American Israelite, entertainment, journalism, music

Catching up with Kinky

A couple weeks ago, I enjoyed a nearly 40-minute phone call with living legend Kinky Friedman, coming to town soon for a show with Mojo Nixon at the Southgate House Revival on March 26. He shared some insight into the making of his latest album, told me how inspiration came via a 3am phone call from Willie Nelson, and reveals a bit related to his time playing with Bob Dylan, which will be news to most.

I somehow distilled that exchange into a feature for the American Israelite, and that piece went online this morning.

If you’re a big fan of Kinky—or his friend Bob Dylan, or Willie Nelson—you might enjoy reading the entire feature. Ask, and you shall receive:

Kinky Friedman: Country Singer, Novelist – and Exception to the Rule

It’s hard to tie Kinky Friedman down. He’s released over 15 of his own albums and played with Bob Dylan, he ran for governor of Texas, he’s written nearly 40 detective-style novels, he’s a prominent animal rights activist, and he proudly shares that he’s the first full-blooded Jew to perform at the Grand Ole Opry.

But on the day of our interview, Kinky Friedman has Anne Frank on his mind.

“What affected me very much recently was Anne Frank … God, here is Kinky directing this thing to the Jewish angle, instead of you,” he frets, by phone from his ranch in Texas. He’ll go on to refer to Frank multiple times during our 40-minute conversation.

“But (there’s) an Anne Frank magazine they’re selling in supermarkets, have you seen that? It’s quite remarkable,” he says. “I learned more about Anne … and I knew a lot about her. She belongs with Jesus and Ghandi, and Martin Luther King, and (Nelson) Mandela. She suffered with millions of people, felt their suffering, and then proceeded after death to inspire many more millions.”

“Normally, interviews with Jewish news media are very painful,” he says, halfway through the phone call. “How Judaism affects me, and that sort of thing. But there aren’t a lot of Jews, as Jewish as I am. I don’t mean religiously, but I mean … I’m probably the most famous Jew in Texas, with the possible exception of Jack Ruby, of course,” he says.

I’m speaking with Kinky as he prepares to hit the road promoting his latest album, Circus of Life, at 74 years of age. He admits, “I don’t know where these songs are coming from. The stuff on Circus of Life has made me the Leonard Cohen of Texas.” He acknowledges critical acclaim for the album and asks, rhetorically, “so why ain’t I rich? Well,” he figures, “that’s coming… a little patience, here.”

On Tuesday, March 26, Kinky returns to the Southgate House Revival in Newport, Kentucky.

Comparisons to fellow acclaimed songwriter Cohen would be apt; Kinky’s latest is a collection of candid, observational vignettes delivered with poetic, explicit detail. Broken hearts, sorrow reflection, and even a “three-legged dog named Freedom” all enjoy their moment in the Circus of Life center ring. Kinky himself characterizes the songs as being “for the lonely beekeeper”; he also makes note of the audience it’s attracted. “It’s reached a bunch of people that normally nothing reaches. It’s all anecdotal evidence, but there’s a lot of Judaism in that record, and maybe some Buddhism. People get more … what they read into it really, is more than what was originally put into it, perhaps. Something about it works, and I’m glad for that.”

Born in Chicago to Jewish parents, Kinky’s family moved to Texas when he was just a few years old. He’d go on to graduate from the University of Texas at Austin in 1966, then serve two years in the Peace Corps.

He’d form Kinky Friedman and The Texas Jewboys, a play on the name of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, in 1971. The band’s sound quickly found an audience and took flight in the prevailing winds of that decade’s country-rock movement, alongside acts like Gram Parsons and The Band. Their debut included the song “Ride ‘em Jewboy,” a track which would prove to be their calling card for fans around the world, including Nelson Mandela – who had the tape smuggled into prison and would reportedly play it for other prisoners there, nightly. “When you make a record in Nashville in 1973, you don’t think that someday Nelson Mandela’s going to be listening to this in his prison cell every night,” Kinky says, quite matter-of-factly.

Kinky’s lyrics at their best are a blend of stinging satire, social commentary and clever wit. That peculiar mix wasn’t always welcome. His appearance on Austin City Limits is the only one in that program’s 30-plus-year history to never air on television. “I take a somewhat perverse pride in the fact that, way back in 1976, Kinky Friedman and The Texas Jewboys were considered too risky, too controversial, and very possibly, too downright repellent for public television,” Kinky himself wrote for Texas Monthly in 2004. He also appeared on Saturday Night Live in ‘76; another guest on that program was comedian Steve Martin.

And, about that appearance at the Grand Ole Opry? “The Reverend Jimmy Snow, Hank Snow’s son, had us on the Grand Ole Gospel Hour after we did the Grand Ole Opry,” he says. “We brought Dobie Gray, who became the first black artist to do a guest appearance at the Grand Ole Opry. I was introduced as the first full-blooded Jew to appear on the Grand Ole Opry, that’s right.”

On the subject of Jews in country or popular music, he continues, “I kind of suspect that (Hee Haw star) Stringbean was a Jew … but he kept it pretty well concealed. As most do today, when you look at the Bob Dylans, and Neil Diamonds, and Paul Simons, you don’t necessarily think Judaism right off the bat.” He says, “now, it was rumored from some pretty close friends of mine that (Dylan) recorded (a version of) ‘Ride ‘em Jewboy,’ along with some other Jewish songs, when he was in his Jewish mode. So far, nothing (has been released) … but once again, patience is important here.”

Speaking of Dylan, 1976 would also be the year Kinky joined him for the second leg of a star-studded Rolling Thunder Revue tour. That era of Dylan’s career is slated for close reexamination in an upcoming documentary by Martin Scorsese for Netflix later this year. Kinky’s also working on a Dylan biography with the subject’s pal since childhood, Louie Kemp. The long-rumored project is highly anticipated by fans but, Kinky says, it’s “going through some visions and revisions. I expect it to still be on track,” he clarifies, “but it’s taking forever. We could have written Moby Dick in that time; probably should have.”

It won’t be his first book. He’s written nearly 40 titles, most detective novels with Kinky himself as the lead character. “Kinky Friedman’s final case,” he reveals, is finished. “It’s called The Tin Can Telephone. It should be coming out pretty soon.” A biography of his own, The Life and Times of Kinky Friedman, came out last year. “I’ve written about 38 books, and the one (I’ve been involved with) that’s sold the best, is the one I didn’t write,” he says, with self-effacing humor.

Kinky even entered the world of politics in 1986 in an unsuccessful bid for Kerrville, Texas, Justice of the Peace. He ran again for state governor in 2006, and walked away with over 12% of the popular vote (“a race we won, every place but Texas”). He dismisses notions of running again. “I figure I’m a little too O-L-D,” he spells out. Of the current political landscape, he says, “let them (mess) it up any way they want to, and it seems they are. You don’t see a Ghandi or a Mandela, or a Jesus or a Martin Luther King or an Anne Frank. You don’t see any of those popping up, do you? And that’s too bad for us. But they continue to inspire.”

Already at work on his next album, Kinky’s headed to the Woodstock, New York, area soon to record with Grammy Award-winner Larry Campbell; Campbell has also played with Dylan, was a music director for Levon Helm of The Band, “and he’s an old friend of mine from my band The Entire Polish Army,” Kinky says. He hints the new collection may be called Mandela’s Blues. “Or it may be called Resurrection,we’ll see how the songs come out.”

Encouragement to write the new songs came from none other than fellow country artist Willie Nelson. “Willie’s my psychiatrist,” Kinky explains. “Willie called me at about 3 in the morning and said, ‘what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m watching Matlock.’ Willie said, ‘well that’s a sure sign of depression. Turn that off and start writing, Kinky.’”

But, “usually, these days,” Kinky observes, “the ‘hit’ is about tailgating or partying or something. The art of writing a country song requires a lot of ingredients that apparently have been lost. It’s like writing a personal letter in cursive. Nobody can do it, or nobody wants to do it.”

A reference to our own Queen City is planned for Kinky’s to-be-recorded album. “There’s a song in the new batch called ‘Greater Cincinnati,’” he shares. “The song really is about Hank Williams’ last stray thoughts, the night he died.” That song, he predicts, “is one to watch for. It may be the masterpiece of the bunch.” Williams died en route to a performance in Canton, Ohio, on New Year’s Day in 1953.

Kinky also embraces aspects of his own aging storyteller’s delivery. “Something very positive has happened to my voice,” he explains. “It’s smoky and distinctive. It didn’t used to be, I used to try to sing as good as I could, until I realized that almost all of the great ones do not have good voices, like Willie, or Johnny Cash, or Dylan, or Roger Miller, their voices are distinctive. Joni Mitchell is another one.”

“In general, I think you can say that novelists and songwriters and artists of all kinds do not do their best work in their 70s, but I think I’m an exception to that rule.” After reflection on his upcoming 17-date tour itinerary, Kinky says, “when you’re sleep deprived and running on pure adrenaline, you can hear Anne Frank talking to you, or Lenny Bruce, or Hank Williams, or Jesus. And all of that makes a better show.”

Kinky Friedman appears at the Southgate House Revival in Newport, Kentucky, on March 26. Tickets are now available at southgatehouse.com.

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