Jonny Fritz is not an outlaw.
“I’m more like someone’s weird dad,” he says, an oft-repeated line levelled at the media’s favoured description of him, and one that is echoed in the title of his current album Dad Country.
It’s easy to see, though, why the outlaw tag is so liberally thrown Fritz’s way. Repping cowboy boots and a slight-yet-unmistakable Southern drawl, American singer-songwriter Fritz is a close approximation to the quintessential country music showman. Yet, with loose comparisons to Ryan Adams and the Grateful Dead, his alt-rock sensibility makes him hard to pigeonhole—particularly since stepping out from behind the Jonny Corndawg persona in 2012.
Even in the crumbs of his cornpone past that remain in his lyrics (She’s gonna be so doggone mad at me/When she gets home), Fritz’s heartfelt yet wisecracking catalogue points to a surprising depth. Particularly in his new material, each strained lyric is clever, earnest and appeals to universal themes despite the country packaging. Nevertheless, there are songs in his repertoire Fritz facetiously derides as cheap.
“When people go, ‘I love that song ‘Shut Up’’ or ‘I love that song ‘Life of a Bear’’, I’m like, ‘That’s the song you love?’” Fritz says.
“People like [‘Shut Up’] because they want to sing along. And sometimes I’m like, ‘Is that all you want? You just want cheap tricks?’
“I hate cheap tricks. I like songwriting. I like cool stories.”
It’s this rich storytelling that characterises Fritz’s work, which sidesteps the usual country music tropes of whiskey and women. Instead, Fritz shrewdly spots the beauty in the workaday—taking out the trash, picking up contact solution and suffering through the flu.
While the themes are explored in a way that could easily cross over into pejorative, Fritz manages to characterise the genre without a trace of mockery. When it comes to himself, though, all bets are off: he‘s a master at self-deprecating humour.
“When people tell me they don’t listen to words—‘I don’t really hear words’—I go, ‘Holy shit, you’re going to hate me!’” he says.
“All my songs are the exact same, and then the words are different.
“I can’t help it. That’s just what comes out—you get a melody and it just goes the same way.”
He pauses, reconsidering the severity of his words.
“The truth is that I love these songs more than anything. I’m so proud of myself for doing them. That’s the truth: I really love them.”
Fritz’s fledgling Australian following is the belated result of quietly toiling at his craft for many years to great local acclaim. Dubbed a Rolling Stone ‘Artist to Watch’ in 2013, his large and motley fanbase boasts music legend Jackson Browne, who extended to Fritz a personal invitation to record what became Dad Country in his private Los Angeles studio.
But for all his undeniable successes, Fritz admits he grapples constantly with insecurity.
“Doubt is always creeping,” he says. “It’s always right there. It’s like, ‘Are you sure you can do this?’ and I’m like, ‘I got this, I got this’.
“If I stop, it comes in and goes, ‘See? I told you you couldn’t do it’.”
In his multiple tours of Australia’s east coast over the past few years, including appearances at local Americana festival Out on the Weekend, Fritz has discovered a newfound confidence in his existing songs. He credits that to the opportunity to play them in front of a new audience.
“After a [while], you kind of forget what was good about them,” he says. “So in Australia, there are all these people who have never heard this stuff and you‘re like, ‘Oh, I remember why I liked this!‘“
He‘s also found the inspiration to write new material, something that‘s eluded him in recent years. It‘s also why he‘s fascinated by the topic of writers‘ block.
“Whenever I meet a famous songwriter I love to ask them about their writers’ block—how they experience it, how it comes to them,” Fritz says.
“My favourite one was Guy Clark … [a few years ago we] were filming this interview thing, and we go to his house and he’s got a stack of papers a foot high. I go, ‘Is that all your songs?’ This was in June.
“He goes, ‘Since January’. He’s 75 years old.”
Fritz recounts a conversation with the now-deceased Clark around co-writing, a songwriting process wherein, legally, credit is equally shared between everyone present in the session—even if one person does most of the work.
“I just can’t get behind that,” Fritz says. “I said [to Clark], ‘How do you give credit to somebody who gets half of the song just for sitting there?’
“Guy said something that blew my mind. He goes, ‘Well, you never woulda wrote it if he wasn’t sittin’ there’.
“I said, ‘Oh, shit, old man’. That’s heavy duty.
“What he meant was that you draw from whoever’s in the room. I love writing at a club or at a party, just feeding off the energy of people.
“And that’s true—if the club was empty or if the party was over, you wouldn’t have been in that same place.”
Over the past five years, Fritz has been “touring kind of relentlessly, playing 200 shows a year”, including appearances at big-ticket US festivals like SxSW and Bonnaroo. Fittingly, he called Nashville home during that time, having made his way there from rural Virginia, where he was raised.
In September last year Fritz moved again—this time to Los Angeles, because Nashville became “too LA for me”.
Acknowledging the absurdity of moving “to the place that reminds you of what you don’t like about the place you’re leaving”, Fritz says he now finally feels at home.
And when considering the future of his music career, he‘s pragmatic.
“I’m going to keep at it as long as it flows naturally—as long as I’m not forcing it, as long as it’s not influenced by money. Luckily, there hasn’t been very much money around to influence me, so I haven’t had to worry about that one yet,” Fritz laughs.
“But there might be, someday, so hopefully I won’t be too influenced by it. It’ll ruin the music. Money makes bad music, fast.”
virtual pep talk
“[If you’re struggling with inspiration], put yourself back in that place where that seed came from. If it works, if it grows, cool. If not? It’s not working, not gonna force it.
You can always tell when it’s been forced. It’s so obvious. If you start doubting it and you get in your own head, it shuts down.“