A Conversation With Kinky

The irrepressible Mr. Friedman shares insights and irony

Kinky Friedman

Singer, songwriter, animal rescuer, former gubernatorial candidate, rascal, raconteur and occasional curmudgeon, Kinky Friedman is all of those things and more. “I’m the lonely beekeeper,” he says of himself, and indeed, Friedman’s disparaged wider recognition in favor of pursuing his own muse. Like the other legendary cosmic cowboys birthed by the outlaw country scene of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s — Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver, Willie, Waylon and Kris — Friedman helped reshaped country music from the tame ballads anointed by tears in the beers, and tackled instead real life tales of lovers, losers and outcasts on the fringes of society who refused to conform to whatever was expected of them. Like his fellow compatriots, Friedman excelled at sharing hard luck tales that conveyed lessons through both humor and satire, pathos and pain, while always finding hidden truths in the midst of it all.

Nevertheless, his best known songs — “Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” “They Don’t Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” and “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed” — have given many members of the general populace ample reason to avoid taking him and his infamous band of co-conspirators,The Texas Jewboys, very seriously, despite his essential role in bridging the boundaries between rock and country early on.

Up until a couple of years ago, it had been an incredibly long time since Friedman made any music, some 39 years in fact. Sidetracked by a run for the Texas governor’s mansion — a campaign that found him winning a respectable percentage of the popular vote — and his humanitarian efforts running a dog rescue ranch from his home in the hill country of the Lone Star State, he finally reemerged with 2015‘s The Loneliest Man I Ever Met. It was an album consisting solely of covers, but a welcome return regardless.

Still, Friedman’s latest effort, Circus of Life, offers even more cause for celebration, given the fact that each of its twelve tunes are composed by Friedman himself. Nevertheless, the sound is subdued, mostly stark ballads detailing lost love, tragedy and the inevitable despair that accompanies such sad situations. There are lessons learned as well, which made our recent conversation with the man himself all the more insightful. Although our talk was ostensively intended to focus on the new album, any encounter with Kinky is bound to bring other pearls of wisdom as well. How many people know, for example that 3 Dog Night’s Danny Hutton was the Daniel name checked in the Elton John song of the same name?

“Just a little spiritual trivia from the Kinkster,” Friedman cheerfully noted.

With that, here is the conversation that transpired…

 

Great to talk with you, Kinky. The inevitable question to start has to be, what brought you back to writing songs?

At 73, most people, and especially the writers that I admire like Kurt Vonnegut, might have been done by then. Which is normal. I’m trying to think of someone who did their best work in the ‘70s. Once you’ve written thousands of songs like Willie and Dylan and Billy Joe Shaver — that might be it, which is why maybe so much stylization takes place. Bob sings Sinatra, Willie’s singing Sinatra, everybody singing Sinatra…



We’re waiting for you to sing Sinatra…

Well, I’m not there yet. Maybe because I took that 40 years off, I can still write 12 songs to the best of my talent. For those guys, it almost becomes a parody of yourself. When you’ve written over a thousand fucking songs, what are you going to do that’s different from what you’re created? So that would be difficult for anybody. It’s not normal. Plus, these songs were written with a “fuck you” style. “Back to Grace” has an old time country feeling, and if that was recorded 20 or 30 years ago, that would of had a real chance to be something. Today, of course, that market has gone. The audience has become the show as Billy Bob said, and in spite of that, even the guys I admire aren’t selling a lot of records. Nobody’s selling a lot of records except Mariah Carey or Justin Bieber or those artists who manage to be important without being significant. When I was in Denver, somebody reminded me that every songwriter in the know knows about this record, Circus of Life, and anybody who’s plugged in knows about this record. That’s how it’s done now. They’ll download it or whatever they do. I don’t know about any of that shit. Unfortunately, the technology is getting better and better in America and it’s the people who are deteriorating.

 

Technology is supposed to improve communication, but sadly, communication is at the worst level we’ve ever seen.

People don’t have the ability — politically, culturally, creatively. You notice the way songs are written, the way they’re written in Nashville? Obviously, it’s going to be a committee and it’s also going to have a purpose. A guy like Roger Miller writes a song like “King of the Road” with an incandescent flash. He visited Willie in a trailer park and there was a sign that read “Trailers for sale or rent,” but he completed the song in Waterloo Canada. And today that’s the home of Justin Bieber. It’s his hometown, but it’s also where Richard Manuel is buried.

 

How ironic.
I think Richard would have a big laugh over that, who he’s sharing the town’s legacy with. Everyone wants to be significant. Nobody’s satisfied with just selling millions of records to eight year-olds.



Except maybe Justin Bieber…

If he is, I think he has it made. But I think he wants to be taken seriously.

 

We all do.
Of course. Even I do. I realize that if I was a serious soul early on, it would have been a lot easier. You do one funny song and you’re dead.

 

If Circus of Life was your first album, people would have maybe thought of you as an eloquent, emotional songwriter. This is a tender touch you’re lending here. Even if this was someone’s first exposure to you, they’d probably be thinking that you’re a real sort of sensitive guy.

(laughs) What do they know? With the advent of a total cultural ADD in America, nobody can listen to an entire song anyway. That kinds of ruins guys like Tom T. Hall who has stories to tell. I love all of his songs and both of his melodies.


Funny.

See, most people don’t get that.

 

Getting back to the new album…it gets even deeper once you get into it. But the melodies convey a very sweet sentiment. People might think of you as a real sensitive guy.
Well, I think you can also think of this album as tragic. Real tragedies inspired these songs. Willie got me started on this, to start writing again. It happened very fast. It could be that the gene pool of mankind has all dried up. There is musical talent out there, but the problem is, it all sounds like Stevie Ray Vaughn. All the chick singers sound like Janis Joplin. It’s all been done better. There’s a kid in every town that can play like Stevie Ray. If Stevie Ray was alive, he’d be doing something else.

 

Hendrix would as well. But there are some great songwriters who are out there and writing songs that are meaningful, evocative and that come from the heart.

Those are two matters. As far as songwriting, there’s no place for a song in Nashville. I can’t think of a song that’s come out of there in a while know. If you listen to a country station, you don’t hear a song for hours and hours. They’re playing so-called music, but there’s nothing that has cleverness in it. It’s a lost art. Take Toby Keith — I don’t know any of his songs, but the guy’s made a billion bucks. Everybody at that point wants to write their own songs. So they get a committee together and write the songs and the problem is. as I see it, is that they’re writing it in a corporate whorehouse with official songwriter meetings and stuff at 3:45 p,.m. They’re earmarking these songs for something, like there’s going to be a new TV show called “The President Kills Himself,” and that’s what it is and we need a new song for that. It’s like product placement. It’s just a business and it’s all political, and you’re not going to get a great song coming out of it. But they don’t need a great song. There’s only 12 motherfuckers in Nashville who are selling millions of records.


It’s a lot of frat rock actually. Mostly MOR, mass appeal music that’s not even written by the people singing them. They’re probably not even wrapping themselves around it.

Well, they think they do.  This is nothing new. But the pendulum is swinging back and I would say that Circus of Life really finds you. It finds you instead of the other way around. You don’t have to go looking for it. The record will find you. Almost everything about it is breaking the rules. It’s 12 tragic songs back to back. Somebody might have said, “Why don’t you try to write something that’s a little upbeat?” But there’s no sense in trying to portray a happy ending in a world that doesn’t have one.

 

Yet it is a very accessible album. It’s one you want to delve deeper into. The songs are very affecting and it does draw you in. It creates a connection.
It is connecting to other songwriters and other people who are on the fringes or outside the mainstream, thank God. There’s a couple of points to be brought out. Look at the young people in Europe. We don’t have much in common except that I’m becoming the new David Hasselhoff over there. My shows are selling out over there. So after hating them for many years, I’ve come to realize these kids were not around during World War II and they look at America in a very special way. And they love America. But they don’t love Blake Shelton or Garth Brooks. They don’t love mainstream stuff. What they love is the difference between significant and important. The people that they love in our country are people like Gram Parsons, Shel Silverstein, Hunter Thompson, Robert Mitchum, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop. Kinky Friedman was in that category and so was Warren Zevon. What’s happened that I realized these young Germans in the audience who are responding so well and know all my stuff, these people think that these trouble makers who never quite made the mainstream are the people who made America great…not Miley Cyrus.


The people’s heroes.
I don’t think Americans realize that. The Europeans do.


The Europeans always seem to discover our great treasures before we do. Look at Hendrix, all the great jazz artists…
I think you’re right. I just think it’s interesting that that’s the case. They are a very emotional audience, the Germans especially. You don’t see the old people in the audience. They still tie their shoes with little nazis, but the young people are there. You can see them weeping every time to “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” “Ride ‘Em Jewboy  and “Sold American.” They all have people crying in the audience and of course, my new song about my missing dog “My Dog in the Sky” will find the audience crying and me crying.

 

You’re following up your last album very quickly, especially as compared to the 40 years you took between that album and your previous efforts. So what brought you back and made you want to start writing once again?
It’s a matter of doing what you want to do, regardless of what people say. The songs were too good to throw away. Part of the beauty of this record was that it was a real record and not something that was the product of Pro Tools, something any 12 year old could figure out… except me. I’m a dreamer. Everyone in music is either a nuts and bolts kind of person or a dreamer. It ain’t the pot of gold. It’s the rainbow.

 

But what was it that brought you back to writing?
A series of tragic losses in the animal kingdom. Some things are horrific, but just part of the animal kingdom. Coyotes will kill when they can. We have wild hogs out here and they’ll do their damage. And you can’t keep cats and dogs from running off to die. I did have a sense that this record is connecting. Charts don’t mean shit anymore. You know that. You can be number one on the charts one week, and then the next week you can’t find it anywhere. That’s what we call ADD. Once something is gold, it’s done. You don’t want to mess with it anymore.

 

That’s the way society is. Short attention spans and the need to move on to something else very quickly… too quickly in most cases. It’s a fickle world.

I finally stopped listening to Circus of Life. But I listened to it over a hundred times and it’s the only record of mine that I can stand now. Where this stuff comes from, God knows. What really made this record is that you can throw Augie Meyers and Mickey Raphael and Joe Cirotti, those three guys together, and that’s all you need. I know the industry people will say, “It’s oo sparse, too sparse to play on the radio.” But these songs are woven into a beautiful fabric by those three guys. And Little Jewford too. He’s a great piano player and he does a great impression of Bobbi Nelson. Yeah, the songs are all about dead sweethearts or lost cats or something. Almost every song has a little secret to it which I didn’t intend. I didn’t realize that until afterwards.

 

It forces you to lean in.

You’re right. It really causes you to almost think as you’re listening to the music.

 

That’s a rare commodity.
The truth is, music is homogenized, that’s all. I challenge you to tell the difference between Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus or everybody else that’s trying to sound like that too. There’s this guy who supposedly made $67 million and I never heard of him. So he made it. Big deal. That’s a classic example of being important without being significant. Take a guy like Barry Manilow. He’s made a career of being important without being significant. And I like Barry Manilow. But that’s opposed to a guy like Merle Haggard whose music makes you think and whose music will last a lifetime. Barry Manilow’s music will make you happy for a short period of time. Like Tequila. I have to think the pendulum has to be swinging back about now, don’t you? How much of that crap can anybody absorb?


So are you on the road now?
Ah no, no. I haven’t been on the road since last November or December.

 

Do you like going out on the road?
Oh yeah.  Last time was remarkably good. I do a solo show and it really connects. Hold on a minute. Another call is coming in.

 

Do you have to go?

No. It’s just that when you order one shipment of Viagra, you start getting three or four calls a day. You there? You didn’t go into a diabetic coma?

No. I’m here but I’m hoping you don’t share any more sad animal stories.

I don’t tell sad animal stories. But that’s kind of the charm of the record. It’s very hard to figure out what the tragedy is.


On the new album there’s a song called “A Dog Named Freedom,” and the dog only had three legs. That alone got me.

That dog is doing fine. There’s no quit in him and no quit in me either.

 

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *