Donnie Fritts & Friends – Norton Auditorium (Florence, AL)
Donnie Fritts began his lifetime in music as a songwriter and session man in Alabama amid the burgeoning Muscle Shoals soul scene of the 1960s. He got the nickname “Flipside” Fritts because his songs tended to end up on the B-side of so many hit singles. When he relocated to Nashville in the ’70s, 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 30 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 recent heart surgery, Fritts’ 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 Fritts’ musical legacy, the event served as a demonstration of the broad reaches of Muscle Shoals music.
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 such as “Cry Like A Baby” often took the A-side to Fritts’ 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 one 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 penning classics such as “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night In Georgia”, White is also a spectacular performer. Because he rarely plays live in the U.S. anymore, his set was a particular treat. With only a drummer accompanying his “whomper stomper” guitar and harmonica, White’s musical gumbo leaves bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival choking on swamp gas.
Next, the house band, consisting 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 delivered a fun performance of his “Soldier Of Love”, while Swan, who also spent time in Kristofferson’s band, performed a three-song set highlighted by 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 roadhouse 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 from Fritts.
McClinton’s set gave way to a wonderful free-for-all. Nashville tunesmith 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 cleanup with a delightfully ragged set that included “Me And Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down”. During “Help Me Make It Through The Night”, Waylon Jennings came onstage to a rousing ovation. Soon, the rest of the performers slowly returned to the 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 toward 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 who performed that evening was like one strong link in an unbreakable chain covering soul, blues and country.