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On the Record with Kinky Friedman

“If you fail at something long enough, you become a legend.”

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In his nearly 71 years on earth, Kinky Friedman has been a Peace Corp volunteer, a top chess player, a writer of mystery novels and a politician. But at the root of it all, this Texan by-way-of Chicago is a musician. The man known as the Jewish Cowboy has been writing songs and performing since the 1960s. Some are socially conscious tunes like Ridem’ Jewboy (an ode to Holocaust survivors) and They Ain’t Makin’ Jews like Jesus Anymore (about racial inequality) and others like How Can I Tell You I Love You (When You're Sitting On My Face) need no further explanation. Friedman, who counts his friendship with Willie Nelson as one of his most prized possessions, has released his first studio album in 32 years: The Loneliest Man I Ever Met. The record contains three originals and his unique renditions of songs from people like Nelson, Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Tom Waits. Friedman is a brash, outspoken straight shooter with a sharp sense of humor and a train of thought that seems to be endless. Friedman, who will be in Pittsburgh Oct. 11, spent an hour talking with City Paper about, well, pretty much everything.

Kinky Friedman
  • Kinky Friedman

Someone told me you’ve never been to Pittsburgh before. Is that really true?

Not true, but it’s sure been a long time between dreams. Good lord, it’s maybe been 30-35 years since I’ve been there. 

It’s been 32 years since your last studio record. And although you’ve been touring over the years, this is a pretty packed tour schedule?

The album is a blessing, it truly is. And it’s great fun to be out on the road. This tour comes from an idea that Willie gave me: Doing a large number of consecutive shows without taking a night off. We’ve now stretched it to 35 and of course you finish the show and then you have to get out of Dodge and move on to the next one. It’s truly quite amazing. You start running on pure adrenaline, you just get pure and raw, and the shows just keep getting better and better. I start hearing voices of people talking to me like Jesus or Hank Williams, Johnny Appleseed and Lenny Bruce in my head. 

That can make for a great show depending on who’s doing the talking.

Oh, it does because it’s the troubadour riding into town and riding right back out. Mostly it’s a solo show so you have to stay on top of your game. It’s more than just another show in my hip pocket; it begins to take on ... I mean just to be able to do it after a while. It takes a physical and mental toll. There’s something spiritual about the road — about going out there and succeeding or failing each night. Which reminds me of something else that Willie told me: “If you fail at something long enough, you become a legend.”

Willie seems to be a great source of guidance for you.

He is. He also told me — and I’m not sure if you can put this in the paper — some advice that has really served me well in life and in politics. Which is: “If you’re going to have sex with an animal, always make it a horse; that way if things don’t work out, at least you know you’ve got a ride home.” That was great advice of Willie’s. It was also great recording with him on this record. It’s the first song; it’s what I like to call the leg opener. It’s a great leg opener for the album. I got so high that I needed a step ladder to scratch my ass. I don’t know how Willie does it. His songs seem to me to be about an hour-and-a-half-long, but really it’s just three minutes. It’s done very spontaneously and the sound of it is just right there. It sounds like a West Texas Barroom. Bloody Mary Morning is just a great song of Willie’s, and I’m surprised that not many people know it. He wrote that song years ago. At the time Willie had made a deal with Glen Campbell for $25,000, and the idea was that every song Willie wrote that year would be published by Glen. As it turns out Willie only wrote one song that year much to Glen’s chagrin and that was Bloody Mary Morning, which Glen did not especially dig. But I feel like it’s right up there with On the Road Again and Hello Walls. 

Was it hard to go in and make a record after so much time had passed?

No, it was a joy to make the record. Look, I’m 70 years old, and I read at a 72-year-old level and I’ve got my will all worked out. When I die I’m to be cremated and the ashes are to thrown in [former Texas Governor] Rick Perry’s hair. So, just to be able to make the record and go on tour at this age is just a privilege. When you think about it, the audience is going to be younger than most of the songs.

Do you find it difficult to connect with younger audiences? 

I look around the scene. If you and I were going to go out tonight in Pittsburgh or Austin and try to find some bands or performers that truly inspired us, it would be hard or even impossible to do. Now, I’m not talking about the Barry Manilow effect and, listen, Barry Manilow has been popular for a long time; he has more money than God. But you listen to a Barry Manilow song, and you feel good for a very short period of time, kind of like Mexican Mouthwash, Tequila, which I like to drink on stage. To be inspired you’d have to see a geezer like Merle Haggard, Billy Jo Shaver, Kris Kristofferson, Willie or Bob Dylan, and those songs might last a lifetime. And they might make you think a little bit. That’s what this album, The Loneliest Man I Ever Met, is all about. It’s done without click tracks and without committees writing the songs. And it’s not meant to be used as background music for frat parties. I think you have to go back to something like [Willie Nelson’s] Red-Headed Stranger to find something recorded this sparsely — no drums, no bass, no nothing. Some of these songs are nothing but Mickey Raphael on harmonica and Joe Cirotti on guitar, yet the way it’s produced makes it sound so intimate. Now whether or not that means a radio station will play it remains to be seen. The record companies didn’t like Red-Headed Stranger when Willie gave it to them. They wanted horns and strings and backup vocals and all that shit. Hell, they even hated Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, and that ended up being the country and pop song of the year. It’s like, Van Gogh’s dream was to sell just one fucking painting while he was alive and he couldn’t do it. Although, I think his brother bought one. 

You really sound proud of it.

I think it breaks a lot of rules and sails against the wind, and the result of it is really good. It’s more than just doing a bunch of covers. Those songs that I didn’t write are my own interpretations It’s not like Tony Bennett doing Bob Dylan. It’s like part way between Bob and Kinky. But it seems to work. Early indications are it will do very well, but you never know in these deals. But it should be a financial pleasure for the Kinkster. And I’m looking forward to coming to Pittsburgh pretty early in the tour. I’m flying in from Denver, how long is that flight?

I actually stopped over there on my way home from Vegas last week, I think it’s like four hours.

Jesus Christ, don’t say Vegas, I’m a gambling addict. It makes me want to go there right now.

I heard about that. You played slot machines, right? Didn’t Willie give you some advice about that too?

I had a big jackpot for $45,000, and that pretty much ruined me after that. A lot of people have lost millions: Gladys Knight lost a fortune. But there’s something meditative about it. Willie told me, “If you really love that and that’s what you want to do and that’s what you need to do and that’s what you like to do, do it.” He said, “sell the house, mortgage whatever you can, get a large pot of money together and go to Vegas and play the slots.” You know, that’s what Willie would have done. It’s a pretty wise thing. Most people say stay away from Vegas, don’t ever go there again. But that’s really not the answer. You gotta find what you like and let it kill you.

So is that your exit strategy at some point?

Yes. Yes. Absolutely [laughing]. 

You’ve lashed out a lot on political correctness. How much do you think it’s hurting performers?

Well, they ain’t making Jews like Jesus anymore, is sort of my statement on it, and I think that’s pretty well understood around the world. The Americans are a little slow to understand it, but anywhere else I go in Australia and Canada and Germany, they understand it. If Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor were alive today, they’d be homeless people. So from that aspect of what Donald Trump is doing, I think is worthwhile. Even the term political correctness was popularized by Joseph Stalin as a way to make people edit their conversation and think two or three times before they say anything, and that’s terrible for a spontaneous artist. It’s not what you want to do. You don’t want to think “Oh My God, there’s a little child, I can’t say fuck in front of a C-H-I-L-D. You don’t want to be thinking, there’s a black guy so I can’t sing, They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore [a song that decries white supremacy and racism]. But these audiences get it. It doesn’t really need to be explained. It’s quite incredible when you think about it. Even when these songs were recorded, they were never hits. I mean we’re not talking about Jimmy Buffet doing this stuff. I have no hits, and the only new material is this record. But beyond that, it’s remarkable to still get crowds after all this time. I was just in Germany a few months back, and it was remarkable. They were the best audiences I ever have. Young people only. I’m sure some of the old Germans still tie their shoes with little knotsies and they weren’t there. But the young people were, and they knew every song and every lyric; they’d read my books. I’m huge over there. I’m the thinking man’s David Hasselhoff. The young Germans may be the only people who truly learned something from their own history. In America, we’re happy just to file in and go see Celine Dion. 

Does it go back to what you were saying about not being inspired?  

Yes, going back to that theme, if you want to get inspired, you’re not going to get inspired by politics. There is absolutely nobody in elected office that inspires us. If you want to run for elected office, you should be limited to two terms: one term in office and one term in prison. That might help because right now Democrats and Republicans are like the Crips and the Bloods. We don’t have Winston Churchills or Nelson Mandelas springing up anymore. It’s unfortunate, and political correctness is part of that. 

You’re no stranger to politics. You ran for governor of Texas, you ran for agriculture commissioner. What do you make of the state of this presidential primary field?

It’s a dismal state of affairs with all these people running. Maybe a few of them [sighs] ... You know, it makes me realize I’d rather be a politician than a musician at this point. I also think we’d be better off if musicians ran the world. Well, we wouldn’t get a hell of a lot done in the morning, but we’d work late and we’d be honest. Also, musicians are decent people and good at problem solving, which is more than you can say about politicians. 

Are there new musicians/songwriters that you listen too? You talked earlier about inspirational artists. Do any exist in the new crop of performers?

There are hot bands out there, I guess. They’re able to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughn or whatever the hell they’re trying to do. That’s fine; they’re fine instrumentally. But as far as writing a song? Like Hungry Eyes on this record or Girl From the North Country? They can’t do it. Not only can’t they do it, they can’t convey it to you. Willie did not write Always on my Mind. He did not write Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, but he nailed both of them to the cross, and that’s what these guys can’t do. I mean unless you want to see Garth Brooks, the anti-Hank. You’re welcome to do it. There’s nothing wrong with that, really. It’s just not an inspirational experience. It’s sad to realize you were born too late to see a lot of the really inspiring artists of this world.

Are you as anti-new country music as some other folks are?

Yeah, I think it’s an unlistenable waste of time. Look at Toby Keith. I have nothing against Toby Keith one way or the other, but his songs are written by four- and five-people committees. They want it to sound a little like Toby’s last record and a little like Alan Jackson and a little like this guy. It’s very derivative, so you won’t find anything new, and you sure won’t find anything good. Honestly, it’s arguable that good song has been written in Nashville since the 1970s. Maybe we’ve exhausted the gene pool. Maybe it can’t be done anymore. Even guys like Willie and Bob Dylan don’t write they way they used to after so much great material. Probably success will distance you from your art. [Actor and musician] Billy Bob Thornton is a big believer in staying hungry, and staying hungry is not easy to do.

You cover Warren Zevon’s My Shit’s Fucked Up on this record. He wrote that at the end of his life while he was dying from cancer. Do you think facing his mortality made him a better writer?

That song is about more than a guy who’s dying of cancer. It’s really a visionary song and pretty well aptly describes the state of the world today: Our shit is fucked up, and it may be irrevocably so. And we’re talking about all the wrong things. We’re apologizing for this and that, and the Democrats are not what they used to be, not at all. I’m not a Democrat anymore, and neither are they. They just don’t know it. I mean, Harry Reid and Rahm Emanuel and Obama and John Kerry, these people all believe they are good Democrats. And looking back at people who were truly Democrats like Harry Truman and Barbara Jordan and Ann Richards and Sam Rayburn, these kind of folks were independent thinkers who stood up for the people. And I can’t use those words to describe Harry Reid and John Kerry. I go for inspiration; that’s very important to me. There’s more to being a leader than being important. There are a lot of important people around. Rick Perry’s important, Obama’s important, Arnold Schwarzenegger is important. Toby Keith is important. Garth Brooks is important all these guys that have made a fortune are important. These guys are important, but they’re not significant. We need people who are significant again like Warren Zevon, Graham Parsons, Molly Ivins, Barbara Jordan, Roger Miller, Iggy Pop and Tom Waits. Look, it’s fun to be important, but it’s more important to be significant, that’s what I’m saying.


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