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Kinky Friedman: they don't make musicians like Kinky any more

By Joel Bernstein, January 1999

Kinky Friedman spends a lot of his time these days rescuing stray dogs from the pound. Now he's spending some time trying to rescue his musical oeuvre from a similar fate.

"Pearls In The Snow: The Songs of Kinky Friedman," released on his own Kinkajou label, is the vehicle by which "The Kinkster," as he often calls himself, hopes that 25 years worth of brilliantly acerbic and often poignant songwriting will finally find an audience.

The album features a number of talented, mostly cult figure, artists interpreting a wide range of Friedman's songs. He talks to us from his Texas home, often interrupted by various canines milling around.

"We're not going to be singing Garth Brooks' songs to our grandchildren," is Kinky's theory. "We'll be singing the songs of the guy who died in the Cadillac and the guy who died in the gutters of New York, Stephen Foster," Then he adds "If you're too successful in your lifetime, forget it," mentioning Van Gogh and others who were only really appreciated after they were gone.

Friedman, (whose real name is Richard, but try finding that outside of an encyclopedia,) is pretty much out of the music business. He has become a successful

writer of mystery novels. So how did this tribute album come about?

"A couple of years ago, I was in Nashville. I knew (comedienne) Kacey Jones from doing a show with her (former) band, Ethel & The Shameless Hussies. I ran into her, and she said, 'What happened to all those wonderful songs you wrote?'" With the seed thus planted, they formed Kinkajou Records, with Jones doing most of the day-to-day work.

"We decided to release these songs (on the album) in the order in which they were recorded. Willie Nelson was the first (to agree to do one). We sent him 12 songs, and he picked "Ride 'Em Jewboy," We weren't sure who we were going to get, but the only person who turned us down flat was k.d. lang. We thought she'd be great for 'Get Your Biscuits In The Oven (And Your Buns In The Bed).'"

lang's decline left the entire album being male vocals, though Tompall Glaser did cut the song with an all-female band.

The idea of getting his own tribute album provides Friedman with some wry amusement. "The songwriter, as the honoree, should stay the hell away from the studio. Which I did, except for the reunion (of his band, The Jewboys). If you're gonna get a tribute album, it's better if you're dead or in Branson," he says.

The title of the album comes from a long gone old friend. "About eight years ago, Tim Mayer, who later died of cancer, told me my songs were lost like pearls in the snow. That stayed with me."

The outrageousness of some of Friedman's material always obscured its frequent poignancy. The new album brings out a bit more of that, partially due to the vocalists and partially due to the song selection.

Some of Friedman's more controversial numbers are absent, including "The Ballad Of Charles Whitman," about Friedman's former college roommate who went on an infamous shooting spree from the University Of Texas tower.

Friedman was as surprised as anyone when Whitman snapped. "He seemed like a straight arrow, good 'ol boy."

But the new album is bringing some powerful reactions. "I've seen five people cry listening to Willie sing 'Ride 'Em Jewboy,' all of them non-Jews. He sings it like a cowboy song, with no ax to grind, no agenda," (The song is about the Holocaust and Jewish persecution.) And Kinky says that "one review said the album was great except for the Tom Waits cut. Another review said that song ("Highway Cafe") made them cry."

"We did this album without thinking about any demographic. We almost got Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez," Friedman talks about a Volume 2, even saying if "if Garth Brooks wanted to be on it, we'd probably include him."

Friedman has much more of a following in Europe than in the U.S., but that came mainly from his books. "I just did a bunch of concerts in Europe. Every one was sold out because of the books. I read from the books and perform some music solo."

How did his career as a novelist come about?

"Things weren't going well. The Jewboys had been disbanded. I was living in New York and playing the Lone Star Cafe every Sunday night. Right at the low ebb, I took a shot at writing a mystery novel, which I've always liked. I put in a lot of leftover lyrics. I've got a warehouse full of them. I thought they'd be a novelty, but it's still going strong. (His 11th novel was just published.) They've just been translated into Hebrew and Japanese. That's 17 foreign languages they're in now."

Being translated into Hebrew is quite a coup considering Friedman's early controversies.

"Performing songs like "They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore," and "Biscuits" (which earned him a 1974 award as Male Chauvinist Pig Of The Year from the humor-impaired National Organization for Women ) in the early '70s' was dangerous.

"We had some real physical problems. All kinds of people were misunderstanding. The first time I went to N.Y.C. the Jewish Defense League called in bomb threats. Then they came around, and now we're pals."

Friedman points out the great danger of dealing in social commentary, "people are only listening for their own things."

In the U.S., where formatted commercial radio has never been much help to him, Friedman gets a lot of exposure from an unusual source.

DJ/comic Don Imus frequently features his music on his syndicated "Imus In The Morning" radio show, and has promised a real push for the new album. 'We've been friends about 25 years. We did a show together at The Bottom Line. He's been real helpful through the years."

The album is about to become available through Amazon.com and Friedman promises a series of late night television commercials.

But he remains uninterested in making new music. "I haven't written any songs at all (lately). Writing books is easier, except I still hear music in my head. I'll do a few songs at a bookstore signing, and some benefits but no concerts."

The benefit Friedman is currently involved in is a "Bone-i-fit" for the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch in Texas, which is his main cause these days. The March 10 show in Austin is expected to include Jerry Jeff Walker, Joe Ely, Robert Earl Keen and Lee Roy Parnell. (More information is available at utopiarescue.com or 830-966-2495.)

Naturally, Friedman, 54, is not thrilled with the state of today's country songs. "They're taking all the cleverness out of 'em." He speaks of "a dangerous trivialization of our culture," And he speaks somewhat bitterly of the homogenization of radio ownership, and proliferation of chain bookstores and chain record stores. "I aim to break those chains."

But he has a surprising comment on one much-maligned recent country hit. "Achy Breaky Heart" is a good song. It's the exact same melody as my (1974 song) "Homo Erectus," They play it about half the speed, but it's the same." Which just goes to show that "The Kinkster" has infiltrated our culture more than people realize.