ODE TO DAD COUNTRY
“It was not the perfect country and western song,” crowed David Allan Coe before the final, perfect verse of “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” because it didn’t say “anything at all about mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin’ drunk.” Jonny Corndawg, né Jonny Fritz, a young outsider country singer from rural Esmont, Virginia (pop. 528), and a proud second cousin of Coe, has clearly taken some of his relative’s cues to heart. Now based in Nashville, Jonny pens beautifully crafted paeans to automobiles and Americana, but his genius lies in the way he expands the scope of the outlaw genre, making country seem like the ideal medium for plainspoken observations on the life of a twenty-eight-year-old in Obama’s America. On “Keep Your Body Happy Through Exercise,” a tune whose title is embossed in leather on the back of Jonny’s guitar, he asks his audience, with sincerity, to “meditate, appreciate, learn a foreign language and understand that immigrants have the hardest lives.”
The truth is that Jonny’s is a genre of one. Like a good outlaw, he loves his motorcycle, has knuckle tattoos, and wears an unkempt beard. He’s got a chunky Chevy belt buckle and displays the Waylon Jennings insignia next to his pick guard. But Jonny is also teetotal. He’s a marathon runner. He is a master leatherworker who has paid backup musicians in monogrammed belts and guitar straps (he offers his wares for sale on his website). Jonny claims to have performed in forty-eight states and on five continents; the text on the packaging of his first record, I’m Not Ready To Be A Daddy, which he recorded in India, is almost entirely in multicolored Devanagari script. Part of Jonny’s appeal, and a major problem for his publicist, is that his colorful persona, and the grab bag of values he represents, threaten to upstage his songwriting skills. It’s sometimes hard to tell how serious he is. Jonny has already been the subject of two short documentaries, and it’s revealing that Jonny’s father says, when interviewed in one of them, “You know, it started out—it was not necessarily music, it was performance art.” But one need only hear a few lines of Jonny’s sweet, high-toned singing voice and his passionate delivery to know he isn’t kidding about his music.
I caught up with Jonny in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where he was wandering the train yard between early and late shows. Locomotives’ long whistles repeatedly interrupted our phone conversation. “I love it down here,” he said about the train yard. “It’s kinda blowin’ my mind right now.”
Jonny quickly dismissed those who think he’s a novelty act. “You know what—to hell with the rest of them. I’m gonna put everything into the best music I can make.
“The real country today is Walmart country,” he said. “I don’t really fit in with that world. I just don’t care. If that’s country music, I wish we had a different name for it.”
Jonny said he’s comfortable being an off-kilter singer in a conservative genre. “Nashville understands me real well,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be an obscure thing. It just so happens to be country. I’m just playing what comes out. I pretty much only listen to country music.” He joked that he’s started thinking of his sound as “dad country,” pointing out that he wears a cowboy hat with tennis shoes and drives a minivan. In fact, Dad Country is the title for the album he recorded this winter with the rock band Dawes at Jackson Browne’s studio in Santa Monica.
And let’s just get something out of the way: Jonny’s voice-cracking flourishes, forthright demeanor, and beard-plus-bare pate appearance strongly recall the Louisville crooner Will Oldham. Both musicians peddle Country & Western to an indie-rock audience. Both are deeply indebted to David Allan Coe (Oldham released a 7" with a Coe cover). Both sing matter-of-factly about dogs, bears, and explicit sex, and neither singer shies away from meandering, minor-key dirges. But rather than be derivative of Oldham, like so many lo-fi neophytes, Jonny comes off as Oldham’s peer, a fellow traveler from the South professing the best of the region’s historic music to the masses.
After what Jonny said were “a hundred meetings with a hundred people and a thousand e-mails,” his recent album, Down on the Bikini Line, came out on August 30 of last year. The record serves up the mix of plucky guitars, clean drumming, and honky-tonk humor that he’s perfected in live performances. Like his previous efforts, it was technically self-produced (but released on the Thirty Tigers label) and the multiple songs about feminine hygiene and grooming reflect the non-corporate nature of the album’s production.
For someone who is constantly touring, it is not surprising that Jonny is at his best on this record when singing about the road. And most impressively, he manages to do it without hitting a single cliché. On much of the record, Jonny courses casually and knowledgeably through the finer points of driving. It is a theme that, appropriately, moves the album, with its hodgepodge of topics, along. The instant classic, “When a Ford Man Turns to Chevy,” includes the brilliant triplet rhyme of “Chevrolet” and “AAA.” On “Fools and Sages,” he belts out,
Don’t drive a car when it’s lightning
Some folks find that it’s frightening
Well, that’s why cars got rubber tires
And the driver’s side air bag
“Shaved Like a Razor” includes the line “I tried to cross the border but I got pulled over.” Here’s a verse from a moody ballad called “Nightrider”:
Take a rest if you’re tired
Sleep if you need
Just recline your recliner
And steer with your knee
Jonny’s songs have made their way into the late-night, back-porch, boozy guitar sing-alongs that define summer for my group of friends. It might be the highest form of respect to take on his words as our own and bellow them out into empty streets.
Jonny Corndawg—Spotify link.