One look at his name and many music fans will think, “Novelty act.” But that’s not really the case with Jonny Corndawg.
His music does have an element of humor to it, but Corndawg is a renaissance man of sorts who takes the country style of the ’70s and updates it for a generation of kids who find anything ironic to be incredibly hip. He’s into big rigs, leatherworking and airbrushing. Clever songs like “Chevy Beretta,” “Shaved (Like a Razor)” and “Undercover Dad” made last year’s Down on the Bikini Line an underground hit, but it had more to do with the surprising authentic quality of his music than it did with his quirky style.
For his follow-up project, Corndawg enlisted the popular California indie-rock band Dawes to serve as a backing group. That album, titled Dad Country and funded almost entirely by fans, should be ready for release in the coming months.
But heading into this week’s South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Austin, Texas, Corndawg got the news that Rolling Stone magazine had named him one of its “can’t miss acts” at the event. He caught up with CMT.com from his natural habitat — the highway — to introduce himself and explain what the grueling SXSW festival is like from an artist’s point of view.
CMT: A lot of people might get the false first impression you’re somehow mocking country music. That’s not the case at all, right?
This couldn’t be farther away from what’s actually going on. I just don’t want to be such an obvious performer. I like that people are scratching their heads a bit, and I’ve had some reviews recently where people are like, “I hate this. I love this. I don’t know what to think of this.” That makes me happy, and I think that any time you can get people to scratch their heads, it’s a good thing. My music isn’t that easy to take, and it’s funny because when we wrote our bio, we were like, “You’ll never find this on CMT.” (laughs) You have to think about it more. It’s going to take a minute, and you have to absorb it.
For the record, the only thing that I listen to is country music. It’s almost to an embarrassing point. We can talk about Waylon records all day long, but I don’t know who’s playing today.
I read somewhere that you describe yourself as “a country singer, not a singer-songwriter.” What do you mean by that? I’m sure it’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek.
Well, not really. I think “singer-songwriter” is kind of a four letter word to me. Like, “Oh, god, singer-songwriter. What do you mean? Like Joan Osborne or like ’90s Alanis Morissette?” Obviously, the word “singer” and the word “songwriter” on their own are exactly what I do, but when you put them together, it just has a new meaning. Like, “Oh, I’m a singer-songwriter,” and I’m like, “Ugh, gross. Get away from me.” (laughs)
What is your SXSW experience usually like? And will it be different this year?
Well, we left Nashville last night and I’m realizing how different it is. I’m usually by myself, and I usually roll in and just hang out and watch some shows. The difference this time is I’m bringing a five-piece band, so everybody’s got to get paid. And it’s right at the beginning of the tour, so no money is coming in. I’m realizing I’m responsible for five other guys and I can’t just fall asleep wherever. But I think it’ll be fine, and I try to keep a positive attitude and keep it mellow. My favorite way to think about SXSW is that it’s not an actual music festival. What it is, is a festival where they celebrate the earliest point of the year where you can swim. Like, “Hey, everybody, let’s all go to Austin! It’s finally warm enough where you can swim,” and it just so happens that you have 15 shows and there’s a bunch of music going on.
What’s it like to do 15 shows in three or four days?
The shows are great, especially when there are all these new people, and it’s always a surprise. But sometimes you roll in and say “I’m playing at 2 p.m. here and 5 p.m. here,” and you walk in at 1:45, and the place is totally empty. Every show, you go through that anxiety of whether or not anyone is going to come to your party. I was actually wondering the other day, like, does Brad Paisley still have that anxiety where he shows up on arena tours and wonders whether or not anyone’s going to show up? I can’t imagine it going away. Anyway, you go through that at SXSW four times a day. But it’s cool because it happens so fast. Like, “Screw it. That was a horrible show, but we have three more to make up for it.”
You’ve been named one of Rolling Stone‘s “can’t miss acts” at SXSW. Do you feel a few more eyes on you this year? Does it add a little bit of pressure?
Not at all. All the things and press that could get to my head, it’s not that intense. No one had really paid attention to our music, but last year was a great one. It was really new, and no one had ever heard anything. Now that Rolling Stone said something, I don’t think it’ll be that much bigger. Here’s the thing: If there are more people, then we’ll be ready for them, and we’re going to kick ass. It can’t fail when you’ve got a band like I do.
I did want to talk to you about that. There’s this small little scene in Nashville starting to coalesce around you with people like Dawes and John McCauley and Robert Ellis and some others. Do you get a sense that something cool is about to happen?
You know, I do get that feeling, and I think it’s pretty cool. When I first moved to Nashville, I felt like I didn’t know anybody, and it was like, “Man, where are all the people that I heard about.” Then I started coming back a lot, and everybody had moved there, and I felt like I had a thousand more friends. Eventually, people catch on to the cool things that your friends are doing. It’s like, “Your songs are pretty cool — that you’re playing in my living room. Why don’t people come to your shows?” (laughs) Eventually, after a couple of years, people start to realize how cool everybody is.