American Songwriter joined Rufus Wainwright in Havana for a special music and cultural exchange with Cuba.
Jonny Fritz lifted more spirits Sunday night than any Nashville preacher could have managed.
For a special one-off show, the artist formerly known as Jonny Corndawg reunited with his old sidekick Joshua Hedley for a night of laughter (and occasional tears) at Nashville’s Basement, a venue Fritz has played innumerable times throughout his career. It was a joyous event, and it felt like getting a dose of the old-time religion, of the sort that involves snake handling and speaking in tongues.
Two years ago Fritz moved to Los Angeles after living in Music City off and on for the past decade. Sunday’s show felt like a homecoming of sorts, with Fritz even remarking at one point that “this feels like home.” And though the part-time leathersmith and occasional American Songwriter contributor espouses a “don’t look back” philosophy, there was a hint of nostalgia in the air for the left-of-center Nashville country scene of the mid to late aughts.
It’s been nearly a decade since we first made the acquaintance of Fritz, back when he was a raw-boned Virginian with a shaved head who bore more than a passing resemblance to a young Billy Bob Thornton. By then he had recorded a few DIY albums, traversed India on a mystic pilgrimage and written a series of “marriage songs” in the midst of a Yerba Matte binge in Argentina. Naturally, we became fast fans. In fact, he may be the only man on Earth we’d send to interview David Allan Coe.
For Sunday night’s show at the Basement, Fritz played mostly stuff from his latest album, the Jim James-produced Sweet Creep. He also dipped into his back catalog for old favorites like “Trash Day,” “Silver Panty Liners” and “Chevy Beretta,” a cult classic he played as early as 2009 at the Basement with Caitlin Rose (who was in the crowd Sunday night) and John McCauley of Deer Tick.
Hedley, who recently signed a solo deal with Third Man Records, did time as Fritz’s fiddle player for years and his playing Sunday night was just as poignant as we remembered it. On stage, the Florida native is like Sancho Panza to Fritz’s Don Quixote, and a better match of performers is not easily imagined.
Wearing tinted glasses and a leisure suit with a front pocket overstuffed with $2 bills, Fritz spun various tales of misadventure throughout the night, including one about going on a Tinder double date with Robert Ellis in downtown Nashville. Another yarn involved his guitar-making father, who, in his previous career as a helicopter nurse, once arrived on the scene to treat a man who’d had his throat slashed in a case of mistaken identity. “Now, that’s a bad day,” Fritz quipped, speaking about the victim.
Before Fritz took the stage, Hedley played a solo set on acoustic guitar. “It’s good to not be playing for tips, for four hours,” he said, referring to the years he spent playing at Robert’s Western World on Lower Broadway. Hedley’s songs are sad as shit, and he warned that anyone in the crowd who was experiencing depression issues might want to leave. The Florida native, who’s also collaborated with Alabama rapper Yelawolf, played a set of originals and covers, including two Mickey Newbury numbers.
One of Hedley’s own tunes, “Don’t Waste Your Tears,” recalled Kris Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times” in its sad beauty. Before playing another original, “Broken Man,” Hedley told a story about a gig in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a woman came up to him after the show and told him that the song had made her cry. When she asked him what it was about, he said, “a one-night stand.” She just got disgusted and walked away, he said.
Editor’s note: Shortly after this article was published, Joshua Hedley tweeted: “Just to clarify; I love playing at @RobertsWWorld for tips and I’m doing it tonight and every Monday at 10pm til I die or get fired.”
Late in his set at the Ryman Auditorium, Steve Earle said he’d stood onstage in Chicago many moons ago and told fans that all of his dreams had come true. It was in that moment, he said, that he realized he needed to find some new dreams, and find them fast.
One of those second-act dreams came true Friday night when the so-called last of the hardcore troubadours, whose career has spanned 17 albums and survived all manner of slings and arrows, headlined the Ryman for the first time.
“This is a big deal for us,” he told the crowd.
A child of Texas, Earle was seven years old visiting his grandmother in Nashville, he said, when he first came to the Ryman, where he watched from the balcony as Bill Monroe performed on the Grand Ole Opry. He said he’d been thinking about that experience all day before launching into “You Broke My Heart,” an old-timey sounding country waltz that he wrote in the spirit of the venue.
“You Broke My Heart” features on Earle’s latest, So You Wanna Be Outlaw, an album that functions as a tribute of sorts to Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and their fight to wrest artistic control away from the anal retentive Nashville studio system. Like so many country greats who get slapped with the problematic “outlaw” tag, Earle’s output has been both traditional and subversive, a fact that was evident in a set list that moved peripatetically across genres.
The front end of Earle’s show drew heavily from the new album, and the third song of the night, “The Firebreak Line,” tipped its hat to America’s firefighters. With wildfires menacing much of the West, the tune is a modern-day folk number that finds Earle channeling his innermost Woody Guthrie. Another set highlight was “News From Colorado,” a song he co-wrote with his niece Emily Earle and ex-wife Allison Moorer before they split.
“Emily is in the crowd tonight, and Allison is not,” Earle deadpanned, adding that the audience would be hearing more from his niece, a Nashville-based songwriter who “survived for four weeks on The Voice without managing to end up in the hot tub with CeeLo.”
Hanging over the night, as if in benediction, was the legacy of Guy Clark, a mentor to Earle and a host of other Texas and Tennessee songwriters through the years. Before performing “Goodbye Michelangelo,” a song written about Clark shortly after his death, Earle spoke about the “L.A. Freeway” writer’s final days and the all-night bus trip he took with Clark’s inner sanctum to deliver Guy’s ashes to Santa Fe. He then talked about his old teacher’s decision to co-write late in his career, a move that inspired Earle’s own recent co-writing ventures.
Back in the ‘70s, Clark had advised against co-writing, but he eventually changed his tune. “Mainly I just got stuck, I ran out of shit to say,” he told American Songwriter in 2011. “I’ve found that with co-writing, there are a lot of young phenomenal songwriters and guitar players that come over here and write. And I learn so much from these guys. I’ll go, ‘Wow, how did you think of that?’ Or, ‘let me learn it.’”
Earle encored the show with “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train.” A song from Clark’s first album about a young kid and his hero’s death, it brought the night full circle.
Opening the show was Lucero, the Memphis bar-band exemplars who were playing the Mother Church for the first time. “We’ve never played the Ryman before but this is quite a place ya’ll have got,” said frontman Ben Nichols, who swigged whiskey throughout the set and joked that “you’d be nervous too if it was your first time playing the Ryman.”
There must be something about the Ryman and the memory of grandparents. Earle spoke about his grandmother, and before the last Lucero song of the night, Nichols wondered aloud what his grandfather would have thought about him playing the august venue. With just his accordionist, the unassuming frontman then delivered an emotional reading of “The War,” a song from 2005’s Nobody’s Darlings that recounts his grandfather’s experience in World War II. “Cause takin’ orders never suited me, giving them out was much worse,” Nichols sang, summoning a spirit kindred to his own.