Kinky Friedman blew into town last week and blew right out again: talking fast, a black Stetson covering mossy hair (looking, he says, like “a Lyle Lovett starter kit”), his cheeks puffing on a Montecristo cigar the size of an auto muffler. He shoots from “Imus in the Morning” to J & R Music World, where scores of fans — chasidim, lawyers, bleary-eyed drifters — line up for the Kinkster to sign his new CD, “Pearls In The Snow.”It’s a tribute album with performances by honky tonk heroes Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel, Tom Waits, Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett, Delbert McClinton, Tompall Glaser — “the kind of stars a hopeful little Jewboy could make a wish upon.” Don Imus snapped a portrait of Kinky
for the album cover. It’s a tribute album that the Kinkster arranged for himself on his own Kinkajou label. No, not Kinka-Jew, kinkajou: a carnivorous nocturnal beast native to Central America, the kinkster of the animal kingdom. His own independent label.“I knew the time was right for a tribute to me,” says Kinky, being that most folks “figured me dead,” musically anyway.His parents figured him a nice Jewish boy, at his birth in Chicago, 1944. Soon after, little Richard (the Kinkster’s given name) and the Friedmans moved to the Lone Star State, when Dr. Tom — the daddy — was hired by the University of Texas as a psychology professor. In those years, the great Western swing band, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, fiddled across the plains; Hank Williams, half drunk and hollow-eyed, was fixing to die in the back seat of a 1952 Cadillac; Bill Monroe’s High Lonesome sound had young boys like Kinky in Austin, and Buddy Holly in Lubbock, falling asleep to long-distance radio: American music in the throes of change.He thinks music needs changing again: “The Lord doesn’t want people singing Garth Brooks songs to their grandchildren,” says Kinky. “Garth is the anti-Hank. The Lord wants you singing the songs of the guy who died in the back of the Cadillac, or the songs of Willie Nelson, or the songs of Stephen Foster, who died on the Bowery, or, I decided, the songs of the Kinkster” — the anti-Garth.There were many years, though, when he was just Dick Friedman, the psychologist’s son who graduated with honors from the University of Texas before shipping off for a Peace Corps stint in Borneo: “I taught everything I knew about farming to people who’d been successfully farming for 2,000 years.”There in the Borneo jungles, “I had the realization that I was the bastard child of twin cultures, Texas and Jewish, with nothing in common but wearing our hats indoors.”Before long, he was back and fronting a band: Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys — named with a wink and a nod to Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. It was audacious, pure outlaw country: Suddenly he was the first Jew to play the Opry. Waylon Jennings produced him. Willie Nelson toured with him. Bob Dylan took him along with the Rolling Thunder revue.Other than Dylan’s “Neighborhood Bully,” was there another musician working at that echelon who was writing and playing serious music about real Jewish emotion? He visited Israel soon after the Six Day War, and was back in the Texas beer halls singing:“No, they ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore,They don’t turn the other cheek the way they done before.”In a changing world, he’d sing, to Texas swing, “Now’s the time for the chosen ones to choose, before all hell breaks loose.”He was in love with a Jewish woman way back when, but “she stepped on a rainbow,” Kinkster lingo for dead.While he was writing classic, barrelhouse, two-fisted juke music, he started bringing Jewish themes into the mix. “Ride’em Jewboy” about the Shoah, evoked the musical forms and sadness of folk ballads such as “Hobo’s Lullaby,” and the cattle round-up songs from Texas campfires.“Now the smoke from camps arisin’See the helpless creatures on their wayWell old pal, ain’t it suprisin’How far you can go before you stay.Do not let the mornin’ blind youWhen on your sleeve you wore the yellow starOld memories still live behind youCan’t you see by your outfit who you are.Wild ponies, all your dreams were brokenRounded up and made to move alongThe loneliness which can’t be spokenJust swings a rope and rides inside a song.”Neither Nashville nor the New York Jews knew what to make of him. The easier thing to do was laugh. As Kinky wrote, “anything worth cryin’ can be smiled.”After a long stretch of weekly gigs at Manhattan’s Lone Star Cafe, he folded his musical tent in 1985, heading back to his Texas ranch where he wrote a string of popular mystery books, featuring a character named ... Kinky Friedman. There’s talk of the books being made into movies: “I want Meryl Streep to play the Kinkster.”When not writing, he takes “power naps,” is planning a new band to be called the “Shalom Retirement Village People,” and keeps kicking himself for being “the oldest living Jew who doesn’t own any real estate.”But music remained his love — honest, honky tonk country. He wrote in Texas Monthly that the tribute album came together when he was hanging out one night with Kacey Jones, formerly of Ethel and the Shameless Hussies, when Kacey asked, “ ‘Whatever happened to all those beautiful songs you wrote?’ ”“ ‘Nuthin’,” said Kinky.“ ‘Well,’ she said in a voice fraught with irritating gentile optimism, ‘why don’t we do something about that?’ ”She agreed to be the producer and midwifed the album along. Kinky recorded some old classics with the reunited Texas Jewboys, and Willie Nelson — the first artist to get aboard — brought home an interpretation of “Ride’em Jewboy” that was painfully beautiful, perhaps his most exquisite recording since the Red Headed Stranger album years ago.“I wasn’t in the studio,” says the Kinkster, “but that night, when I heard the Willie Nelson cut in my car, it was the first time I smiled in about 200 years. Since then, on five separate occasions, I’ve seen gentiles cry when they hear it, five Christian men with a tear in their eye. I think it’s one of the best things Willie’s ever done and I think it’s going to be remembered as such. It’s already getting heavy airplay, with rotation as far away as Australia.”The Kinkster left this week for a musical tour of England, Scotland, Ireland and Germany — Hanover, Cologne, Mainz, Nuremberg: “My dad bombed ’em all.”The Germans love his books and music, voting “Armadillos and Old Lace” the best American novel of 1996. Kinky says, “If the Germans think my books are funny in German translation, they must be pretty funny, that’s all I can say.”Kinky Friedman concerts in Germany? “The Germans are such a perverse people... We have a Judy Garland-like rapport.”Is it weird for them to applaud “Ride’em Jewboy”?“Absolutely. Last time in Germany, men were kissing me afterwards, giving me flowers. I’m not Phoebe Snow or Joni Mitchell, you know, I don’t usually get flowers. I tell all my German jokes in Germany, they love it. Yes, they’re perverse but it’s such a financial pleasure for the Kinkster over there. Germany doesn’t have this CD yet but they’re going to go crazy over it.“Aw, hell,” mused Kinky. “It doesn’t really matter what they think; they’ve already killed anybody worth a damn, anyway. Who cares what they think.”Here’s what America thinks: “Pearls in the Snow” is No. 11, rising like the moon over Austin.
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