Jonny Fritz’s song “Trash Day” begins with a dusky, hi-lonesome canter that would make Charles Portis and Cormac McCarthy shiver. It’s the kind of eerie night-owl music that evokes stark western landscapes and questionable characters. It’s what Magnolia Electric Co. tapped into with songs like “Talk to Me Devil, Again.” But the words to Fritz’s song don’t fall into line with expected storytelling. Instead of themes about devils and whiskey, gritty countryside and suicidal cowboys, “Trash Day” is literally about trash day. “Monday is the the day that the trash goes out—I can’t forget,” Fritz sings. “Oh my god! Monday morning I wake up as the truck goes by—oh my god!—she’s going to be so goddamned mad at me. Oh my god!” It’s hard not to snicker at mundane subject matter treated with such weird seriousness, and yet, the dark, echoing chords and Fritz’s mournful voice make you absolutely certain there’s something more profound happening. Even while entertaining, the song creates a certain dread in the back of your mind.
Fritz wrote “Trash Day” when an acquaintance decided to come along on tour with him and his bandmates. He recalls the acquaintance constantly talking on the phone with his wife, trying to appease her. “He was on the phone with her every damned minute,” Fritz says. “You’d hear him cowering and whispering saying, ‘No. No, baby. We’re not—No, you go ahead. I’m not speaking over you.’ I wanted to pull over and be like, ‘All right dude, you can have those conversations but you’ve got to do it outside of the van.’ There were five other people sitting [in the van] and I was thinking, ‘You can’t do this to us. This is miserable.’” Fritz laughs. “Then I thought, ‘What’s the saddest song I can think of without saying anything sad but conveying that emotion and darkness of making a small mistake that doesn’t fucking matter but that you’re going to have to deal with for a long time?’ I wrote that song because I put myself in his shoes. And that’s what came out.”
“Trash Day” is a perfect example of how Fritz is funny in his observations but empathetic, too. In casual conversation, the 30-year-old Nashville musician has all the humility you could hope for in someone who’s getting noticed. He’s represented by ATO Records along with Alabama Shakes, Old 97’s, Old Crow Medicine Show and Drive-By Truckers. He was written up in Rolling Stone last year as an “Artist to Watch,” interviewed on NPR and received a rave review from No Depression for Dad Country, his most recent album that includes “Trash Day.” Dad Country was recorded at Jackson Browne’s Los Angeles studio (Browne offered the space when Fritz and his bandmates were in a pinch) and he plays on a few tracks, a bit of info Fritz doesn’t automatically offer; he’s not one to name drop. Under his previous moniker Jonny Corndawg, Fritz came to Missoula last year and opened for The Devil Makes Three to a sold-out audience at the Wilma Theatre. He was also the subject of Straw Dawg, a short documentary that screened at this year’s Big Sky Documentary Film Festival; the film focused on Fritz’s foray into running marathons. He returns to Montana this week to play five shows with Missoula’s Best Westerns and Chris Sand (aka The Rapping Cowboy) in Missoula, Whitefish, St. Mary, Coram and Bigfork.
Fritz met Sand over 20 years ago in Nashville. Fritz, who was born in Missoula and raised in Charlottesville, Va., was visiting Nashville when a Music City producer named Chris Davis brought him backstage to the Grand Ole Opry before lining him up to play at one of the honky tonks. “He said he could get me on a show with Montana’s Rappin’ Cowboy and I said ‘Of course!’ And since I was born in Montana I kind of felt like, ‘Shit, this is a match made in heaven!’ It really was, I was blown away by his style. I have always had such a heavy, sexy spot in my heart for Chris Sand.” (Sand, for his part, has a fond recollection of seeing Fritz for the first time, a teenage musician, in pink headband and Christmas sweater, taking a nap on a motorcycle outside the bar they played that night.)
Dad Country is Fritz’s third solo album, but it feels like the beginning of something bigger. As with “Trash Day,” tracks like “Suck in Your Gut” and “All We Do is Complain” teeter between goofy and utterly gut-wrenching. It’s the kind of balance that forces you to engage. And in Nashville, where new country music springs up every second, glammed-up like fool’s gold, Fritz feels like the real thing.
Jonny Fritz plays the Top Hat Wed., July 23, at 10 PM with The Best Westerns and Chris Sand. Free.