Kinky Friedman Comes Home ~ RollingStone

At 74, is country music’s most rebellious renaissance man finally ready to be himself?

kinky friedman

Kinky Friedman, the Seventies country provocateur behind songs like “Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” looks inward on the new album ‘Circus of Life.’

Ken Swartz

Kinky Friedman cracks a mischievous smile as a fan hands him a Kinky Friedman Talking Action Figure. Surrounded by a smattering of onlookers, Friedman, cigar in mouth, leans down and presses the button on the toy, a remnant from the country singer’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign in Texas.

“If you elect me the first Jewish governor of the state of Texas, I’ll reduce the speed limit to 54.95.”

“That one was hard to overcome,” Friedman, beaming, looks up and says before letting the action figure cycle through some of the irreverent Friedman campaign slogans.

“I’m not pro-life. I’m not pro-choice. I’m pro football!”

“I’ll sign anything but bad legislation.”

“I’m gonna de-wussify Texas if I’ve gotta do it one wuss at a time.”

“One wuss at a time,” Friedman says, chuckling to himself, as the small crowd encircling the singer erupts in laughter.

“I support gay marriage: They have every right to be just as miserable as the rest of us.”

“I’ve got a head of hair better than Rick Perry’s; it’s just not in a place I can show ya.”

“That’s some brilliant shit,” Friedman, still grinning, says to the crowd. “All of my fucking brains; it’s right there…. If I had gotten a fucking talking-action figure to every single Texan, I would have won the election,” Friedman, who earned an astounding 12 percent of the vote running as an Independent, announces, before admitting, “We probably would have had a scandal-ridden administration. Let’s face it.” Friedman abandons the action figure and zooms over to a nearby table to take a shot of tequila with his fans.

“Can someone remind me the Irish way of saying ‘l’chaim’?” he shouts to no one in particular.

It’s a midsummer evening in rural New Jersey, and Friedman, dressed in his trademark outfit of black leather boots, black jeans, a black jacket, black sunglasses and a black cowboy hat, is doing what Kinky Friedman does best: schmoozing with fans. The Kinkster, as he is sometimes called, is signing autographs, taking selfies, rattling off one-liners and flaunting obscure campaign memorabilia before taking the stage for one of the last shows of a grueling monthlong tour — 21 shows in 22 days — that Kinky has booked in support of his new album, Circus of Life.

But the songs Friedman has resumed writing in the last few years bear little resemblance to the trailblazing, incredibly fringe country records that he became infamous for in the early Seventies. Those albums — 1973’s Sold American and 1974’s Kinky Friedman — were sardonic, sarcastic put-ons that established Friedman as the outlaw’s outlaw, a Jewish Vaudeville-indebted honky-tonk provocateur who, among his cohort of singers that included Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, was willing to go the furthest, for better and for worse, to defy, disobey and make an outright mockery of just about every convention and standard of decency in country music.

Friedman became most well-known for button-pushing songs like “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed,” and “We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You,” thorny missives that walked a delicate, constantly blurry line between satire and seriousness, between pointed social commentary masked as reactionary shock antics and reactionary shock antics masked as pointed social commentary. Sometimes, Friedman’s songs lampooned small-minded bigotry; sometimes, those songs embodied that bigotry so fully that the line between parody and seriousness became meaningless; and sometimes, those songs used a veneer of humorous irony and satire to traffic in edgy intolerance.

As virtually the only Jewish country singer operating out of Nashville in the Seventies, Friedman made his religious identity the central operating subject and object of his caricatured satire. But his work did not shy away from addressing, however clumsily, any number of topics one normally would not find in a three-minute country hit: abortion, mass shootings, post-civil rights race relations in the South, the Holocaust.

Friedman’s new songs are something else. They’re heartfelt, late-in-life reflections and spiritual meditations on salvation and regret, and largely devoid of humor. Most notably, they’re entirely stripped of the caustic wit that earned Friedman a beloved cult following but also banished him from ever earning the type of late-career recognition and adulation as a Seventies outlaw-country pioneer that many of his contemporaries enjoyed.

“What he’s doing is creating something beautiful out of some of the difficult roads and sorrows that he’s traveled,” says Roger Friedman, the entertainer’s younger brother and former manager. “The work he’s doing now is as sophisticated lyrically as his earlier work, but it is deeper, more personal.… He sings each song as if they happen to him, and most of these new songs did happen to him. There’s a gravitas and a charisma that comes from that that he didn’t have before, because it brings with it some vulnerability, a vulnerability he never would have tolerated in himself long ago.”

Friedman’s latest writing kick has not stopped with Circus of Life. Within months of releasing the album, he already had written close to another record’s worth of material. When I speak with him in October, he’s about to demo those songs for a potential 2019 EP that he plans on calling Mandela’s Blues. He hopes his former bandmate Buddy Miller might produce the collection. “These are songs for the lonely beekeeper, which is a title I struggle with,” is how he describes his material, which he says was written in the same surge of renewed creative spark that brought about Circus.

When he’s not on tour, Friedman lives alone at home at his family ranch in central Texas. He does not own a computer, or use e-mail, and writes exclusively by typewriter or longhand. He smokes eight cigars a day. When he takes a vacation, it’s typically to Las Vegas, where he spends his days glued to the slot machines.

These days, Friedman is somewhat unnervingly fixated on Dylan and Nelson, in particular. Songs devoted to both of them appear on Circus of Life. He is currently at work on a memoir he’s co-authoring about Dylan with Dylan’s childhood friend Louie Kemp, a project he relishes in promoting at most any given opportunity. As for his old friend Nelson, whom Friedman refers to as “my psychiatrist,” Friedman name-drops the Texas legend almost compulsively. He solely credits a recent pick-me-up phone call from Nelson as the inspiration for Circus of Life (“I told Willie I was watching Matlock. He said, ‘That’s a sure sign of depression. Turn Matlock off, Kinky, and start writing’”). During our series of conversations that ranged three some-odd hours, Friedman uttered the name “Willie” 54 times.

Today, Friedman’s records are mostly out of print. At this point, he plays mainly small bars and tiny clubs, sometimes to no more than a few dozen people at a time. But Friedman has a strong, unshakable belief that something might finally be changing with Circus of Life. SiriusXM has been playing it. For the first time, young listeners are starting to discover Friedman on Spotify. The singer’s stature has grown immensely in Europe over the past few years.

“I have a strong feeling that the last record really got out there, in a spiritual way,” Friedman says of his new work, which has replaced his older, more outlandish material as the centerpiece of his live show.

As he begins, for the first time, to reveal some parts of himself in his music in his eighth decade, the question remains: Who, then, is Kinky Friedman? Throughout his entire life, the Kinky persona has thrived on its dizzying swell of contradictions: part vaudeville showman; part astute Twain-and-Vonnegut-indebted social satirist; part consummate personal brand salesman; part nihilistic song-and-dance man; part boundary-pushing forward-thinker; part reactionary anti-political correctness crusader; part militant Texas populist; part celebrity name-dropping elite.

~~~  READ ON  IF YOU’RE A KINKSTER FAN  ~~~

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s