Getting Kinky (Friedman)

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Kinky Freidman. Publicity photo by Brian Kanof

By Mike Greenblatt

Kinky Friedman wears many hats. Well, he actually only wears his cowboy hat, but as a mystery novelist, a politician who once ran for Governor of Texas, an alternative-country darling, the bandleader of The Texas Jewboys, an animal-rescue guy and a good friend of a guy named Willie, the Kinkster has fought and clawed his way into legend. With a new album (“The Loneliest Man I Ever Met”) and upcoming book (“The Hard-Boiled Computer”), he’s also been huddling with actor Billy Bob Thornton about a possible new movie. The sky’s the limit when you have this much talent.

Kinky Friedman: I’m really knocked out by the version of “Bloody Mary Morning” that Willie (Nelson) and I did to open the new album. I’ve never sounded this good. Producer Brian Molnar, from New Jersey, man, I met him at a house party about 10 years ago back East. He did the whole thing right here on the ranch. He got that sound out of it. There’s just a few instruments. What he really did was strip the thing down to the soul so you have a little time to read between the lines. These are not covers so much as interpretations. Like “Girl From The North Country” is kinda half way between Bob (Dylan) and me. It’s hardly just a faithful cover.

GOLDMINE: The Tom Waits tune, “A Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis,” is god-honestly profound.

KF: Everything she says is a lie until the last line of the song. I think it’s among Tom’s very best.

GM: The only track that sticks out like a sore thumb is your reading of “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square.” Why that?

KF: It’s personal. I was dating Miss Texas 1987. It was our song. We were in London. It’s a stretch, I admit.

GM: I’ve read your mystery novels. I’ve loved your “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore” song. If you ran for President in 2016, I’d vote for you.

KF: It’s the curse of being multi-talented. The audience is fractured. Half the people who show up bring books to a concert and the other half bring CDs for me to sign at a book appearance. That’s not a good thing. Better would be for people to all know you for one thing. Only then will they consider you a real serious artist. That way they’ll respond better than if they think you’re really a comedian, author, politician or animal rescue guy.

GM: You’ve called today’s country music “homogenized, trivialized and sanitized.”

KF: What’s coming out of Nashville, for the most part, sounds like background music for fraternity parties. It’s click-tracks and team writing, with, in many cases, four or five people writing one song. It’s reached the point where ain’t nobody writin’ any good songs. I mean, I’m sure, somewhere, there’s someone writing like Shel Silverstein or Roger Miller or Willie but I haven’t heard it. I’ll tell you something else which very well may be: y’know, there’s a lot of talented musicians around. I can show you an 18-year old who can play like Stevie Ray Vaughan. I can show you people who can play country music and sing it. Maybe the talent pool is dwindling or dried up completely but what they cannot do is write a song like “Hello Walls.” They can’t do it! They can’t write a simple song. Johnny Cash wrote very early on “Pickin’ Time.” They can’t do that. Or at least they don’t seem to be able to. I don’t know why that would be. Texas is loaded with musicians, but if you talk about inspirational? You got to go see a geezer. You got to go see somebody older than me to come away inspired.

GM: What’s your greatest accomplishment?

KF: Nelson Mandela listened to a smuggled cassette of my song, “Ride ‘Em, Jewboy” on Robben Island in his prison cell every night for years. The guy in the cell next to him was his right-hand man, Tokyo Sexwale. This was made clear to me in 1996 when I was in South Africa on a national TV show with (South African freedom fighter/Mandela mentor) Oliver Tambo’s son, Dali Tambo, who has his own show. The fact is that this is so unbelievable, I mean, Tokyo told me later, “Don’t get a swelled head about this because Mandela’s favorite singer was always Dolly Parton, not you.” But, nonetheless, he would listen to “Ride ‘Em, Jewboy” the last thing, late, every night, for the better part of three years of a 17-year sentence.

GM: And how does that make you feel?

KF: Like the guy from the Huffington Post told me last year, “If I had a choice of being in the Stones, playing stadiums making millions or having a song I’d written bring comfort to Nelson Mandela, I’d choose the latter.” Hell, Mandela could’ve listened to “Get Your Biscuits In The Oven And Your Buns In The Bed.” It’s on the same album. Or he could’ve played Springsteen or Dylan but that wouldn’t have been a story. The story is that “Ride ‘Em, Jewboy” was the song that meant something to him.

GM: This is your first new album in 32 years. Why such a long wait?

KF: I had to write the books. My life got in the way.

GM: The sound of this record is so intimate that your voice, every breath you take, every move you make, the phrasing, the little vocal wiggle at the end of certain lines, is accentuated. You’re right there, man. In my living room. In my head. No auto-tune. I mean, you’re not Caruso, let’s be honest.

KF: Mandela didn’t think so either.

GM: It’s a combination of the songs you chose, plus the beautiful laid-back production, the little whispers of instruments and, man, you must have been particularly inspired when you approached the microphone.

KF: I kept thinking of “Red Headed Stranger” and all the trouble Willie had when he made it. Nobody — the record company, the big producers, the music executives — thought that “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” was a hit. They told Willie it sounded like a bad demo. The truth was, when it got to the disc jockey level, that’s when that song exploded and became the country song of the year before crossing over to pop to become the pop song of the year. The word is “sparse.” It lets you think a little bit. It leaves space for somebody to bring their imagination into play. That’s what I was going for and that’s what I think (producer) Brian Molnar achieved. We call him The Mad Hungarian. He brought this large old-fashioned microphone down here and it became part of it. It’s not like we recorded this thing in a real sound studio. He brought Joe Cirotti, the young genius Jersey guitarist, and he brought the engineer who looks like he’s 12.

GM: Are we allowed to talk about the movie prior to it being green-lit?

KF: No idea. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Hollywood is the graveyard of all talent.” This thing is far from being done but Billy Bob is one of the greatest actors operating today and if, indeed, he decides to play Kinky the detective, it will be bigger than The Hobbit. It would help if I experienced a tragic death but, seeing as to how I’m already 70, I don’t see how tragic it would be.

GM: Hey, I’m coming to see you in at The Sellersville Theater in Pennsylvania.

KF: Good, come backstage. We can have a Mexican mouthwash drinking contest. Or some Tequila. Tequila’s great right before you go onstage. I call it the Barry Manilow Special because it makes you feel good for a short period of time. Hey, it’s been great, and let me leave you with a little advice that Willie gave me once which has served me well in life as in politics. He said, “if you’re going to have sex with an animal, always make it a horse, because that way if things don’t work out, at least you know you’ve got a ride home.” GM

About Mike Greenblatt

A longtime music journalist, Mike Greenblatt is a contributing editor with Goldmine magazine.

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