just redneck hip hop. And yet the music that they make is just as unoriginal as what they complain about. And even better, Billy Joe Shaver — the person that is their hero, the leader of their whole movement — he’s into these new hip-hop guys. He says, “You know, some of the new hip-hop guys they’re writing about their real experiences and if you listen to the words and if you listen to their stories they’re telling the truth.” I thought that was so cool, I thought, Yeah good for you! This old man has no reason to appreciate this stuff, but here he does anyway. I love that.
Your songs are also very attentive to character, they’re full of people who seem kind of bizarre but very real and believable.
Yeah, that’s my whole thing. Just trying to get in someone else’s head and tell someone else’s story and that’s always been important for me. Man, I started doing this thing last night. I go to these bars and just sit by myself at a bar — and this really works here because of the anonymity thing of Los Angeles — I mean, I know a lot of people here, but if you go to the one place you don’t think you’ll know anybody, you don’t know anybody, nobody at all, and that’s incredible. So I’ll sit at a bar and just eavesdrop on everybody around me and drink a lot of caffeine and just sit on my phone and start telling their stories and building these characters and like taking a bit of what they hear and filling in the rest of what I think they’re going to say next. And it’s just been such a cool exercise for building characters and really getting into the thing. The little snippets of what you hear people saying in the background is just gold too. When you string them together? And you tell their story and as if you’re writing a letter to an old friend in their voice? Oh God, it’s a really good exercise.
It’s amazing how alone people will act in a bar surrounded by other people.
Sure. I love that. Another place that’s really good is the fancy hotel lobby. Or not even a super fancy one, like a Radisson or something like that? If you go to a Radisson lobby at seven a.m. on any day of the week it’s just businessmen on Bluetooth headsets saying the craziest shit. (You know everyone can hear you!) One of my favorite things I heard was this guy, he’s walking through a lobby — this was in Philly, I used to do this a lot in Philly — and he’s walking through a lobby and he’s on his Bluetooth talking really loud, and this guy is like, “Yeah — Yeah — No, no, I know, I know. Yeah, I heard what he said, what I want you to do is tell me what the fuck it means. Yeah, no, he was talking to a client, Danny…yeah, about vaginal fisting!” It was so good. Like, who are you? What is your life?
I can’t think of a more perfect place to hear that than in the lobby of a Philadelphia Radisson. Speaking of hotels, could you walk me through your song “Stadium Inn”?
Oh, absolutely. God bless that place. The song is about this motel in Nashville and each verse is supposed to be telling a different story from a different window of somebody in the building. And yeah, it’s pretty dark stuff. I wanted to document this in the timeline of Nashville because, look, five years ago I used to go to the Stadium Inn to watch wrestling in the lobby. They had amateur wrestling there and it was three dollars if you wanted to sit in the back row — the second row — and it was five dollars if you wanted to sit in the front row. And it was amateurs, it was guys from around the neighborhood who developed personas and characters and they choreographed these wrestling routines. And it was in the fucking lobby of the Stadium Inn, right downtown! It was incredible. And I’d go whenever I was in town. Go by myself, go with some friends, whatever. And then my parents came to visit for Christmas one year and I was like, Oh shit, we’re going to the Stadium Inn to watch wrestling! So we get down there and I’m like, Three tickets, please! And the lady’s like, “We don’t do that no more. We’re all done with wrestling. That’s all out.” And I just thought, well isn’t that the saddest fucking thing.
It was one of the first moments of New Nashville, of great things going away, and I just thought, Shit, that’s really sad. And then, at the same moment, Nashville suddenly had a ton of traffic. It had never had traffic before. So you would be driving through downtown on I-24 and you’d get stuck in traffic right next to the Stadium Inn. And I remember getting stopped right there and looking over and seeing straight into the windows and I thought, man, this is like being a passenger on a train and going through the West for the first time and looking out and seeing a teepee and thinking, “oh man that’s not gonna be there for much longer.” I just keep waiting for them to plow that place. And the natives, if you will, to continue that metaphor, the people that live there inside have never had the threat of onlookers. No one has ever stopped in traffic next to the Stadium Inn, no one has ever noticed it, it’s just been there. In the outskirts but still downtown. So once wrestling went and once traffic came and once people could see in there — well now it’s just time for that place to go, and I swear to God it won’t be a year and it’s just gonna be plowed down. So I just wanted to write that song for that place because — what a thing in the timeline of Nashville’s existence.
Nashville’s a hard town to be in if you’re only attracted to non-productive things that are going to get bulldozed.
Yeah, and that’s what attracted me to Nashville in the first place. All these things that didn’t belong, but somehow they did and they worked and survived. But it was a hard place to live. It meant that if you were there you were really trying to work something out through music, because it wasn’t very fun. It wasn’t a very fun or entertaining place, it was a very hardworking and poor and difficult life. I thought it was hard and I loved it, I really really loved it. But it changed a little bit, and I changed a little bit and that’s why I left. I don’t mean to talk shit on it, it just is what it is, you know?
Did it produce good music as a result of being so hard?
Absolutely. I mean, I had nothing else to do but work on songs and everybody that was around me was doing the same thing. You know, it was every night of the week staying up until four in the morning playing music. And it still is that. The music that’s coming out of Nashville is still really good. I don’t think that’s really gonna change but something changed for me.
What is it about the everyday and the mundane that attracts you as a songwriter?
I don’t know what it is about everydayness, but it’s always bugged me how little of that there is in songs. I find that the vast majority of songs are about love, which is kind of a weird topic. I really do think it’s a weird thing that I dare say that 90% of all music is about love, you know? Why, what the hell? Anyway, the everyday thing is so important. For me it’s a therapeutic way of explaining what’s going on. I remember a Mel Tillis interview I heard when I was a teenager. Mel Tillis has a really bad stutter and he can’t get his words out, but he can sing his words and there’s this great story where Mel Tillis and Johnny Paycheck and a bunch of guys are all sharing a hotel room together and there’s nowhere to sleep so Mel goes to sleep in the bathtub. Later, Johnny Paycheck comes back but because he doesn’t have a key he has to climb in through the window of the bathroom. This spooks Mel, but because he didn’t have any way to speak — he knew if he tried to say “What are you doing in here?!” he’d stutter too bad — he just broke into song: “Somebody’s comin’ through my windowww!” [laughs] And I just love that. That’s the song that I want to hear. I want to hear songs about just straight to the heart stuff that’s bother people. Stuff that’s real. There’s nothing real about drinking beer in a tavern. You’ve never been to a fuckin tavern, taverns haven’t been around for 150 years. You’re not Thomas Jefferson on a coach. The fact that the fuckin word “tavern” gets written still today…it just makes me want to fuckin’ freak! There’s no such thing as a tavern, stop. Just sing about how your phone charger doesn’t work because you bought a new phone.
When you see people who do it well, it seems like a no brainer. Of course you should sing about forgetting your contact solution, if you can do it well. Don’t do it if you’re bad at it. Take James McMurtry. James McMurtry is like a great version of people I would watch play terrible music at open mic nights in coffee shops. Like, he’s singing a song about being a local in a town that’s changed and gotten cool, which could be completely unbearable but he has such an eye for detail and is averse to cliché so that when I listen to it I’m like, Hell yeah, give me 15 more albums.
When it comes down to it. If you’re writing about being a local in a town that has changed, or if you’re singing an old gospel song, if it’s well written or it’s a good song, it transcends genre and doesn’t make sense in the confines of these things. That’s what irks me when people are like, “Outlaw country forever! Real outlaw!” … That sounds reaaal boring. Sounds like regurgitated garbage. Why don’t you write a real interesting song and then try and figure out what kind of music it is afterwards. If it’s a good song it doesn’t matter what the subject is. In fact, to take it the other direction, Mickey Newbury can write a song like “Frisco Mabel Joy,” which, if you just look at the lyrics is kind of bullshit country clichés. “Hopped a train at Waycross,” Okay, Okay, I get it. It’s the same old set of country go-to’s. Like now the singer’s in prison. Why’s he in prison? He just ended up in prison?? And yet, I’ve listened to that song a thousand times and it’s incredible. It’s a fantastic song. So I think it can be kind of a cool trick to use clichés and flip them on themselves. Like yeah yeah yeah, I’m writing all these basic things, but at the very end of it you’re gonna be really glad you listened to the whole thing.
I’m interested in the question of sincerity in your music, because I feel like your songs are very funny and at the same time, I think, resonate emotionally. Some of them are really sad and funny at the same time. And that humor is always tricky for people, especially for people who aren’t funny. It makes people uncomfortable. If you’re funny then you’re not being honest or something.
Absolutely, man. I’ve struggled with that my whole life. That’s so true. It’s just not so, or it doesn’t have to be. It’s been a struggle, especially when I was going by Corndog, it was tough to get taken seriously. I had this song called “Have You Ever Wanted to Die?” and it was about a really rough time. I was just writing my experience the same as I would with any other song, but in that case it just didn’t happen to be one that was funny. And whenever I played it, it really upset me when people would laugh, and I would say “There’s no comedy in this. There’s a song, and here it goes, but it’s not funny.” And people would just go “hahaha.” Like do a nervous laugh. And it’s like, “what the fuck is wrong with you guys?” That’s not right.
It’s always been a struggle but it’s really important to be really sincere and yet, I don’t know, the things I find that I want to tell and retell, or the things that stick out to me usually are funny things. I find that I’m usually on the verge of laughter, it’s just who I am. But it doesn’t mean that I’m insincere. But that’s always the struggle of trying to get that across, to get people to understand that. I think it helped just going to my real name, you know, I was called Corndog when I was a little kid, I mean like twelve. I honestly don’t remember where the name came from, it just kind of happened. I had a lot of nicknames. Virginia is like the vanity plate capital of the world. The nickname capital of the South. Everybody had like four names. So it just happened, and I think it just shot me in the foot as far as my chances to be taken seriously.