There’s a room in Jonny Fritz’s East Nashville home that he’s dubbed the “Waffle House Room,” a tiny cubicle of a dining area made to resemble a booth from the Southern greasy-spoon chain. There’s low lighting, two bench seats, Waffle House menus on the table and a sign that reads “Please Reserve Booths for Two or More Guests.” It’s impossible to not look around for a server bearing smothered and covered hash browns as you slide into the seat.
But there’s only Fritz, sipping tea from a mug and stretching out his legs, in paint-stained pants, to get comfortable after spending the afternoon readying his house to rent. The 32-year-old singer-songwriter moved to Los Angeles in 2015 because, as he jokes, “Nashville got a little too L.A.” for him.
The change has done him good. On October 14th, he’ll release Sweet Creep, his fourth album and his most consistent yet. Produced by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and featuring brothers Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith from Dawes as his all-star band, the record shows off Fritz’s undeniable eccentricity. There are songs about a canine hotel, chilidog birthday parties and one that serves as a love note to the women in Fritz’s life – whose pheromones he wants to capture and circulate in a humidifier.
It’s such weirdness that inspires the album’s title and the latest moniker Fritz has adopted to distinguish himself from the hipster pack. His last record was called Dad Country, a nod to the decidedly unhip way Fritz dressed (vintage suits and sneakers) and toured (in a white 2001 Honda Odyssey minivan). “People were like, ‘Hey man, what happened to your cowboy boots?'” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Sorry … I’m in dad country.'”
Prior to that, he recorded under the nom de plume “Jonny Corndawg,” a nickname he had since he was a kid.
Now, he’s the “Sweet Creep.”
“It started from this song ‘Humidifier’ about all these girls that I’ve been friends with forever, and we’ve always had this sexual tension. I wrote their names all into one song and my favorite line was ‘I want to bottle your scent and put a little bit into my humidifier.’ Then I sent it off to them in a group email,” says Fritz, his eyes flashing. “They were like, ‘Wow, that’s really sweet. But it’s kind of creepy though.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, well, sweet creep – that’s what you get.'”
But to label Fritz, his persona and especially his music as novelty would be incorrect, and diminish the weight of the material. Rather, he’s akin to a modern-day Roger Miller, who could sing songs as out there as “My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died” and rhyme “purple” with “maple surple” in “Dang Me,” but then evoke intense emotion with “Husbands and Wives.”
“A few people hear his music and think, ‘This guy should be on a comedy tour.’ But it’s so much more than that,” says Taylor of Fritz. “The human experience that we’re dealing with, half is trials and tribulations, but also half joy and laughter. A lot of artists – and I’ve been guilty of this myself – can spend a little too long on one side of that line. Whereas Jonny has always done such a good job of blending those two; knowing when to drive the knife into your heart and when to make you sit back and laugh.”
James, who met Fritz through Goldsmith, agrees with the Roger Miller talk. “He is definitely the first and most appropriate comparison, but I hear a lot of classic originality in him that I have never before experienced,” he says. “I really dig his spirit because it is outlaw in a way, but humorous and not just trying to regurgitate the whole classic outlaw thing, which I feel happens too much in modern country music these days.”
Fritz appreciates the “King of the Road” comparison. “I’ve always felt such a kinship to Roger Miller. You watch anybody talk about him in an interview, they’re like, ‘He broke all the rules. He did not listen to anybody.’ It’s about having such a crystal-clear vision of what it is you’re going to make, that nobody can change it,” he says. “Harry Nilsson and Warren Zevon are in that same class; they’re just not from the South.”
But Fritz, a Virginia native who spent his twenties traveling the world after making money as a medical test subject, is also keenly aware that he’s often not taken seriously. Which is why he dropped the “Jonny Corndawg” name after releasing his 2011 trucker-country album Down on the Bikini Line.
“It’s been a struggle I’ve dealt with my entire life,” he says of balancing the serious with the silly, recalling how teachers would question if he was making fun of them in class. “I realized that I’m never entirely joking and I’m never fully serious.”
Naturally, the recording process for Sweet Creep (which he’s been promoting in a series of irreverent Instagram videos) was just as eccentric as the man who made it. The record was cut over three days – in the yard of the home Jim James was renting in L.A. Fritz and the band set up underneath a tent, near a neglected swimming pool that had morphed into a pond. A pair of tortoises roamed the grounds.
“Recording outside was Jim’s idea. He’s fucking nuts,” laughs Fritz, who doesn’t put much stock in high-end studios. “My list of how to record music is the songs are Number One. I don’t care if you have just an iPhone. If you’ve got good songs, I’d rather hear that than some goddamn Americana oil-money-funded record cut in [Nashville’s historic] Studio B.”
Nashville fiddle ace Joshua Hedley, a longtime creative partner of Fritz, flew out to join the sessions. “Working with Jonny is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done in life,” he says. “He has a wonderfully creative mind, and when I showed up and saw where we were tracking this thing, I knew he and Jim would be two peas in a weird pod.”
Aside from “Humidifier,” it’s “Stadium Inn” that best represents the duality of Sweet Creep and reinforces the Miller analogy. A salute to a fading Nashville motel near the home of the Tennessee Titans, the song features a “bum-bum-bum” chorus that calls to mind “Chug-a-Lug” – and the lyrical gem “Brokeback Mountain playing on a TV screen / Brokeback reenactment room 213.” The real-life hotel once hosted local pro-wrestling matches in its ballroom, which, according to Fritz, went away as Nashville inched toward its “It City” status.
“The innocence of the place is that they still keep the blinds wide open. As you’re stopped in traffic, people can look into it. To me it seemed like onlookers from a train looking at teepees peppered on a hill somewhere in Idaho. ‘Wow, there are still natives … and they’re savage. We need to get rid of that!'” says Fritz. “It’s the metaphor of Nashville. It’s going to get torn down. It’ll be another place for Hot Chicken Condos or whatever.”
On the opposite end is “Cries After Making Love,” a surprisingly tender ballad about leading two lives: a real one, and an Instagram one. “She spins a narrative she wants you to believe,” croons Fritz in his high tenor. Still, he can’t help but push the envelope with his imagery.
“There was another line that was ‘she shows you how she lives so naturally / she puts everything in jars / and she doesn’t eat meat / unless it’s been ethically slaughtered.’ But that line got deleted,” he says. “The song is about everybody, not just a girl. You put out what you think is what everybody wants to see, but what about the darkness? There is always some darkness in there.”
That other life also pops up on “Are You Thirsty,” about an acquaintance who gave up drinking, and “I Love Leaving,” in which the rambling man Fritz admits he may need to one day settle down and leave the traveling life behind.
Don’t expect that to happen anytime soon, however. On October 17th, the storyteller and part-time leatherworker – his guitar straps are hot commodities in Nashville – will hit the road with Jamestown Revival for a U.S. tour, bringing along his own signature strap. Its two-word decoration? “Sweet Creep.”
“Oh, sweet creep, here I am again,” he smiles. “It just seems like everything I’m doing these days comes back to that.”