Donnie Fritts and Friends
University of North Alabama
January 22, 2000
Donnie Fritts began his lifetime in music as a songwriter and session man in the burgeoning Muscle Shoals soul scene of the 60's. He got the nickname "Flipside" Fritts because his songs tended to end up on the b-side of some many hits singles. When he relocated to Nashville in the 70's, he became part of that city's "outlaw" scene developing close friendships with John Prine, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson with whom he also spent thirty years on the road. Unfortunately, that wear and tear has been catching up with the man known as the "Alabama Leaning Man".
In order to help pay his medical costs from a recent heart surgery, Fritts's friends in the Muscle Shoals area decided to put on a benefit concert, and it didn't take long for an impressive lineup to come on board. Beyond just showing the breadth of Fritt's musical legacy, the show served as a demonstration of the broad reaches of Muscle Shoals
The show began with a performance by songwriting duo Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, the earliest Muscle Shoals cohorts of Fritts, who intimately presented their songs on acoustic guitar and electric piano. Even though their songs like "Cry Like A Baby" often took the a-side to Fritt's b-side, Penn and Oldham performed songs that each had written with Fritts, "Hello Memphis" and "Rainbow Road". Their set ended with an stunning performance of "Dark End of The Street" written by Penn and Chips Moman who was also in attendance.
After that moving set, Fritts himself came out to perform on of his best known ballads, "We Had It All". Even as his emotions and weakened condition prevented him from finishing the song, the intensity in his creaky voice left few dry eyes in the house.
The difficult task of following Fritts was left to the "Swamp Fox", Tony Joe White. Known best for songs like "Rainy Night In Georgia", White is also a spectacular performer. Because he rarely plays live in the US anymore, his set was a particular treat. With only a drummer accompanying his "whomper stomper" guitar and harmonica, White's musical
gumbo leaves bands like CCR choking on swamp gas, especially as he closed with an extended version of his "Polk Salad Annie".
Next, the house band, comprised mainly of local musicians and augmented by guitar great Reggie Young, took the stage. In a further nod to great songwriting, the next performers were Buzz Cason and Billy Swan. Cason gave a fun performance of his "Soldier of Love" and Swan, who also spent time in Kristofferson's band, performed a three song set including his neo-rockabilly hit, "I Can Help".
The show shifted to another gear with sets by Lee Roy Parnell and Delbert McClinton. These two Texans have always included a healthy slice of Muscle Shoals soul in their unique cross of Texas blues and country. Parnell shined on "Love Without Mercy" which he called his attempt to "sneak soul music on the radio." McClinton had the audience revved up by the time Parnell came back out to accompany him on a moving performance of "Sending Me Angels", a request by Fritts himself.
McClinton's set gave way to a wonderful music free for all. Nashville songster Gary Nicholson fired up the crowd with "Memphis Women and Chicken" a song he wrote with Fritts and Penn. Stephen Bruton, another Kristofferson alum, followed with "She's The Reason" dedicating it to Fritts and his wife Donna.
Even after he acknowledged the difficulty of following such soulful performers, Kristofferson batted clean up with a delightfully ragged set which included "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Sunday Morning Coming Down". During "Help Me Make It Through the Night" Waylon Jennings came on stage to a rousing ovation. Soon, the rest of the performers slowly filtered back on stage. The show came to an end with Kristofferson's moving performance of "Why Me" accompanied by the group choir.
Before the show, Kristofferson described how he gravitated towards Fritts and his passion for songwriting when both were in Nashville. That musical and spiritual bond between people lies at the heart of the Muscle Shoals magic. Each artist that performed that evening was like one strong link in an unbreakable chain that covers soul, blues, and country. In the pre-show press conference, Kristofferson said that Fritts will still be writing songs "when they throw dirt on him." Even with all of the years and miles shared between these performers, one hopes that day won't be coming soon for any of them.
- Jim Markel
(Donations payable to Friends of the Alabama Music Hall Of Fame with "For Donnie Fritts" in the memo field, c/o Leigh King and Associates, 603 E. 2nd St, Sheffield, AL 35660)