TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Veteran songwriter and musician Donnie Fritts takes center stage with the release of his new album "Oh My Goodness." Fritts is now 72. During his long career, he's seen his song "We Had It All" recorded by many artists, including The Rolling Stones and Dolly Parton. And Fritts toured for many years as Kris Kristofferson's keyboardist. His fourth solo album features backup musician admirers, including Jason Isbell, John Prine and Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)
DONNIE FRITTS: (Singing) Hollis Dixon and the Keynotes, playing at fraternities. I was on drums. I didn't play so hot. But I kept a damn good beat. We played a lot of rock 'n' roll and some greasy rhythm and blues, down in Tuscaloosa, 1962.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's Donnie Fritts, singing about Hollis Dixon and the Keynotes, a prime Southern rock band that started up in the 1950s and of which Fritz was briefly a member. The so-called greasy rhythm and blues Fritts salutes in his lyric is the stuff he built his own reputation on creating. Born in Alabama, Fritts was part of the Muscle Shoals studio sound, a blend of blues, rock, soul and country. Primarily a keyboard player, Fritts has rarely claimed front-man status. His voice is an oozy drawl that doesn't have much range. But it can be very effective on a wry song such as "Foolish Heart."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOOLISH HEART")
FRITTS: (Singing) Oh, every time we go downtown, the boys watch you walk by. You don't see their eyes, but I bet you hear them sigh. The whole darn town's in love with you, but here's the funny part. You love me. God bless your foolish heart. Even the...
TUCKER: That song was written by Jesse Winchester, but it's of a piece with Fritts' self-image as he presents it on his own compositions - a rueful man quick to acknowledge his own flaws as a man, as a partner in relationships that go south, as a guy that can get too wrapped up in his own melancholy. Fritts is particularly good at writing and singing about the perils of self-pity without letting self-pity drain the music of pleasure, as on this song he co-wrote called "If It's Really Got To Be This Way."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF IT'S GOT TO BE THIS WAY")
FRITTS: (Singing) If it's really got to be this way, I can take it, I know. I'll just carry on day to day, until I can make it on my own. You know I'll cry, but I'll get by. I forgive you girl by and by. And I'll forget you someday if it's really got to be this way. If this is one...
TUCKER: Donnie Fritts' greatest song may be "Breakfast In Bed," co-written with Eddie Hinton and best known as a cut on Dusty Springfield's great album "Dusty In Memphis." Fritts excels at creating a groove and letting it stretch out with a languid funkiness. Here's another example of what I'm talking about. I really like Fritt's version of one of his songs that The Box Tops had a minor hit with in 1968, an assiduously simple yet propulsive tune called "Choo Choo Train."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHOO CHOO TRAIN")
FRITTS: (Singing) I've got a present for brother, choo choo train. And I'm just dying to see my dear old mother, choo choo train. So don't slow down 'til you see my hometown, choo choo train. Oh, choo choo train. I know you're not a jet airplane. But you see my baby's waiting at the station. So give me just a little more acceleration, choo choo train.
TUCKER: Fritts has led a long and winding career. Early on, he hooked up with a fellow songwriter, who, like Fritts, didn't like conventional song structures or staying within the confines of a single genre. That association with Kris Kristofferson as his touring keyboardist led Fritts into unexpected side trips, such as small roles in three Sam Peckinpah films, including "Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid." But through it all, Donnie Fritts has remained pretty much under the radar - a musician admired by other musicians, occasionally stepping to the front of the bandstand to rumble out a few shrewd ruminations he disguises as coming straight from his heart.
GROSS: Ken Tucker critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed "Oh My Goodness," the new album by Donnie Fritts. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the Freedom Caucus, the 40 conservative members of Congress who toppled Speaker John Boehner and have created a leadership crisis in the House of Representatives. Our guest will be Rolling Stone national affairs reporter Tim Dickinson. His new article describes the caucus as having an extreme antigovernment agenda. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.