The last thing John Paul White wanted to do was produce a record. The former Civil Wars frontman had settled back in the tiny creative town of Florence, Alabama, after touring around the world with the Grammy Award-winning duo. He wanted to work on a few personal projects, start a local label (Single Lock Records), and spend more time with his wife and kids. He was planning on renting an excavator to dig a pool in his backyard.
Then, he met Donnie Fritts.
As one of the early songwriters in Muscle Shoals, where artists like Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Percy Sledge recorded their biggest hits, Donnie worked with Arthur Alexander and had a track cut by Ray Charles. Later, he went on to tour with his friend and country legend Kris Kristofferson as his keyboardist for nearly 20 years. (Kristofferson called him by his nickname "Funky Donnie Fritts.") He even starred in a few Westerns, one with a young Bob Dylan.
But for all his accomplishments, Donnie's face only appeared in the critically acclaimed 2013 Muscle Shoals documentary for a few seconds, sometimes flashing across the screen in a vintage photograph. Feeling peeved that other important musicians and friends had been left on the cutting room floor, he wasn't too keen on playing the documentary's premiere party.
Then John Paul, the event's emcee, called. "I told him that the reason he was upset was exactly the reason why he should play the show," he says. Reluctantly, Donnie played his set, then the two got to talking. He mentioned that he had spoke with producer T Bone Burnett about recording his first album in 10 years. But, T Bone had suggested another man to produce Donnie's record: John Paul.
"I was completely floored," says John Paul. "I said, 'I think you're both crazy. I've never produced a record in my life. We've only known each other one day.'" But Donnie persisted. "I said, 'I don't care, you're the guy.'"
So in John Paul's half built recording studio, they made Oh My Goodness. Some of the songs are raucous, some are heartbroken, and some of them delicate with only the sounds of a 72-year-old man and his Wurlitzer piano. All together, they show why Donnie could never be forgotten.
The two musicians, now friends, sat down at Single Lock's studios in Florence to talk about making Oh My Goodness, which features Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, the Secret Sisters, and Jason Isbell. Listen to the track premiere for "Tuscaloosa 1962" below, which features Isbell on guitar and celebrated songwriter, John Prine in the background vocals.
SL: Donnie, what was recording this album at this point in your career like for you?
DF: Well, if it wasn’t for this man right here, John Paul, well, I wouldn’t have any of this going now, obviously. I never thought I had a shot ever again. I thought all that was over. Well we meet Mr. White here…
JPW: Who’s just as dumb as you are.
DF: (Laughs) Maybe. But, it’s one of those things that was meant to be. For us to get together at this point in both of our lives, and I get a record deal from this young man, you know. That’s a big damn deal.
SL: In a way, you both helped restart each other's careers after a break. After all the experiences you've had performing and recording, what did you learn from working with each other in this one?
JPW: The most important thing that I’ve taken from this whole process is Donnie’s dear love for songs and for songwriters. I’d always been a student of it but in no way to the extent that he is and how everything about a record starts with that. I’d always paid attention to that but I don’t think I did quite as much as I did with this record.
I felt like Donnie has a thing that he does and he does it very well. There wasn’t a lot of arrangement and stuff like that because he had been playing these songs for so long and they were such well-written songs in the first place. That was really it. It wasn’t about elevating the music to this certain standard. It was already there. It was just a matter of capturing it.
DF: Well, working with John Paul has meant so much to me in so many ways, you know, just to still be able to do it with one of the most talented guys I’ve ever met in my life. We just had one criteria while making he record: let's make a record we both love and see what happens.
JPW: We did probably 10 things in the first couple of days of making that record Donnie had never done before. He never met the musicians, and I told him at the beginning, we're going to use a bunch of young, local guys, and he said, "I trust you. I want to do it your way. I’ll tell you if we get to a place where I don’t.” But he said, “I’ve done it my way so let’s do it yours and see what happens.”
DF: The way we ended up doing it reminded me of that way Dan [Penn] recorded. He would try everything whether he knew it would work or not.
SL: What does it sound like to hear yourself on this record versus your first solo effort Prone to Lean? Do you like the way your voice sounds now?
DF: That's a good question. I never thought about that. But, I do like it a lot better. I do. I actually know more about what I'm doing. I played and sang those things hours upon hours at home when we weren't recording, getting it the way I want to hear it. But, I really like it. I like it better now. It's real.
JPW: Somehow, we convinced him of how much we dearly loved what he was doing. And that none of us wanted to make a record with him because of Prone to Lean, because of Kris Kristofferson, or because of John Prine or any other friend that he had. It had to do with what he was doing at this moment in time. And that was my other pitch to him: We’re all about what you’re doing right now. We feel like you’re going to make the best record you’ve ever made in your life.
SL: What was the process in reimagining some of these songs? The aesthetic is much more sparse and stripped down.
DF: It is. There were a lot of songs where it's just me and the Wurlitzer or me with John Paul and his guitar. Sometimes they would turn out totally different than how I wrote them, but it made the songs work even better. Like on "Memphis Women and Fried Chicken," he said, "We need to do this in half time." I said "S***, I don't know about that." But it worked.
JPW: I made a conscious effort not to listen to the old stuff because I didn’t want it to color what we did. I wanted it to be just Donnie. I wanted to just capture him and go with my nose. I didn't want to do the expected.
SL: Donnie, how do you see this record fitting into your larger catalog? You've always been a behind-the-scenes star, and now you're the focal point with people like Jason Isbell and Brittany Howard wanting to play with you.
DF: It’s an amazing feeling, you know, that after all this time that it can be that way. Over the years, you know, I wrote a lot of songs and had some success but I was always in bands. I was with Kris a while, and Kris was a huge star. It all felt more like a family unit with him, but I was still in the background, you know?
It really makes me feel good that there’s people still around that would want to work with me. It’s a wonderful feeling, getting folks like Brittany and everyone interested in working with me now. Hopefully that’ll keep growing ‘cause we got a record or two left in us, I think.
JPW: Yeah. We’ll make your next record when you’re 92.
DF: Let’s put it at least 82.