Jonny Corndawg: Bikini Lines and Highway Lines (Mississippi Studios – 9/12/11)
Walking up to meet Jonny Corndawg at a local food cart pod just over a week ago felt akin to stumbling into some kind of reverse Where’s Waldo book. Up until last week the only interaction I had had with the man was online, following an earlier ND piece I had written in support of his recently released album Down On The Bikini Line, and the then current Kickstarter campaign that helped to bring it to fruition, so I was a little worried about the off chance that I may walk right by him. But there, amongst the bustling Monday food cart lunch rush, amongst the overdressed crowds of downtown businessmen and hipsters alike, stood a tall man in a blonde cowboy hat complete with a sprig of feathers in the brim, an outfit of not one but two denims (seemingly Jonny’s signature), topped or should I say bottomed off with a pair of white albino alligator boots. Without a doubt, I had found my man.
Within minutes, everything I had heard about Jonny as a person were confirmed. Over our mid afternoon Thai fix of curry and drunken noodles, he was kind, warm, and genuine as we talked about life on the road, his work with Middle Brother, and the recent release of Bikini Line. Jonny’s modest efforts to get Bikini Line released to the general public turned out to be anything but. The album’s funds on Kickstarter surpassed $9,000 by the close of its campaign making Jonny a very busy man these days. Even before the album’s release on August 20th Jonny had been touring incessantly, performing radio spots, and giving plenty of interviews all of which brought him to Portland for a night opening for Tim Easton at Mississippi Studios.
But before he starts in on all of those Kickstarter prize packages (Jonny doubles as a leatherworker by day and many of the Kickstarter prize packages include handmade belts and/or guitar straps), for now it’s all about the Bikini Line.
I suppose the best way to decide whether you’re a Corndawg fan or not is as simple as deciding whether you like hot dogs or the man who one day decided to wrap a pancake around a hot dog. While Jonny’s subject matter and delivery on Bikini Line may not necessarily be your grandfather’s country, it packs enough slide guitar and blue collar lyricism to stand tall next to it. The album’s opener “Shaved Like A Razor” commands a metaphorically humorous look at feminine grooming habits and sexual encounters bringing to mind the behind-closed-doors winking of Conway Twitty. In fact, much of the album harkens back to the sex and glitz of late 60’s and 70’s country. You can almost feel the wind in your hair from fast cars and faster women when, as a self professed Chevy man, Jonny celebrates even their shittiest model (his words from the show later that night) in “Chevy Beretta,” a Jonesian and infectious ride of a song complete with racy sing along lyrics. While die hard alt country crowds may never be ready for the campiness of “Red On The Head,” (I was born to have my hair in the breeze/With a cigarette in my mouth and a beer between my knees/ Talking to girls like any bad boy would/Touching titties in my mind and using real bad words), Bikini Line‘s mix of outlaw humor and electrified honky tonk may just make as many fans as it alienates.
Case in point: later that night. Before taking to the stage, Jonny admitted to me that he was a bit nervous. Up until recently, many of his shows have been in support of some of his closest friends in the music biz: Dawes, Deer Tick, J. Roddy Walston and The Business, where large crowds and the company of friends tended to keep the performance butterflies at bay. But what Jonny’s audience lacked in numbers that night, it more than made up for in enthusiasm. Beneath the dim Mississippi Studios lighting, flanked by his trusty homemade leather guitar case, Corndawg delivered a set comprised of a majority of the new album and a few old favorites, all of which brought the small wallflower crowd up from the back of the room in no time. “Night Rider, ” a Gram Parsons-like trucking song about a driver’s symbiotic relationship to the road and my personal favorite off of the new album was among the first songs played. Whether it comes from an age old country appreciation for a life of rambling, his pure knack for delving into his own life on the road for song fodder, or a bit of both, many of Corndawg’s best songs are a mix of wit and truck stop wisdom. Nowhere was this more apparent than in “Holy Water,” another highlight of the night’s performance that painted a portrait of a navel tattooed cashier as a kind of high priestess amongst the congregation that is the American T & A Travel Center. Jonny rounded out his set with “Middle Brother” a tribute to his collaboration with the Middle Brother boys, a beautiful cover of the Jimmy Cousin’s song “Fools and Sages,” an a cappella version of “Silver Panty Liners,” (a song that not only showcases Jonny’s knack for inventive metaphor and racy topics, but also his incredibly high and clear hillbilly-esque vocal range), and a crowd that was all ears and applause.
Unfortunately, with songs about panty liners and others that compare how red an object is to a dick on a dog, many critics have dubbed Jonny as nothing more than a “funny” songwriter out for laughs. But while his songs are undeniably humorous, I think I would prefer to call him topical. Topical in the way that there will always be an American attraction to the road. Topical in the way that relationships will always make us fight over who didn’t take the trash out on trash day. And especially topical in the way that, no matter where or how you were raised, you feel like you already know or have at least met someone similar to the characters in his songs. So while Down On The Bikini Line may not be destined to burn a hole in the charts, I don’t think it matters much to Jonny or his fans. As we said goodbye over coffee the next day and again as I go to wrap up this article, I really can’t help but think of the words that helped to describe another equally misunderstood man: “Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. But… aw, hell. I’ve done introduced him enough…”