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Kinky Friedman

Circus of Life – 2018 (Echo Hill)

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

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CDs by Kinky Friedman

"Circus of Life," the title of Kinky Friedman's album, is a little misleading. It conjures up images of carnival barkers and circus freaks and songs as odd as its cigar-manufacturing, politically-astute novelist author/songwriter. The album is far more sensitive than that title suggests, though. In fact, it's a welcome respite from modern day circus-like life.

The album opens with "Autographs in the Rain" where Friedman uses a song to say 'thank you' to a fellow musician. This musician friend is none other than Willie Nelson, who encouraged Friedman to write and record these new songs. "Back to Grace" tells the empathetic tale of a drunkard on the mend. Over a soft acoustic guitar backing and colored by the always recognizable Mickey Raphael on harmonica, Friedman sings about the universal human need for grace.

Friedman's dry sense of humor is best demonstrated with "Jesus in Pajamas," which begins with these lines: "Jesus in pajamas came at 3:16 one morning/To a Denny's by the freeway in the ancient town of Dallas." Some might think these lyrics to be sacrilegious, but Friedman uses this unlikely scenario to force the listener to imagine Jesus making a modern-day visit. Such an imaginative way with words is the reason why Friedman has been called The Leonard Cohen of Texas. In fact, another one called "Me and My Guitar" might easily be considered Friedman's "Tower of Song."

There was a time when Friedman was thought to be more of a crazy outsider, rather than a legitimate country artist. "Circus of Life," though, is one of the best country albums of 2018. Not because it's so left-of-center, though. No, it's an album featuring strong, memorable lyrics, matched with Friedman's grizzled - but sincere - singing. Life today - especially in this crazy Trump era - can oftentimes have all the earmarks of a circus. Friedman's empathetic musical character sketches feel like the calming eye of the storm. And sometimes, you just need a break from all the jugglers and clowns.