Dad country for young men: an interview with Jonny Corndawg

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One of the biggest misconceptions about the country singer Jonny Fritz is that, as Jonny Corndawg, he’s some kind of Weird "Al" Yankovich-style joke. His image, to say nothing of his name, doesn’t do much to help. In addition to writing R-rated country, Fritz does custom airbrush and leather-work (see his guitar), is a distant relative to David Allan Coe, runs marathons and sometimes tours by motorcycle.

Altogether, his brand is a kind of artful pastiche of rural American barroom culture in the 1980s. But catch one of his shows and it’s clear—even if the results are funny, Corndawg is serious. He sets the brow so low it’s high again.

It sounds like that will be true of his new album, Down on the Bikini Line, August 30 via his Nasty Memories label, which he calls a "big old middle finger" to his naysayers, the kind of record he’ll be happy to have on his coffee table 20 years from now.

I caught up with Jonny, who grew up in Esmont, over the phone this week for a Q&A before his show—as usual, he sticks out like a sore thumb on the bill—Sunday, July 31 at Alhamraa. Listen to a couple of songs here while reading the interview below.

I’ve read that you tour by motorcycle. Is that true?

I bought a minivan recently. I’ve got a band and so I’m pulling these guys around with me. I’ve got a fiddle player and a drummer I’m playing with these days. I’ve got to have something nicer than a bike. I’ve been playing so many shows lately, I’m just trying to be a little more comfortable on the road.

A minivan?

I’ve been making a joke about myself recently and pretty much anything that someone can ask me about my personality, I’ve got one response that seems to fit every answer, in the spirit of a Twitter hashtag. The answer is, "Dad Country." Man, I’ve got a minivan and I’m going Dad County. I’m wearing tennis shoes and a cowboy hat and it’s Dad County. No motorcycle, I’ve traded it in for some air-conditioned leather here. Just Dad Country.

You’ve got a new album, Down on the Bikini Line, coming out on August 30. Who is releasing it?

We did this Kickstarter campaign, raised $10,000 and started our own label called Nasty Memories Records. But in actuality the label that’s putting this record out is called Thirty Tigers. They have this wonderful business model—if you have a record that you know will do really well and you invest your own money into it, they will pretty much run the label for you. We were able to pay that because the pre-order and all the people who kicked in on the Kickstarter.

What do you hope will happen with it?

I’m not really concerned what it does in the first whatever—the album cycle or whatever. For me, it’s something I’m so proud of. It’s a classic record. That may sound cheesy, but it’s a classic record that’s going to speak for itself. Twenty years from now people are gonna hear and say, “That’s a good record.” Instead of being some buzzy Pitchfork band that may sell a lot of records right now, but in five years they’d be so embarrassed to have someone come over and see it sitting on the coffee table.

Just the fact that coming out is a pretty big accomplishment for me. It’s been a good year and a half—a good hundred meetings with a hundred different labels. A thousand e-mails and a hundred trippy phone calls, trying to figure out who wants to put this thing out. I’ve been really optimistic the whole but I’ve been endlessly discouraged by a lot of people. So the fact that it’s coming out is a fucking big old middle finger to everybody who said it wouldn’t happen.

It’s interesting that you say people said it wasn’t going to happen. What’s the nature of that anti-Corndawgism? 

It’s coming from the fact that my music is a little—you know, it’s not exactly the normal, everyday music. Nobody knows what to do with it. The labels are like, “What is it? Is it rock? Is it country? Is it indie? Is it comedy?” It’s like, “Goddamn it, why can’t it just be a record that you like? Why does it have to fit into a box? Can’t it be a record that you like to listen to?”

This has been reaffirmed by touring. I’ve been on bills with every kind of musician and every kind of act and in front of every kind of audience and it works anywhere where there’s somebody who’s willing to listen and appreciate it for what it is. And what it is is good music. And again, it sounds like Dad Country again, it sounds cheesy. But it’s just so true, I can’t deny it anymore. I’m not trying to force anything, I’m just trying to do what I do.

Will you always be Jonny Corndawg?

I was thinking before I put the record out, I wanted to drop the Corndawg thing before I moved any further because, you know, the Corndawg thing was just a mistake, just a nickname that stuck, it was a misinterpretation of a hat I had, about 10 years ago, and it just stuck around.

The Corndawg surname really primes your audience for a comedy act but I am always impressed to see the heart, and the degree to which you mean it, in your performances. It’s a surprise.

Yeah, it is a surprise. I’m kind of into that. It’s kind of a little experiment that I can’t get away from—I’m forced to be a part of. I like to play for as many different people as possible and not try to be put into that box and it’s always refreshing when people are like, “Wow—I’m a 55 year old white woman and I really liked your record,” and somebody’s like, “I’m a 15-year old teenager and I liked your record." I’m like, you all are coming from such different eras and you get into it. You’re not like, “What is this guy, this Corndawg? I don’t know about this.”

There’s been a lot of trying to figure out what it is. One thing that’s always stuck in my head is a quote from one of my favorite artists, John Hartford, and he says, “Be very careful what you become famous for.” And that’s why I was always worried about the Corndawg thing, but I’m not anymore. I just don’t think about it anymore, I just focus on the music.

Speaking about playing to a couple different audiences. With your bawdy content, do you ever find yourself in an awkward situation?

We were in Seaside, Florida and there were about 400 5-year-olds and it was brutal. Of course their parents were sitting down there in the lawn chairs and the kids were up front doing the chicken dance and mocking me. And it was so funny—goddamn, I lost it.

And you know, I’ve got a lot of children on the side—I did a kids’ set. But then also, I was like, I’ve got some married songs, so I’ll do some things for the folks there on the lawn chairs. And I felt a little bit like Bugs Bunny and Shrek in a way, you know how the duality of cartoons and how they’re meant for both the kids and the adults. I thought about it while I was playing—goddamn, I’m literally and figuratively going right over these kids’ heads and aiming back at their parents who were about 50 feet behind them. At the same time, I was aiming for the kids in the front. 

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