Kinky Friedman Still Grappling With “Curse of Being Multi-Talented”

Songwriter, Author and Former Politician Releases First New Music in 32 (or Maybe 39) Years

Kinky Friedman’s views on politics, music and dogs spill out during an hour-long conversation from his Texas ranch.

What was scheduled as a quick phone interview to talk about his excellent new album — The Loneliest Man I Ever Met — a full-on sampling of the types of songs that sparked the Texas Jewboys Movement.

Well, perhaps “movement” is a bit hyperbolic. But, then again, a bit of hyperbole never bothered this one-time Texas gubernatorial candidate, animal activist, famous author of gumshoe tales (starring a character named “Kinky Friedman”), singer-songwriter and smoking buddy of Willie Nelson.

For example, while publicists push The Loneliest Man I Ever Met as Chicago-reared Richard Friedman’s first album of new music in 39 years, he insists it’s really only been 32 years since he offered up a dose of stuff that would make his fistful of admirers and fans proud.

But he asks that it remain reported as a 39-year absence from the recording studio because “that sounds better.”

As he laughs, a dark cloud of cigar smoke likely circles the home he shares with four dogs. His two cats vanished, adding to his underpinning of melancholia that flavors the songs he’s penned or picked for this album.

Some things — like memory “of a lost cat or dead sweetheart … stay with you forever,” he says adding he hopes Yellowy and Blackie, his two cats that disappeared “have found good homes.”

He adds, “I’ve collected a few dead sweethearts, but I didn’t kill them, I don’t think.” Feline and two-legged loves are with him in song and studio as well.

“My first dead sweetheart kissed the windshield at 95 mph in a Ferrari,” he says. “That was probably ’82.”

He pauses briefly and says “she’s another angel on my shoulder.”

“Hold on,” he adds. “That a good song. Gotta write that down.”

After a few moments of scrawling on the other end of the line, he sings a portion of that new song: “Things you can count on when you’re getting older. Another show in my hip pocket, another angel on my shoulder.”

“I composed that right now,” he joyfully spits into the telephone. “Those are the first lines that have come to me in what seems like a long time. “

The fact he hasn’t written a lot lately didn’t stop him from putting together this new collection of originals and some his friends or heroes have written.

“They aren’t covers,” he asserts. “They are interpretations.”

In addition to his own songs, the new collection includes the works of Tom Waits (“A Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis”), Warren Zevon (an unprintable title — paraphrase it as “My Stuff’s Messed Up” — that is Zevon’s skewering of the angel of death while it perched on his shoulder), Merle Haggard (“Hungry Eyes”), Johnny Cash (“Pickin’ Time”), Bob Dylan (“Girl From the North Country”) , Eric Maschwitz and Manning Sherwin (“A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” a pre-WWII love song written by the pair of Brits), Broadway’s Lerner and Loewe (“Wand’rin’ Star,” a song in which he almost meets the vocal expertise of Lee Marvin when he sang it in the movie version of the musical “Paint Your Wagon”) and Willie Nelson (“Bloody Mary Morning,” from the masterful but almost-forgotten ’74 Phases and Stagesconcept album about dissolution of marriage and accompanying decay of spirit).

The latter is a sparse and lean duet between Nelson and Friedman. And it showcases one particular aspect of his friendship with the red-haired and weathered bard of the Texas Hill Country.

“The only time I smoke dope is with Willie. It’s kind of a form of Texas etiquette. I got so high, I needed a step ladder to scratch my ass,” Friedman recalls.

He explains his own halting writing of the last few decades simply.

“I suffer from the curse of being multi-talented,” he says. “If you are writing a novel series, running an animal rescue — and then there’s politics thrown in — it keeps you busy.”

The novels, mentioned earlier, include a series of 20 soft-boiled detective yarns starring a Jewish country singer who gives up the musician’s life to become a P.I. in Greenwich Village. (His pal Billy Bob Thornton is attempting to develop a series of TV movies in which the Sling Blade star will play the title character.)

The animal rescue charity Friedman runs — Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch — occupies a part of his plot of land in the Lone Star State.

And then there is Friedman, the politician who ran for Texas governor in 2006, finishing with about 12.5 percent of the vote. He never achieved his goal of occupying the governor’s mansion with the closet space he so publicly desired. He also tried last year to win the Democratic nomination for his state’s agriculture commissioner. He didn’t win, even though he promised to legalize marijuana if he earned that top agrarian’s role.

All of those distractions may have kept him away from songwriting, but never removed him far from his belief that “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore” (one of his early songs).

Yes, he says, he is Jewish. And, yes, he loves Jesus.

“He is important to me as a troublemaker,” he says, expressing his love for the King of Kings.
Does he practice Judaism or Christianity? Well, he says practice isn’t necessary in his case.

In fact, he says that if the world had leaders “like Mandela and Jesus,” it would be a far better place.

He adds that one reason the world is in such bad shape is that citizens sometimes make bad choices, like the crowds who cheered wildly to Pilate to free Barabbas and crucify the so-called “King of the Jews.”

The problem, as Friedman sees it, is that the public always makes that choice.

“If we had a Jesus and a Mandela and a Martin Luther King and a Gandhi out there, we might be fine,” he says. “We might be able to un(mess) the situation. You’ve got to recognize them when they’re here. They seem to come along once in a while.

“We don’t see any elected person who inspires us like those guys,” says Friedman, who by the way, values his close friendship with both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. (“I’m the only one I know who can say I’ve slept beneath two presidents at the White House.”)

The world, he says, is in this state because people always shout “Free Barabbas! Kill Jesus!”

“Don’t do that,” he cautions. “That’s why they buried Mozart in a pauper’s grave. We the people rarely get it right.”

One of his dogs barks loudly in the background as he says, “There’s a lot of important people, like Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Barry Manilow. Barry Manilow might make you feel good for a short time. Then there’s others who make you think. I’d like to be a part of those kind.”

Although he admits his administration may have been as “scandal-ridden” as any, Friedman think one solution is to put the musicians — rather than politicians — in charge.

“Musicians can run this better than the politicians,” he says. “Probably (we) wouldn’t get a lot done in the morning, but I’ve always thought musicians were honest creative and they work late.”

He doesn’t believe he’ll dabble in politics any more.

“The voters returned me to the private sector,” he says. “The people have spoken … the bastards.”

As Kinky Friedman laughs, again it likely is with swirls of thick cigar smoke circling him in the Texas ranch house.

While prone to serious talk, he’s also prone to laughter, mostly at the expense of himself.

“Most people can’t take a 32-year vacation from music. Like Willie says: ‘If you fail at something long enough, you’ll become a legend.’”

Tim Ghianni is a freelance writer and author based in Nashville. He also continues his role as “journalist-in-residence” at Lipscomb University, where he has worked seven years.