An Interview with Kinky Friedman (2015)

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At the end of Christopher Nolan’s sprawling socio-political crime drama, “The Dark Knight,” Jim Gordon’s son asks him why Batman has chosen to go on the run following the death of Harvey Dent.  He responds by saying that “he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now,” meaning that the city is too internally flawed at the moment to warrant the services of anything other than the idealistic white knight Dent represented.

When it comes to legendary outlaw country singer/songwriter, novelist, and Original Texas Jewboy Richard “Kinky” Friedman, he’s a voice that America needs right now, but not necessarily one it deserves.

America needs him, because he engages in a form of no-holds-barred interchange with his audience that appears to have gone out of style long before Washington D.C. became an abattoir for anything resembling “We the People.”  Whether he’s writing a song or running for office, he prides himself on being an iconoclastic, cigar-chomping presence firmly rooted in the old school and is never afraid to spit his own brand of “Mexican mouthwash” into the face of a system inching ever-so-slightly toward universal political correctness.

America might not deserve him, because he refuses to acquiesce to the political and pop cultural establishments.  He refuses to remain silent at a time when the rest of the country is allowing its freedoms to be siphoned off in the name of national security.  And, as exemplified by his latest record, “The Loneliest Man I Ever Met,” he refuses to let the Selfie Generation define what constitutes great music in 2015.

The album, his first since 1976, is largely a cache of forgotten treasures from artists such as Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash and Warren Zevon, an exercise in unfettered sincerity intended to accentuate the spiritual connection Friedman has with both the songs and the men responsible for their creation.

We’re not talking about a mainstream artist regurgitating the past for financial gain, either, because Friedman isn’t mainstream, and he couldn’t care less about material possessions.

He simply wished to pay tribute to his friends by letting the music breathe and interpreting each verse in a way that makes the listener feel as if their marrow has been exposed for all to see.

Kinky was kind enough to grant me a phone interview promoting his upcoming show at Buffalo’s Sportsmen’s Tavern on Oct. 17 and our conversation was everything one could expect from the man behind the satirical classic, “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed.”

Question: What made you decide that 39 years was long enough to go without releasing a new studio album?

Friedman: It was the constant harassment from a kid named Brian Molnar that finally convinced me to get back at it.  He might be a 47-year-old man, but he’s still a kid to me.  I met him at a show in New Jersey about 10 years ago and he brought an old-fashioned microphone into the recording process that helped to produce a sound that is stripped right down to the soul.  I had guitarist Joe Cirotti and Willie’s (Nelson) harp player Mickey Raphael contribute, both of whom were able to add their own distinct touches while never overriding the simplicity of the arrangements.  These songs have a serious bite to them.  They weren’t chosen through any record company commitment and they aren’t intended to be used as background music for a frat party.

Question: What drew you to this particular collection of songs?

Friedman: Personal stuff.  Every one of these songs was written by an artist whom I have a personal connection to.  They’re not covers so much as they’re interpretations, because you need a well-known mainstream voice to pull off a cover album, and I don’t have that.  I asked someone to bring me a harp that sounded identical to early Dylan for “Girl from the North Country” and they reminded me that this isn’t karaoke.  What I’ve tried to do is interpret some of these songs. But it’s not like Tony Bennett sings Willie Nelson; it’s more spiritually halfway between those people and me. So if you’re not a little bit melancholy, maybe you should be.  This isn’t the sanitized country music being pumped out of Nashville at the moment.  Tom Waits is an old pal of mine and “A Christmas Card from A Hooker in Minneapolis” is a beautiful song that probably tells us more about ourselves than the hooker herself.  “My Sh**’s F***ed Up” was written by Warren Zevon following his cancer diagnosis, but it really became a statement on the both the country and the world.

Question: Of the three originals you penned for the album, which one are you particularly proud of?

Friedman: I really like the title track.  I wrote it about 30 years ago with my old pal Will Hoover and it definitely doesn’t have the typical Nashville sound.  It was written as homage to Tompall Glaser, one of the founding fathers of what was to become the outlaw movement in country music.  Hoover and I were friends with Tompall, and it is safe to say we were both inspired by him but not crazy enough (and successful enough) to become totally enmeshed in his lifestyle. It has a similar appeal that “Ride ‘Em Jewboy” did back in 1973 when it was featured on my debut album, ”Sold American”, because you never know who is going to connect with your message.  Nelson Mandela used to listen to “Ride ‘Em Jewboy” while in his cell and stated that, while Dolly Parton was his favorite singer, it was his favorite song to soothe him during his imprisonment.  It’s always something when you hear stories like that, but I wasn’t so quick to get a swelled ego.

Question: Because the production on “The Loneliest Man I Ever Met” is miles away from the modern Nashville sound, was emphasizing that separation important to you?

Friedman: It was made in a “Red Headed Stranger” style, which was the moment when Willie made everyone at the record company realize that they didn’t know what they had.  Waylon Jennings literally jumped up on the desk at Columbia Records and convinced them to finally release the record the way Willie wanted it done.  “The Loneliest Man I Ever Met” was made in much the same spirit, because there are no click tracks and some of it may feel out of sync, although I believe that the spirit of the songs is still intact.  On “Bloody Mary Morning,” in particular, Willie and I created a vibe that feels very spontaneous and right out of any barroom in Texas.

Question: I’ve always admired your unwillingness to compromise your values simply to fit in with the status quo.  Do you feel as if society at-large has gotten too soft in terms of political correctness?

Friedman: I was speaking to a guy the other day and he referred to me as a “white Richard Pryor.”  Had Richard tried to make a career today, he probably would have been homeless.  Same goes for Lenny Bruce or George Carlin, because their careers were built on speaking their minds and challenging society’s sensitivities.  This new album isn’t meant to be an educational tool for millennials given my spiritual connection to the material, but I think things have definitely gotten softer in this country.  When I ran for the Texas governorship in 2006, one of my campaign goals was the dewussification of Texas, which referred to how sanitized and trivialized everything had become by that point.  The suburbs all look the same, the people are all the same, and the chain restaurants are all the same.  We have absolutely no inspiration coming from our elected officials.  I don’t want to pick on Obama given that he’s on his way out, but he shouldn’t let the White House door hit him in the ass on the way out.  There are no Nelson Mandelas, Jesus Christs, or Gandhis anymore.  Or even significant cultural presences such as Shel Silverstein, Gram Parsons, or Iggy Pop.  You’ll even notice that no leaders are coming out of Africa anymore, because too many areas are overrun with corruption and violence.  The one thing I can say about Donald Trump is that at least he’s not corrupt.  Most of my heroes died broke, so I wanted to capture that restless spirit on this record.  I mean, Barry Manilow makes millions of dollars and his songs entertain you for a short period of time, but then they’re quickly out of your system.  Songs by Willie, Merle (Haggard), and Kris (Kristofferson) stay with you forever, which ultimately elevates them to a category all their own.  The fact that this album is getting any radio play at all flies in the face of today’s trends, because, in our world of cultural and political ADD, few people want to listen to anything meaningful anymore.

Question: One of your most infamous concerts took place at the University at Buffalo in 1973.  What do you remember about that night?

Friedman: Well, it was one of our first shows and we played a harmless little feminist ditty I wrote called, “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed,” which led to a group of lesbians attacking the Jewboys.  I noticed that my band was losing the fight, so we had to be escorted out by police and a year later I was honored with the “Male Chauvinist of the Year” award by the National Organization of Women.  It’s still an award that I’m very proud of.  When I returned to Buffalo in 2012 at the Sportsmen’s, these young people knew all the words to my songs and I began to feel like a thinking man’s David Hasselhoff able to transcend generations.

Question:  What can fans expect at the Sportsmen’s this time around?

Friedman: We’re not taking any days off this tour, so we’ll definitely be running on adrenaline.  We’ll be playing songs from the new record as well as the old stuff that everyone wants to hear.  I’ll also do a reading from one of my books.  I’ll have plenty of copies of the new record and other merchandise with me to sign.  I’ll sign anything but bad legislation.

Kinky Friedman will play Buffalo’s Sportsmen’s Tavern on Oct. 17

Showtime is 9 p.m.  See http://www.sportsmensbuffalo.com for further details.

“The Loneliest Man I Ever Met” is available now at your local record store.

http://www.kinkyfriedman.com

 

 

 

 

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