Funky Donnie Fritts: Carving Out His Own Groove in Music City
The guy known as "Funky Donnie Fritts" and "The Alabama Leaning Man" steps from his room at the "Fritts Carlton," across from the massive Radnor Railroad Yard in south Nashville.
"This is where I always stay when I come to Nashville," he says.
Well, actually he did change loyalties once, moving for a visit or two to the La Quinta up by the Cracker Barrel. But he got a little homesick for the Red Roof. "The beds are more comfortable. And I like the people here," he says, plopping a white straw cowboy hat atop his head.
If there is one thing about this sixty-seven-year-old native of Florence, Alabama—a gentle soul who helped birth the so-called "Muscle Shoals Sound," who shared cocaine and song with Waylon Jennings and some of the other original country music Outlaws, and who has
even made a small mark in Hollywood movies—it is that he is loyal.
"I married him because even when he was crazy, he still was the kindest and most compassionate person I'd ever met," says his wife of forty-two years, Donna. That compassion is displayed on an almost daily basis, when Funky Donnie goes the next street over from the Fritts residence in Florence to visit his mother-in-law. "Yesterday I was fixing her breakfast and I sang 'You Are So Beautiful,''' he says of his happy visit with Adele Frazier, who is eighty-six.
"She's doing real good," says Fritts, in that wide-open north Alabama drawl. "It's a blessing to be able to help her."
Loyalty has been a hallmark of his career, as well.
Ever since the fifteen-year-old began drumming for all comers in the recording studio above City Drug Store in Florence, he has remained close to those with whom he shared that experience.
These "good ol' boys"—like-minded souls such as Rick Hall, Dan Penn, Norbert Putnam, David Briggs, and Spooner Oldham—were color blind. They thought the music coming from Nashville and the music that would eventually come from Liverpool was too vanilla. "Oh, I ended up liking a lot of the Beatles stuff, but we preferred black music, a lot of the stuff that was coming out of Memphis."
|Dan Penn, Donnie Fritts, and Spooner Oldham, circa 2002|
As a result, these good ol' boys from small town Alabama made music that was a loose mix of Hank Williams heartache and chicken shack R&B, like that produced by Fritts's lifetime friend Arthur Alexander. The fact that white and black music met in the barrooms of Muscle Shoals—apparently named and misspelled after the mussels in the nearby Tennessee River—is what eventually made the area famous as a recording capital.
The Rolling Stones—who covered Alexander's "You Better Move On" in 1963—were among those who sought out Muscle Shoals as a place to record.
Others to sample the magic conjured up by Fritts and his friends included Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Neil Young. "I can't take credit for any of them coming down to record," he says.
"I was there when the Stones recorded 'Brown Sugar'"(for the 1971 Sticky Fingers album.) That recording occurred at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios.
The Stones even recorded a Fritts classic, "We Had It All."
He tells the story of an incident at the Chateau Marmont, the fabled hotel of the stars, in West Hollywood.
Actor and friend Harry Dean Stanton, who was participating with Fritts and Kris Kristofferson in a documentary about the late and legendarily reckless director Sam Peckinpah, was supposed to arrive at the hotel.
"I was outside waiting and I met this kid, Luke Wilson (the young actor). I said I was Donnie Fritts, and he said 'I know who you are, you wrote one of my favorite songs of all time.' He said it was 'We Had It All.'
"He said he knew it because the Rolling Stones recorded it." Stones co-founder Keith Richards, whose voice carries the same lump-of-coal grit as Fritts's, sang that version in 1979 during recording sessions for the band's album, Emotional Rescue. "We Had It All" was not included on the official album, but the outtake has circulated for years on Stones bootlegs.
Richards also teamed with Willie Nelson to sing "We Had It All" in Los Angeles. Richards was among a host of stars, including Bob Dylan, Toby Keith, Kid Rock, and the Reverend Al Green, to participate in the 2004 Willie Nelson and Friends—Outlaws & Angels television taping (which also is available on CD and DVD).
Fritts was tossed a mighty compliment by the Stones guitarist.
"I knew he was going to do the song, because Connie Nelson (Willie's ex-wife) called me about one in the morning during a rehearsal a few days before and she said, 'You'll never guess what I'm listening to right now. I'm listening to Willie and Keith Richards sing 'We Had It All.''"
|Donnie Fritts (right) with Sam Peckinpah and unidentified woman|
"But when I watched it on TV, I was floored when Keith Richards said it was a song by Donnie Fritts and Troy Seals. He was the only artist that mentioned the writers."
The fact that others like his songs shouldn't catch Fritts by surprise. After all, songs he's written or co-written have been covered by Sammy Davis Jr. ("You're Gonna Love Yourself [in the Morning]"), Lulu ("Where's Eddie"), Dusty Springfield and UB40 ("Breakfast in Bed"), The Box Tops ("If I Had Let You In," "Choo Choo Train"), Robert Plant("If It's Really Gotta Be This Way"), and Muscle Shoals sensation Percy Sledge ("You're All Around Me"), as well as so many others.
His most covered, "We Had It All," was recorded by his pal and song co-writer Troy Seals, as well as by Dobie Gray, Dolly Parton, Tom Jones, Rita Coolidge, Bob Dylan (who performed it regularly during a concert tour with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers), Tina Turner, Willie Nelson, and Conway Twitty.
Fritts friend Waylon Jennings used the song as the finale on his Honky Tonk Heroes album. The rest of the songs about lovable losers and their ilk on that Jennings album were either written or co-written by gospel-spouting country renegade, troubled soul, and genuinely nice guy (depending on who you ask) Billy Joe Shaver.
The list above of folks who have recorded "We Had It All" leaves out Fritts's favorite version. On the day that Ray Charles died (June 10, 2004), Fritts confided to a journalist that Brother Ray's 1978 recording was something that still makes him almost breathless.
"I mean Ray Charles, man," he said. "I'd been listening to his music my whole life. That was the high point of my songwriting career."
The fact that Fritts, while he has spent his life among the famous and infamous, is a normal guy is evidenced in the star-struck tone in his voice when he talks about meeting Charles. He's palled around with country, rock, and R&B royalty, from Johnny Cash to the Stones to Jerry Lee Lewis to Percy Sledge. But meeting Charles, the idol who recorded his song, holds a special spot in Fritts's oft-repaired heart.
Another example of his sense of loyalty is his almost lifetime friendship with Kristofferson. The two were among those who frequented Fred Foster's old Combine Music, back when there really was a Tally-Ho Tavern instead of corporate offices on Music Row street corners. Combine was the publishing house of choice for many Nashville trendsetters, tastemakers, and windmill topplers and tipplers. The roster included Chris Gantry, Tony Joe White, Billy Swan, Larry Gatlin, and Kristofferson. Mickey Newberry also hung around with that group.
Fritts and his Muscle Shoals-bred R&B-singing and writing friend Arthur Alexander also found their Nashville home there. While Fritts entered these all-night writing sessions with one lifetime friend in Alexander, he left with the former army helicopter pilot who would pen many country music classics and whose friendship and loyalty would never be questioned once secured. Kristofferson had hit it with his self-titled album, which contained his gem, "Me and Bobby McGee" and the anti-establishment pointed tongue-in-cheeker "Blame It on the Stones." So when it came time to put a touring band together, Kristofferson enlisted the drummer from Muscle Shoals to be his piano player.
|Kris Kristofferson and Donnie Fritts at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, 2007|
That friendship blossomed. The two, along with Stephen Bruton and Terry Paul, penned a bit of fabulous melancholy about stretching out to reach the next gig on the road to nowhere and everywhere. "Breakin' any ties before they bind you / Takin' any comfort you can find / Running like you're running out of time / Take it all-take it easy-till it's over-understanding / When you're runnin' for the border Lord / You're bound to cross the line" is a part of the lyric that comes from the song that gave title to Kristofferson's 1972 Border Lord album.
"He called us the Border Lords," says Fritts, who was a constant in the ever-evolving combo—notable alums also included Norman Blake, Zal Yanovsky (who was lead guitarist and co-founder, with John Sebastian, of the Lovin' Spoonful), and Swan—that backed Kristofferson as he climbed from the Tally-Ho to larger and larger gigs.
"I'll never get over how quickly Kris caught on," says Fritts. "I mean here we were playing our first show ever at the Troubadour in June of 1970 and three months later we were playing in front of 600,000 people at the Isle of Wight."
The funky little band from Nashville-fronted by songwriter Kristofferson's voice of soulful gravel-was featured in the massive fest that also included folks like Jethro Tull, The Who, Richie Havens, Tiny Tim, the Doors, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Sound problems during their first performance at Afton Down, on the western side of that island, led to a less-than-enthusiastic audience response. The band reportedly was warmly greeted on its second appearance.
Whatever the show's reception, it was a mind-altering experience for the bedeviled child of Muscle Shoals and his friends.
"Me and Billy (bassist Billy Swan) went out in the crowd to see Hendrix. I mean, he did all that psychedelic shit. It was amazing what he could do with that guitar. But you know he never settled into a groove. I like it when music gets in the groove."
During that era, the responsibility for providing a groove, at least among the Border Lords, fell to Fritts on piano and Swan on bass. It was hardly a tight groove, he admits.
|Kris Kristofferson supplied the liner notes to this 1974 LP.|
"Kris could've gotten any keyboard player he wanted, but he stuck with me."
In his liner notes to Fritts's 1974 album, Prone to Lean (with its Muscle Shoals stellar roster as well as a pilgrim or two as guests), Kristofferson writes "See the Legendary Alabama Leaning Man. Back home they say he grew that way before he tried to stand. The nickname some folks gave him then was Cool Breeze and it fits. As easy as an undershirt on Funky Donnie Fritts."
Kristofferson goes on to note the craziness of Fritts's life back in those wicked and wild days: "they tell Fritts stories like they do about Jerry Lee, Ronnie Hawkins, and a few others crazy enough to live our fantasies for us."
The friendship between the two continues, with wild tales recalled in these days of sobriety, with clear-eyed backstage hugs washed down with bottled water and chewed over with some sort of chicken, boiled shrimp, and fruit-and-vegetables buffet. A favored story involves the night in 1972 when Dandy Don Meredith, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback turned NFL color analyst, introduced his pals Kris Kristofferson and "Funky Donnie Fritts" to the Monday Night Football TV audience. Only the hottest stars of that era made it into the announcing booth.
|Richard Bright, Bob Dylan, Donnie Fritts, and Chill Wills on the movie set of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, circa 1973|
For Kristofferson, the one-time proponent of "wacky tobacky" and Tally-Ho Tavern beer, about as wild as it gets nowadays is a glass of red wine.
Fritts "never really liked marijuana." He was more into the pills, like he and other musicians shared in the studio above the City Drug Store in Muscle Shoals. That's where he, Tom Stafford, and a few other self-professed cool cats pretty much invented the Muscle Shoals sound.
Producer Jerry Wexler said he coined the nickname "Elegant Alabama Leaning Man" for Fritts. But that so-nicknamed fellow isn't so sure where it came from. "I was always leaning onto something back then. I guess I was high or stoned." He laughs. He wouldn't go back. But it's clear he treasures the twenty-plus years he spent as a sideman for Kristofferson.
Loyalty and charisma is what drew the Muscle Shoals legend to Kristofferson's side in the first place. "I guess I met him in 1968. He was hanging around writing songs at Combine. And, you know, from the beginning, I really loved Kris.
"I mean he's a star. I went back home to Muscle Shoals and told everybody I knew that Kris was going to be a star."
Fritts draws a long breath and scratches at the cross that hangs around his neck. "Kris is one of the best people God put on this earth in the history of people. He's such a loyal, caring person. And he makes you feel good just being around him."
He says that Kristofferson kept the band together long after he should have. "It cost him a lot to keep us going," says Fritts. "But that's just the way Kris is."
And they also shared the silver screen, with Donnie appearing as one of Billy the Kid's pals in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Kristofferson played the ill-fated kid in that 1973 Sam Peckinpah film that was at once a salute and a farewell to the Old West. Fritts played a character named Beaver.
"Sam told me to just repeat lines other people had said. He told me some that I was supposed to do, others I just kind of improvised. 'Private parts.' When I said that in the movie, Sam just laughed. 'Private parts.' I guess that was my big line. 'Private parts.' "
Donnie also appeared in a fistful of other successful films, two by Peckinpah, most with Kristofferson when the latter's star was born and then began to rise.
"I grew up going to every movie that came to town. I remember going to the theater there and seeing The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah's uber-violent landmark western starring William Holden along with a huge cast of the director's favorite character actors.)
"I remember that scene when the throat gets cut and the blood goes shooting. It was something. But there I was in Muscle Shoals watching it and two-and-a-half years later I was on a movie set with that guy."
Donnie still gets some screen parts, and he's even working with Standing in the Shadows of Motown director Paul Justman on a similar documentary-reenactment tale of the old Muscle Shoals days.
This newest film venture, like his new music, is done in a much clearer mind frame than his old days when he rode the two-lane blacktops of America with the rogue country star who portrayed Billy the Kid.
"I'm trying to take care of myself," Fritts says, nursing a glass of Pepsi.
He's paid the price for doing otherwise back in the days when he was known as "Funky Donnie Fritts." It's not everyone who gets multiple nicknames. The Leaning Man explains how Kristofferson dubbed him with his "Funky" persona.
"I never heard it until that song," he says, recalling the session when they were putting down tracks for The Silver Tongued Devil and I, Kristofferson's monumental and confessional album that back in 1971 had the critics comparing him to Bob Dylan.
One of the most personal songs on the album is "The Pilgrim: Chapter 33." At the beginning of that song Kristofferson rumbles through a litany of names of folks whose lifestyles are described, in this desperate song, with its lyric: "see him wasted on the sidewalk in his jacket and his jeans, wearin' yesterday's misfortunes like a smile."
It is most often referred to as a salute to the walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction, that was Kristofferson's great and often wasted friend and mentor John R. Cash.
But in the spoken-word intro, Kristofferson says the song also is about Chris Gantry, Billy Swan, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and "Funky Donnie Fritts."
Like his friend, R&B star Arthur Alexander, like most of the black and white kids who made music in the old drug store in Muscle Shoals, Fritts ran through life, hard and fast.
His laughter is happy and relatively healthy now, a little bit different than the despair that marked his life when the drugs and genetics took their tolls.
And there still are precarious times. A bout with pneumonia kept him holed up in Muscle Shoals for much of the winter of 2006-07. But there he was embraced by his wife, nursed back to health. He prayed for help.
It's a far trek from where he was at the turn of the century, when he was emerging from about five years of hell that included open-heart surgery, four angioplasties, dialysis, and ultimately a kidney transplant.
"They told me at one time that I was going to need both a heart transplant and then a kidney transplant. In other words: 'Hey, you're dead.'"
He stares at his glass and lets loose the easy, "I can't believe I made it out alive" laugh.
His father, Huey, an accomplished guitar player and construction company co-owner—Uncle Luther Fritts operated one of the two sky cranes that united the twin sections of the iconic Gateway Arch in St. Louis—died in 1967. "He had a heart attack, a stroke, and then a malignant brain tumor," says his son.
Donnie's mother, Helen, died in 1983, also a victim of heart disease.
So heredity may have played a role in his own health woes.
"Those were very dark days. I didn't think I had much of a chance to make it."
His first heart surgery was in 1999, when he had a triple bypass. "From right there in the surgery room, they took me to dialysis. That's normal."
In the next year he had four angioplasties. And the dialysis continued after each one. It was a faith-testing and frightening time.
"I wouldn't have made it if it hadn't been for someone else's tragedy." Heavy eyes grow watery.
"A young kid died so I could get this kidney. A fourteen-year-old kid. The child's mother wrote me a letter. I sat there and looked at it."
He picked up his own pen to respond. The wordsmith whose tales are deep in the groove and close to the bone had trouble thinking of what to say.
"I mean it was the hardest letter I ever wrote. I mean what the hell do I say to this family that is absolutely devastated?"
He hoped there would be a regular correspondence between himself and the family who lost the youngster when he fell through a skylight at a construction site. "He was too young to be doing that kind of work." While no friendship has resulted, he knows the family's loss is what keeps him alive and writing.
"God, I hope I'm handling it right. This is a special gift. God's given me a thousand second chances. This is the biggest one."
For a few minutes he's back on the road, running from the devil, for the border, or looking for glimmer-eyed adventures in his excess.
"My wife, Donna, well she saved my life so many times. She put up with a lot. We lived in Nashville for about twelve years (during Kristofferson's heyday and the height of the Outlaw movement). We'd be out on the road for weeks, and then I would hardly go home. I mean, I'd go home and see Donna, but then I'd be right out there hanging out with the guys.
"Waylon and I hung out. We just hit it off. We were together a lot. We did some serious hanging out."
"We were together a lot," says Fritts, who chased thrills to the point that the Leaning Man was the Dying Man.
Jennings, though he too cleaned up his life, didn't make it out alive. Of course no one does, but he died too soon, in February 2002.
His body surely was not helped by his history of abuse. But this truly is a story about loyalty. In one of his last appearances, Jennings made his way, thanks to wife Jessi Colter, to a fund-raising January 2000 concert in Florence to help pay Fritts's massive medical bills.
Jennings was not healthy. He was propped up by a cane and as far as anyone knew, he wasn't going to perform. He just loved Fritts and he wanted to be there to show his support.
But Jennings couldn't be silenced. From accounts of that night, he apparently sat still, enjoying the camaraderie when the old Muscle Shoals guys did their songs, then when other funky friends like Billy Swan and Delbert McClinton performed. It was a bill filled with good-hearted women and their good-timing men.
|R&B star Arthur Alexander, in his early 1960s heyday|
"It was a great show. They helped out a lot," says Fritts. The goal was to pay medical bills, but the cast was there just to tell Fritts they were glad that, against all odds, he was alive.
"I had an awful lot of them praying for me. I have no doubt that helped."
Fritts has seen many of his fellows fall in the last few years. Waylon. Cash. Charlie Rich. Ray Charles. Stephen Bruton. Jerry Wexler. Co-writing pals Eddie Hinton and Bill Blackburn. Longtime Kristofferson drummer Sammy Creason.
Perhaps the most painful loss was Arthur Alexander, who skyrocketed to fame and plummeted to the depths, at least in part due to his own prodigious appetites.
The friendship between Fritts and Alexander was, to say the least, unusual in Alabama in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The two soul mates met because of an audition.
Fritts already had helped birth the Muscle Shoals sound along with Tom Stafford, the manager of the Shoals Theater.
"I met him (Stafford) when I was fifteen years old, and we began talking about music, and from those conversations, that's how the studio above the drug store got started and that's how FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) got started and that's how the Muscle Shoals sound got started," says Fritts.
Auditions were held at the then-new Cinema Theater, where Stafford had moved, and it was there that Funky Donnie Fritts first heard Alexander's voice.
Fritts marveled at the soulful sound coming from the towering black man. He also was stirred by the man's likability.
An almost instant and lifelong friendship began.
"He was eighteen, I was sixteen," says Fritts, talking about the time he and Alexander began working together.
Alexander was not only a performer but a songwriter, whose songs were covered by the Beatles ("Anna [Go to Him])," the Rolling Stones ("You Better Move On"), and Bob Dylan ("Sally Sue Brown"), an unprecedented trifecta of musical legends drawing from one man's repertoire.
Alexander's best friend and biggest proponent was Fritts, who would run back and forth between Muscle Shoals and Music City to make sure that Alexander was well-noticed on the burgeoning Nashville R&B scene that sprung the likes of Gene Allison, Earl Gaines, Roscoe Shelton, and a skinny guitarist who had washed out of the army named Jimi Hendrix.
Black guys making music in Nashville was one thing. But in Florence, Alabama, with a bunch of skinny white kids?
"It was something when he first came to audition for me and Tom. Here was this black guy in this little town, 1958-59. He joined us in the studio above City Drug Store.
"Everybody in town hated it. I mean this was back during the Bull Connor times in Birmingham. But to us, it wasn't unusual.
"He was our friend. It didn't really strike me why it bothered people until I was driving along one Sunday morning by myself and I heard on the radio that four little girls were killed in that church."
The sadness of that day flavors Donnie's soul. He runs his finger along the rim of his Pepsi glass and mutters: "In a church! Little girls. Four little girls. In a church."
There was no way around the prejudice of those times. Fritts knows that heartless mindset still flourishes in some quarters. But four decades ago in rural Alabama "the only way we could deal with it, with the day-to-day conflict, was to make fun of it."
Of course, these pioneers surely kept their eyes in the rear-view mirror whenever they were on the lonesome highways.
Alexander died sixteen years ago in Nashville. A victim of his own excesses and unpredictability, he had all but been forgotten by the music world and spent many of his final years working as a bus driver in Cleveland.
Even when Fritts's own career was soaring, he never forgot Arthur. There weren't flurries of letters or phone calls, but when Kristofferson's band got anywhere near Cleveland, Arthur was a backstage guest. The pals kept up with each other. And then the stars seemed to be aligning for a comeback of the R&B star.
Fritts played percussion and keyboards on an album for his friend, Lonely Just Like Me. Other Muscle Shoals legends, like Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn, joined the sessions for the album that was released in February of 1993 on Nonesuch/Elektra Records. (Hacktone Records recently issued Lonely Just Like Me: The Final Chapter, a remastered version that includes live tracks, hotel demos, and extensive liner notes.)
Later in 1993, Arthur took those songs and others with him on his return to center stage with a performance at the old Summer Lights Festival, the now-defunct musical Nashville street party.
The soul singer's body was failing him, but he didn't really tell folks about it. And he enjoyed one last performance June 6, at that festival, before his body shut down.
The man who waited by his friend's bedside, trying to keep Alexander alive until his family could arrive, was Donnie Fritts.
Fritts still feels that death, because so many of his hopes and dreams had been intertwined with those of his childhood friend, the flashy R&B singer who truly did have it all, but let it get away.
The fact that Fritts lives on, thanks to a kidney donor, while kidney failure was the eventual cause of his great friend's death, is just one more link shared by the two men.
"God I miss June," Fritts says of Alexander, who was called "Junior" and "June Bug" by many who loved him.
By the time Alexander died, Fritts was reclaiming his own life. He and Donna had spent about a dozen years in Nashville in the 1970s and early 1980s, moving from apartments to houses to bigger houses. It was a good life for the acclaimed songwriter and sideman. But there also was excess. And in 1982, they had to go home.
"We wound up losing everything. We sold the house. We had to move back in with my mom in Florence, Alabama."
It was hard for the successful music man to go home with his tail dragging. Harder still, no doubt, for Donna, who was born in New York City (Brooklyn) and raised in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, before her family moved to Muscle Shoals.
But Donnie sees it as something that helped heal him. "I'd been on the road so much and here I was, home with my mother. We talked about things, became closer than ever. We were with her about a year before she died.
"It was worth every penny it cost me to spend that time with her."
And it marked the beginning of a new chapter for Fritts.
Just like the old days, when he would haul Alexander back and forth to Nashville or when he and Dan Penn sped back and forth for songwriting sessions, Fritts still splits his time between Nashville and the Muscle Shoals area (that near-mythological music-making region also includes the cities of Sheffield, Florence, and Tuscumbia, Alabama.)
He's also followed his friend Kristofferson into a deep sense of personal spirituality. When Fritts is in Music City, he is a regular in a prayer group called "First Tuesday." It meets that day each month in rock & roller Buzz Cason's Berry Hill studios.
Other regulars at these prayer and hope meetings include friends like Clifford Curry ("She Shot a Hole in My Soul"), Cason ("Everlasting Love"), and rocker and songwriting legend Dickey Lee ("She Thinks I Still Care").
This group not only socializes, but it offers relief to down-on-their-luck musicians through their "Giving in Faith Together" outreach. For example, before his death after a brave fight with cancer, legendary session drummer Kenny Buttrey and his family were assisted by a benefit concert and golf tournament. Buttrey was on the list of session players who accompanied Alexander in his early Nashville recordings. The drummer, like Kristofferson and his pal, Fritts, helped bring down the walls separating country and rock music.
Faith in Jesus is a constant that Fritts shares willingly in testimony that he even offers up from the stage. He's not out to convert. He's just there to confirm.
In a more worldly dimension, Fritts is fueled by excitement about new songs he's been working on as well as the fact that a British label (Casual Records) put out a pair of country soul compilations that, while they sold minimally, they at least saluted the flavor that the fellows from Muscle Shoals brought to Nashville.
"I'm really proud of this music," he says.
He's also proud to say that one of his songs, "Breakfast in Bed," is enjoying new life, thanks to recordings by Joan Osborne and Shelby Lynne.
Willie Nelson, in his assembly line-like release schedule, is recording "We Had It All" again. "I told him I had plenty of songs he could record, but he wanted to do that one again." The song is a perfect match for Nelson's signature song cadence.
And Fritts's most recent release, One Foot in the Groove, was produced by his old friend Dan Penn. The 2008 album includes the Fritts-penned "Jesus Was All I Had," which Ronnie Milsap recorded for his new gospel collection, Then Sings My Soul.
He's a humble man "most of the times," but he is not consumed by false humility. He's proud of the music he still performs in the two iconic musical towns where he's spent his life. In Muscle Shoals, he's generally joined by his pals the Decoys, consisting of bassist David Hood, guitarists Kelvin Holly and Scott Boyer, keyboardist N.C. Thurman, and drummer Mike Dillon. Fritts performed a handful of dates this fall in Japan with the Decoys. "The response was incredible," he says. "We sold out every show."
In Nashville, he occasionally ventures out of his digs at the Fritts Carlton to make music with Penn, Oldham, McClinton, Swan, and kindred spirits. A soul-stirring document of these forays and friendships is Fritts's 1997 album, Everybody's Got a Song, released on John Prine's imprint, Oh Boy Records. Prine, Jennings, Kristofferson, Nelson, Tony Joe White, and Lucinda Williams are just a few of the names who lend voice and groove to Fritts's songs.
And, of course, if Kristofferson ever is in Nashville, Fritts is sure to be there. "I'm so proud of Kris," he says, of his pal, whose likeness is on a bronze plaque in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, not far from the faces of Cash, Willie, Waylon, and the Carter Family.
Kristofferson handled the honors when the Alabama Leaning Man was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame on February 22, 2008. It was a time for shared celebration when both are enjoying life's upside.
The men's shared sense ofmelancholy is evident in a Kristofferson/Fritts co-write, "Epitaph (Black and Blue)," the finale of The Silver Tongued Devil album.
"We wrote this one for Janis," says Fritts, of the song with the verse: "The party's all over drink up and go home / It's too late to love her and leave her alone / Just say she was someone Lord so far from home / Whose life was so lonesome, she died all alone."
It is a soulful farewell to one-time Kristofferson lover and friend Joplin. It showcases a dash of the bare-bones mood and flavor that Fritts and friends brought from the ramshackle FAME studio to Nashville.
Fritts is proud he helped export Muscle Shoals to Music City. He's also proud that he ran fast-forward with country's greatest outlaws. He feels at home in either genre, in either camp. Actually he is something of a human bridge joining the funky sides of both music meccas.
"I'm so proud to say I was a part of Muscle Shoals from the beginning. And I'm proud that I was a part of Kris Kristofferson's career from the beginning.
"It couldn't have been more different, the two lives."
Donnie Fritts's two lives remain connected by the tunes, the grooves, the funky feel that comes from the piano and the voice of the son of the Shoals.
"I never thought I'd be making money for doing this. I'd have done it for per diem. Heck, I'd of done it for nothing."
The fact that this man plays out of love is never more evident than on a hundred-plus-degree evening, when Donnie and the Decoys draw country session guys, old rock & rollers, troubadours of the so-called Americana bent, and assorted lovable losers and no-account boozers, as Jennings would say, into the smoky confines of Douglas Corner, a Nashville bar.
|Donnie Fritts, 2002|
Swan, Penn, Gary Nicholson, and Bekka Bramlett (daughter of blues-rock deities Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett) are among those who find their wayto the stage to participate in a set that is as greasy asthe Memphis women and fried chicken who populate one song.
When Fritts launches into "Sumpin' Funky Going On," he plays up the musical style that likely helped Kristofferson figure out just what to dub his sideman and sidekick.
And his voice is almost a match for the towering growl of his hero Ray Charles when he launches into "We Had It All."
But the clear-eyed bandleader in a floral shirt and white straw Stetson is at his most confessional when he sings of the abuse of alcohol, pills, and life itself that he endured, from which he emerged.
"When I wrote this, ol' Jerry Lee was the only one with the guts to record it. I'm sure glad he did," says Fritts.
He clears his throat with a sip of soda and begins singing those autobiographical lyrics "my life would make a damn good country song."
The weathered face, the tired smile, and the truth light up the smoky little club.
TIM GHIANNI spent thirty-three years as an award-winning editor and writer
for newspapers in Nashville and Middle Tennessee. He now is a freelance writer
living in Nashville.