Donnie Fritts was there when rock was young. When I say there, I mean he was only 15 years old drumming in Southern combos during the mid-‘50s and was a part of the session band at Muscle Shoals during its early days. You can hear about this on his wonderful, rollicking self-penned ode to back then, “Tuscaloosa, 1962”. But his new record is much more than an exercise in nostalgia. The man who served as Kris Kristofferson’s keyboardist for several decades and who has written and co-written memorable songs for artists as gifted as the Box Tops, Dusty Springfield, Arthur Alexander, and Percy Sledge, still has plenty to offer.
Fritts plays a Wurlitzer organ on many cuts, which adds a carnivalesque quality to his mix of raw country, deep soul, hard blues, and a pop sense of humor about the whole shebang called life. He can turn a song about a breakup, like “If It’s Really Gotta Be This Way” into something both tearful and wry (“I’ll cry, but I’ll get by”). He knows the relationship is over, but he also knows he is the better half of the couple. His voice mocks more than it mourns.
His voice does beg for a more detailed discussion. To say it is original and eccentric would be an understatement. It’s as Southern as biscuits, red-eyed gravy, grits and some hog for breakfast, and as bracing as a jug of sour mash that hasn’t had time to age and mellow. When he sings, it’s an adventure as he travels from note to note. Sometimes he drawls the syllable out for emotional impact. Other times he just puts-it-out-there-word-for-word for emphasis. He delves into songs and takes risks where lesser artists would be more careful to sound “good”.
Consider the song he co-wrote with John Prine here, “The Oldest Baby in World”. Prine’s voice itself is no thing of shining beauty, but Fritts comes off as the more worn and expressive singer. The tale about a woman who never found the love and pampering her early life promised and just got old comes off tugs at the heart strings without getting maudlin. She’s a person whose innocence has been betrayed but still latches on to the child inside. Too much lipstick and hairspray are just the costume she wears. Like Kitty Wells used to sing, “It wasn’t god that made honky tonk angels.”
John Paul White of the Civil Wars produced Oh My Goodness, Fritt’s first solo release in almost a decade, and his fourth one ever. White’s simple arrangements keep Fritts front and center, even as he’s joined by a host of Southern luminaries including Alabama Shakes members Brittany Howard and Ben Tanner, the Secret Sisters, Dylan LeBlanc, St. Paul and the Broken Bones horn men Ben Griner and Allen Bransetter, and original Fritts friends David Hood and Spooner Oldham. The music makes one feel lost in the Heart of Dixie in a good way where everyone is hospitable.
And as a true Southerner, Fritts understands the finer things in life. He sings about the power of food and sex—as he gleefully sings about “Memphis Women and Fried Chicken” (both are “finger lickin’ good”). Fritts also turns two songs written by Southern born songwriters into something seemingly much more personal. He makes the winsome ode to a girl, Jesse Winchester’s “Foolish Heart”, into a gleeful New Orleans’s march complete with brass band and Paul Thorn’s (and Billy Maddox’s) lonesome, “Temporarily Forever Mine”, into a dignified look at the death of love with only a violin, cello, and guitar as accompaniment.
Fritts is the real deal. He may be able to put on different personas (his take as the abandoned son of a faded actor on the opening track “Errol Flynn” offers clear proof of that), but he also conveys the unfathomable nature of existence through his multilayered performances. Oh My Goodness reminds us of the mysteriousness of it all, even as we rock on into the future.
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