If there are two lessons Jonny Fritz learned throughout the creation of Dad Country, his big label debut, they’re the following: be honest to a fault, even if you’re saying something that won’t go over well in the slightest, and pay attention to the kind words people say in bars because you never know when a simple invitation will come along and change your life.
When Fritz was writing and playing out in the months following 2011’s self-released Down on the Bikini Line, he was doing so in good company. The songwriter from Nashville–who, up until this record, played under the moniker of Jonny Corndawg–toured extensively with that roving band of brothers in rock made up of Deer Tick, Dawes, Delta Spirit and Middle Brother, the amalgamative side project featuring the lead singers from all three bands. Frequently brought up onstage to perform with any and all of these acts at festivals (South by Southwest, Newport Folk) and a handful of cities in between the main stages on numerous tours, Fritz, clearly, was receiving an enthusiastic leg-up of sorts from those who were in the midst of redefining the marriage between country and rock music on the indie front themselves. This endorsement officially crystallized when Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes suggested he and his band back Fritz when it came time to head back into the studio, and the two friends agreed to go about working on his next record together.
“I’ve been playing him all these songs and [Goldsmith] was just there for the whole writing of the record,” says Fritz, calling in from the road somewhere outside of Salt Lake City. “Whenever I’d come up with a new song or a new lyric, I just couldn’t wait. Every time I’d text it to Taylor, and we’d trade songs all the time, swap ideas and give feedback to each other.”
It wasn’t until Fritz moved out to Los Angeles to begin this endeavor that a serendipitous nightmare-turned-opportunity unexpectedly occurred–and in a Laurel Canyon legend’s own studio, no less. The producer Dawes and Fritz had confirmed for Dad Country bailed at the last minute. Fritz considered himself another pipe dream casualty trying to make the impossible happen in the City of Angels, until Jackson Browne–an avid fan of Dawes who had employed them as his backing band for his 2012 tour–attended a show of his in Hollywood one night.
“He got right to the front of the stage and had his hand under his chin, hanging onto every word and squinting his eyes,” recounts Fritz. “After the show, he came up to me. ‘What are you doing out here?’ ‘This record with Dawes, you know.’ ‘Oh, that’s great! What studio are you recording in? When are you doing it?’ And I said, ‘Well, our producer just flaked on us, so we don’t really have a studio anymore.’ He was just like, ‘Oh, I’ve got a studio. Why don’t you just come over to my place?’ And I was like, ‘Sure, Jackson Fucking Browne, why not?!’ The next morning he called me, and you know, you don’t expect somebody to follow through, especially in LA–you can’t really be reliant on the kindness of people and what they say in bars, especially celebrities. That city is just magical place where shit can just fall in your lap, or your whole life can fall out from under you so easily. That proved how magical that place could be.”
As Browne’s studio was available for a limited time only–Bob Dylan was scheduled to come in and record shortly, and they had to be out before then–Fritz, Goldsmith and a handful of friends, including Dawes, Blake Smith, Spencer Cullum, Jr. and Joshua Hedley tracked, mixed and mastered all of Dad Country‘s 14 songs in a meager four days. The deadline was tight and the circumstances unprecedented, but the sessions at Browne’s studio resulted in a perfect marriage of friendly Nashville pluck and twang with truck stop bathroom jargon and the kind of unabashedly blunt statements that surface when you’re chasing muses in the big city. In short, Dad Country was the kind of work Fritz had dreamt about without ever thinking it’d wind up on a very real record.
When asked if he considers the lyrical content of the Dad Country to be autobiographical, “Fuck yeah!” is the unhesitating response. The words of “Suck In” in particular (“Smile for the camera and do what the paycheck says/And don’t stay too long in each conversation/’Cause the more important people aren’t definitely waitin’/So suck in your gut, but don’t let it go to your head”) reflect Fritz’s journey and his experience dealing with big names and big labels–in his case, ATO–at this point in his career. The song was written after he and some friends had spent an afternoon at a crawfish boil at Kid Rock’s house, and the pull to social climb, this blend of familiar and celebrity that he’d confronted every day throughout his time in Los Angeles, has sparked the embers of his honesty and his gratitude as well.
“This record is potential realized,” he says. “I got my favorite people to play on it. I got the best sounds out of it. I got the best record label. We could’ve put it out nine months ago, but it wouldn’t have been the right time … Everything I’m talking about, I’ve witnessed, or fantasized about, or I’ve written as a self-help song for myself. I think I’m spotlighting more of that world than the rock star one that’s been exhausted over the last few decades. I just really want to de-mystify this bullshit image that the touring rock star musician is getting wasted every night and doing the rock star life. This one saying I really learned from–‘You better be careful about what you become famous for.’ I just think it’s really important to remain yourself. The more fame you get, the more you really have to remind yourself that you’re just a person and there’s no reason why you should think you’re some hot shit. I’m glad it shows up on the record, having to deal with it all that.”
Jonny Fritz will be celebrating the release of “Dad Country” in support of The Devil Makes Three at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on 4/18/12. Dad Country is out this week on ATO Records.