Jonny Fritz, the artist formerly known as Jonny Corndawg, rides a bicycle over a busy bridge in Montana with a record under one arm as he navigates with the other — all while conducting a phone interview with the City Paper. Fresh from an epic international tour with stops in Australia, Japan, and the Philippines, Fritz is so transparently joyful we can hear the smile in his voice. "I'm about to go for a run and jump in the river before our show tonight," he says between breaths. "It's so beautiful here. It's insane how nice it is. I don't want to go to sleep. I don't want to miss any of it."
Once Fritz finds a safe place from traffic and tricky turns, he gets us caught up on the past couple of years since he was last in Charleston. "I've had some ups and downs. The ups have been really up, and the downs have been pretty down. One of the ups is that I bought a motorcycle, and I've been riding the shit out of it just all over the country," Fritz says.
But the main reason Fritz is high on life is because of his involvement with the recently filmed documentary Heartworn Highways Revisited. The original film took a close, fascinating look at the outlaws of the Nashville music scene in the mid to late '70s. It featured legends like Townes Van Zandt, David Allan Coe, Steve Earle, Steve Young, and Guy Clark, who were merely outsiders during that time. They made up their own rules. Now as the 30th anniversary of the film nears, the original producer catches up again with Clark, Young, and Coe, in addition to a bold new breed of musicians who have lived or currently live in Nashville, like Shovels & Rope's Cary Ann Hearst (who is from Nashville) and Michael Trent, plus Justin Townes Earl, Bobby Bare Jr., and of course, Jonny Fritz.
"I got to meet my hero Guy Clark," he says. "I got to hang out with Guy a lot and have dinner with him and go to his house and pick his brain on things, and that was honestly one of the highlights of my year, my life. I feel like I've gone up to another level, from playing shows with friends to meeting Guy Clark and being filmed. That's been really nice, and it feels like my work has really paid off."
The funny thing is that even though Fritz marches to the beat of his own drum with his humorous country tunes, he doesn't feel like the outlaw label is a correct one. So, he coined his own term for the music he makes — dad country. "People were calling me outlaw country, but I'm anything but an outlaw," Fritz explains. "I like reading, exercising, education, and travel. It was fun to say 'No, I'm really not an outlaw. I'm more like someone's weird dad or something.'"
But maybe Fritz is still a rebel in his own way. The aforementioned downside of the past year or so has to do with his health, but that still hasn't stopped him. "I went to a voice doctor because I was having a lot of trouble. I get sick a lot and lose my voice a lot, so apparently I've got polyps on my vocal chords." Though the musician has been ordered to take it easy, Fritz is too restless to rein in his uncontainable energy. "They basically say you need to spend about six months in silence and not talk and not sing and not run and not exercise and just rest, and I just can't sit still to save my life. I'm trying to figure out how to continue and heal at the same time and not lose my mind."
Rather than follow his doctor's orders, Fritz hit the road again and kept on singing songs. Last year, he also changed his stage name and released a fresh set of country tales — the sometimes serious ("Have You Ever Wanted to Die"), sometimes goofy ("Trash Day") record, Dad Country — under his new moniker. Fritz previously released two records — Down on the Bikini Line and I'm Not Ready to Be a Daddy — as Jonny Corndawg, a name that just may stick no matter what, not that he minds much.
"Corndawg never bothered me," Fritz says. "I never thought anything of it. And then recently we're starting to make records, and some record label people said, 'You know, you really should change your name.' So I thought about it a lot, because I don't want to be this nicknamed little kid forever. But what actually happened after I changed it is it brought a ton more attention than before, and now that's all I talk about. It's a funny problem to have that I sort of asked for.
"So I took the advice of a big music executive, which I don't think I'll ever do again. But I don't regret it," Fritz says. "I also changed it because Jonny Corndawg gave a lot away. When you go up there and your name is Jonny Corndawg, everyone knows kind of what to expect. And I hate when people know what to expect of me."