Singer-songwriter Kinky Friedman Takes Contemporary Culture to Task on his New Album

Concert Preview

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BRIAN KANOF
  • Brian Kanof
Veteran singer-songwriter Kinky Friedman has done it all. Over the course of a career that stretches back to the ’60s when he played with the surf spoof act King Arthur & the Charlottes — a group known for its one and only single, “Schwinn 24/Beach Party Boo Boo”) — Friedman has toured with Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, recorded with Eric Clapton, most of the Band and Ringo Starr, appeared on Saturday Night Live and at the Grand Ole Opry. And, oh yeah, he wrote a song that became the tune that the late Nelson Mandela counted as one of this favorites. Say what?

“Nelson Mandela listened to the smuggled cassette tape of Sold American?” says Friedman via phone from his Texas ranch. “He was in prison for 17 years. The guy in the cell next to him was Tokyo Sexwale. I met Tokyo Sexwale, one of his right-hand men, when I was in South Africa. He told me that Mandela was a big fan. He said, ‘We smuggled what we could. I was in the cell next to him and the signoff song that he played every night was ‘Ride ’Em Jewboy.’ That went on for the better part of three years. The last thing on my mind was that Nelson Mandela would be listening to it in a prison cell. That makes the song and the whole career significant.”

Friedman’s latest studio album, The Loneliest Man I Ever Met, features originals such as “Sold American,” “Nashville Casualty and Life” and the aforementioned “Ride ’Em Jewboy.” The alt-country album also includes Friedman’s take on tunes by Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and friend Willie Nelson, who produced and performs on his own “Bloody Mary Morning.” Guests include guitarist Joe Cirotti, the Willie Nelson Family Band's Mickey Raphael and Little Jewford, the bandleader of the Texas Jewboys. It’s Friedman’s first effort in over three decades.

“Life gets in the way,” says Friedman, who has written a slew of detective novels and once ran for governor of Texas. “I’ve been writing books and columns. Politics gets in the way too.”

He credits Brian Molnar, who produced the album, with pointing him in the right direction.

“He did the thing at the ranch and found a great guitar player along with an engineer,” Friedman says. “They were from Jersey. I called them the Jersey Boys. They’re the only sound you hear on the record. There are three original songs and nine interpretative renderings. Elvis never wrote a song and Sinatra never wrote a song. The interpretation is what’s happening here. I’m not doing this to educate millennials. It’s a record of songs that I love. The more I play the record, the more it seems like a mirror. ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’ might be known by two percent of the audience. It’s halfway between Bob [Dylan] and Kinky. It’s right in the middle, I think. Of course, ‘My Shit’s Fucked Up’ isn’t so much about Warren Zevon dying of cancer as it is a visionary song. It’s a perfect description of our country and our world today. Our shit’s fucked up. It might not be fixable this time.”

That notion — that the world is broken and can’t be fixed — inspired the sentiments found on many of the album’s tunes. And Friedman says it’s hard to find songwriters as good as guys like his pal Willie Nelson.

“’Bloody Mary Morning’ is out of rhythm, but that’s its charm,” says Friedman. “It’s spontaneous and has spirit. It’s a perfect song. Willie is the jazz cowboy on that one. That’s a perfect example. That’s the difference between important and significant. It’s maybe not important like Miley Cyrus or Garth Brooks or Toby Keith. There’s nothing wrong with those people; it’s just that the songs that are coming out now sound like they’re music for frat parties. They were written by committees of four and five people. They have click tracks. Toby Keith is pushing one billion dollars now in profit. I never met and have nothing against him. That’s important to his publishers and fanbase and all that shit but it’s not significant.”

So who does he think has made “significant” art?

“Gram Parsons is significant,” he says. “Shel Silverstein is. Warren Zevon is. Tom Waits is. Kinky Friedman would love to be part of that group instead of the other group. That is a group that can inspire young people and the geezers. You can’t fail to see a show by Willie or Bob or Billy Joe Shaver or Merle and not go away with a little different sensibility.

A tune he wrote years ago, the album’s somber title track which features a gentle guitar riff and nearly whispered vocals refers to a struggling singer-songwriter from Nashville whom Friedman says never got his due.

“It was written about 25 years ago by me and Will Hoover in Nashville,” he says. “It’s about our friend Tompall Glaser who we feel is an outsider in the Outlaw movement He burned more bridges and had a lot more to lose than Willie and Waylon who were like gypsies. Tompall was already the king of the hill. I wrote that when I was a struggling singer-songwriter in Nashville. That’s as close to Jesus as you’ll ever get. It’s a really pure calling. It’s a wonderful thing to be. These guys can’t do it again—Willie and Bob [Dylan]. They’re distanced from their art by their success. If they did do it and wrote some great stuff, they’re so good that you can’t tell if the stuff is great or if it’s just the doing it. There are a lot of factors at work here but the big one is cultural ADD. No one is going to listen to a record any more. They don’t even listen to a whole song. They can’t keep it in their heads. In politics, it’s the same damn thing. Look at the continent of Africa. Do you see any Mandelas rising there? No, you don’t. You see a bunch of brutal corrupt black leaders who are just as corrupt as the white leaders before them. You don’t see a Churchill or an Abe Lincoln.”

When Friedman ran for governor in 2004, he used a variety of slogans, including “My governor is a Jewish cowboy” and “He Ain’t Kinky, He’s My Governor.” Those didn’t win him the election though they did get him some attention in the media. He continues to follow politics, though he says he’s done “picking on Obama.”

“Rick Perry, who is my favorite nemesis is out,” he says. “I can’t do jokes about him anymore. The crowd always picks Barabbas. You can bet if there’s anyone good there, they don’t pick them. They’ll kill him. There’s only one thing I don’t like about [Donald] Trump. I prefer Mr. Anonymous. If you give money to a children’s hospital, you shouldn’t put your name up there in big letters. He’s not corrupt. Neither is Bernie Sanders. Those two are not. I don’t know, though. We need to limit everyone to two terms — one in office and one in prison. That would go a long way to help.”

For the current tour, Friedman says he’ll play material from the new album and delve into his notorious past.

“There will be old favorites,” he says. “I can’t get around to not doing ‘They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore’ and ‘I’m Proud to be an Asshole from El Paso.’ I will have Joe Cirotti with me who did some beautiful guitar work on the record. We have a lot of merch. We have T-shirts and sweatshirts. I will sign anything but bad legislation.”

Friedman admits the current tour, a month of nearly back-to-back shows that takes him away from his beloved ranch, will be a haul.

“I’m sad about leaving my four dogs,” he says. ‘I explained to them what I have to do. This is a tour on the Hank Williams level. When you’re doing back-to-back shows with no nights off, you are going to be running on pure adrenaline. You’ll be raw and pure and hearing voices and all your good angels will hopefully be there with you. It’s really a test. I’m 70 years old, though I read at the 72-year-old level. I feel like the white Richard Pryor, who would probably be a homeless person if he were around today.”

Kinky Friedman, 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3, Wilbert’s Food & Music, 812 Huron Road East, 216-902-4663. Tickets: $30, wilbertsmusic.com.


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