august 2008

In the End, The Heart

By David McGee


Donnie Fritts
Leaning Man Records

You can listen to music for the rest of your born days and you'll have a hard time finding anything so profoundly soulful from top to bottom and in every nook and cranny as Donnie Fritts's first solo recording in a decade, the oh-so-appropriately titled One Foot In the Groove. Recipient of a life saving kidney transplant in 2001, this southern soul pioneer, so essential to the vitality of the Muscle Shoals scene back in the day, songwriter of note, confidante and accompanying musician to a host of stellar soul, R&B, country and rock 'n' roll titans since the mid-'60s, doesn't beat around the bush here-he has much to celebrate and to reflect on, and he does both, in abundance, using all the tools at his command, along a bunch of great musician friends, to lend the varied soundscapes their impossibly rich, compelling textures. The all-star lineup includes such Fritts compadres as Tony Joe White, James Pennebaker, Wayne Jackson, Mickey Raphael, Clayton Ivey, John Jarvis, Billy Swan, and a basic band that includes Scott Boyer, Kelvin Holly, NC Thurman, Mike Dillon, David Hood, and Spooner Oldham, with none other than Dan Penn steering the whole enterprise from the producer's chair. What could go wrong?

Well, nothing. One Foot In the Groove travels the lost highway, ranging from Mexico to New Orleans to Memphis to Nashville to Muscle Shoals and on up the coast to Woodstock, credible at every stop along the way. Fritts's voice alternately affects a sound as bemused and wry as Randy Newman's and as black-dirt earthy as Levon Helm's. It's one thing to parade your influences unabashedly; quite another to still sound utterly original while doing so. Fritts pulls off this neat feat by doing what comes naturally, deeply immersing himself into his songs (only two of the 12 do not bear the Fritts co-write) to the point where he becomes the songs-there is no separation between what he's singing and what he believes to the depths of his being. This is true whether he's luxuriating in the reggae-tinged rhythms of Kris Kristofferson's treatise on a father's words of wisdom about trustworthiness and personal integrity ("The Heart," which closes with the softly repeated chant, "In the end, the heart," just to put a sharp point on matters); the dreamy, sweet R&B ballad to his beloved, "My Friend," that he and Oldham penned, and to which Mickey Raphael contributes a typically haunting chromatic harmonica swoon and also features a brief but killer recitation by Fritts in which he marvels at the woman the girl he used to know has grown into; or digging ravenously into the medium-cool blues shuffle groove of "Chicken Drippings," extolling the unadulterated gastronomic joys of chicken any old way, with Oldham supplying the rich hum of an organ and Wayne Jackson (trumpet) and Harvey Thompson (sax) adding some brass cojones to the feast. Jackson returns to inject some piercing, poignant muted trumpet lines into a swirling, gospel-tinged blues lament over lost love, "Across the Pontchartrain," set in New Orleans and, thanks to Oldham's surging, deeply evocative organ, redolent with Crescent City languor. The greasy country soul infusing the wicked rhythmic thrust of "Don't Beat Around the Bush" will make you think you've stumbled onto the great lost Band track, and Fritts's frisky vocal, with some affecting high harmonizing by Scott Boyer, recalls many a memorable Levon Helm-Rick Danko set-tos. Although the song "Robin In the Rain" is a real heartbreaker, with a tear-drenched Fritts on the outside, cold and lonely, pleading for forgiveness from the woman who dumped him and now sits warm and cozy in her house, maybe alone, maybe not, Fritts's tortured vocal, supplemented only by Clayton Ivy's expressive, mordant B3 and John Jarvis's church-centered piano, gives the whole endeavor the feel of a spiritual entreaty. And on an album rich in common sense, unconventional wisdom and sharp, observational perspectives, the great truth is saved for last, when the full horn section blares and blurts, the assembled voices (Trixie Penn on "soulful barking," along with the all-male chorus of Billy Swan and Buzz Cason) croon, coo and funk it up, while, in the midst of a swinging Memphis soul groove, Fritts informs us that "Nothing Stays the Same (Except the Changes)," in what is a celebratory climax to a journey that rewards repeat trips with further revelations of its depth, its vision, its sure grip on what matters in this world. God bless Donnie Fritts for all he's done for American music, and is still doing. In the end, the heart, and his is big enough to hold all of us.


Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024