After a nearly 20-year hiatus, Kinky Friedman is touring the West Coast again, having finished off an east coast swing late last year.


“I think it’s going to go down well,” Friedman says of the “Go West Young Kinky Tour of 2010,” which started July 26 in Vancouver and ends at the Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez on Saturday, Aug. 7.

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“I’m just kind of wandering in the raw poetry of time,” he says on his musical return to the Pacific Coast. “That and the curse of being multi-talented.”

Friedman is a cowboy who enjoys wearing many hats, but before becoming an author, an animal rights activist, a supplier of fine cigars, and a two-time gubernatorial candidate, the 64-year-old Texan was, first and foremost, a musician.

“Politics and writing books had derailed me,” says Friedman, explaining his time away from performing, before explaining his return. “Being a musician is a huge step up from being a politician.”

“If musicians ran this world instead of politicians, we probably wouldn’t get a hell of a lot done in the morning,” he says. “But we’d work late hours and we’d be honest.”

Friedman is a bit taken aback when asked why he decided to jump into the political fray. “I am not a politician,” he sniffs. “Politics sounds like ‘poly ticks,’ which means a lot of bloodsucking parasites.”

The Kinkster, as his friends affectionately call him, was an outlaw in Nashville’s country music scene, and because of his non-conformist, edgy and politically incorrect songs, he became a counter-culture folk hero. Through songwriting – as he has done successfully in other mediums – he combines an entertaining mix of wisdom, witticisms and wacky observations. Kinky and his band, Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, added a bite of satire to 1970s country music, with such numbers as “Get Your Biscuits In the Oven and Your Buns in Bed,” and “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore.”

Friedman says the band’s name came naturally to him. “Jews and cowboys really have nothing in common, except that they both like to wear their hats indoors, and they may both be disappearing breeds.”

For two years, Friedman toured with musicians Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell and Roger McGuinn, and made three albums, including Sold American and Kinky Friedman, for Vanguard Music and ABC Records. The former record was his most successful, and though it only reached No. 69 in the pop charts in ’73, it commanded the attention of fans and peers alike. He also appeared on the first season of “Saturday Night Live,” and he played at the Grand Ole Opry. The Rev. Jimmy Rodgers Snow (son of country singer Hank Snow) introduced him as “the first full-blooded Jew” to perform on the Opry stage.

In the early ’90s, Friedman disappeared from country music, but reappeared in the American spotlight as a published mystery novelist.

“I churned out, I mean, carefully crafted almost 30 books. That’s an index of an empty life,” he says, facetiously. Most of Friedman’s books star himself, though not as an outlaw, but as a detective solving crimes in New York City. In 2004, he created another outlaw identity when he announced his candidacy as an independent for governor of Texas.


The start of it all

The arc of Friedman’s career is a story of sonic expansion. Friedman’s parents moved from Chicago to found the Echo Hill Ranch in Kerrville, Texas, when he was an infant. From early on, he showed many talents — first, chess, then music.

At age 9, he was, as he puts it, “quite the chess product.” He was one of 50 local players to compete against U.S. grandmaster Samuel Reshevsky. “I got squashed, but not as quickly as the others!” he says, gleefully.

Reshevsky, impressed with the young boy’s talent, told Friedman’s father he didn’t want to make headlines for losing to a kid. Friedman’s curiosity about the game of chess, which he calls “complex without being profound,” gave way to a more enduring interest in music.

A year later, he mastered the accordion, then the guitar a couple of years later. In high school, he started a band called “Three Rejects,” producing music that was a medley of folk (a la the American group, “Kingston Trio”) and rock.

He formed another band, King Arthur & the Carrots – a group that poked fun at surf music – at the University of Texas. The group lasted two years, or “as long as your average marriage,” he says, and recorded only one single, in 1966. During this period, Friedman, whose given first name is Richard, picked up the nickname “Kinky” for his curly hair. “The name stuck with me,” Friedman says, cautioning, “It can be a social embarrassment, if you’re not famous.”

Music quickly became Friedman’s sole pursuit and occupation (“I couldn’t find work for the life of me.”) After his second band disbanded, he went to Borneo to serve a three-year stint as an agricultural extension worker for the Peace Corps.

It was in the Borneo jungles – feeling a little homesick but having a “hell of a time working for 11 cents an hour” – where he conceived of the Jewboys and began writing songs about America, including “Ride ‘Em Jewboy” and “Sold American” – tunes that never topped the charts but would eventually secure a spot for Friedman’s new band in Nashville’s nascent music scene that would become known as “outlaw country.”

Friedman – alongside Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings, his heroes Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Jr., and his good friend, Willie Nelson – came to represent the new subgenre of country.

Outlaw music found its heyday in the early 1970s, and was as much a movement as it was music. For one thing, it refused to retread the familiar, bucking and ultimately dethroning Nashville’s prevalent soft honky tonk sound in favor of a sound that mixed folk’s introspective lyrics, rock’s rhythms and country music’s instrumentation.

Friedman claims he and Billy Joe Shaver were the “spiritual snowplow” of the music, while Nelson and Waylon Jennings calcified it as a culturally consequential subgenre. For Friedman and others, the new scene provided insulation from Nashville’s “strait-laced and overbearing record companies and producers who told musicians what to play and how to play it.”

“Nashville did its best to crucify Hank Williams, Roger Miller and Willie Nelson,” he contends. “Nashville just never understood them. Hell, I don’t know why I never clicked with the country music establishment there.”

“Still, it was a great time to be there,” he adds. “We were a community of songwriters that decided to do things our way. We recorded at different hours of the day and kept colorful characters hanging around us. There were a lot of ideas, a lot of writers.”

His band’s provocative songs and eccentric stage persona has appealed to many who understand their sarcastic bent, including big-names such as Robin Williams, Don Imus and John Belushi. But they also chaff certain sensibilities. “My dad hated the name of our band, because he thought it would hurt us,” Friedman says. “Certainly, our approach kept us from getting record deals and kept our records from being sold in certain stores.”

In this sense, Friedman stood out as an outlaw of outlaws. And though his band’s sales suffered, respect soared.

“Kinky’s music is as true as you’ll get to country music,” says Bill Malone, the “Dean” of country music scholars. “Personally, I like the music of his contemporaries better. But he stood out in the sense that he encouraged country music to take a look at itself and not be afraid to make fun of itself.”

“He lived in two worlds, one of irreverent humor and serious social concerns,” he adds.

Friedman’s satire, even when guided by conscience, has also kept his performances off the long-running PBS series “Austin City Limits.”

“‘Get Your Biscuits’ (Kinky’s take on the women’s liberation movement) cranked up a crowd of angry women to charge the stage when we were playing at the University of Buffalo,” recalls Friedman in a casual tone. “A police escort helped get us off campus.”

“We’ve also been run out of town by rednecks,” he adds, to make clear that he has been an equal-opportunity offender. Yet, Friedman sighs with irritation when asked if he’s ever been called a racist. He has, which isn’t a surprise with titles such as, “We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You.” (But the song is about being a victim of bigotry.)

Friedman was a member of Students for a Democratic Society and picketed segregation. In college, he and his friends protested a segregated restaurant in a roundabout way. “The black kids picketed outside, and the white kids like me who knew the manager and frequented the restaurant started going in just to order a small cup of coffee, tying up the tables for hours while we discussed social issues,” he remembers. “It broke their back and they finally had to integrate.”

Friedman realizes his controversial approach put his music career on a razor’s edge, but he has no regrets. “Talent is its own reward. If you choose to try to say something or express a truth with your lyrics, you’re a fool. But God bless you.”

“That’s much better than to be the guy who wrote ‘Achy Breaky Heart,’” Friedman sniffs, referring to Billy Ray Cyrus. (The kosher cowboy doesn’t care much for contemporary country music, dismissing it as drab and derivative.)


Primed for politics

Friedman laments the homogenization of not only today’s country music, but also the American culture.

It’s the reason Friedman battled for public office in the last few years. Fueled by populist resentments that helped buoy Jesse Ventura’s successful bid for governor of Minnesota, Friedman launched a campaign for Texas governor in 2006 and a short-lived one last year.

Of course, Texas is not Minnesota, and Friedman seems to have resigned himself to the idea that an honest third party candidate cannot win in big states where there is phenomenal sums of money swirling around the political campaigns of party establishment shoo-ins.

“If I had $10 million and my trusty slingshot, I’d have run and won the primary,” he says. “But in big states like Texas, California and New York, the slogan is, ‘Government of the money, by the money and for the money.’”

That current Texas governor Rick Perry handily won the election infuriates the frank-talking Texan. “He’s important, but he manages not to be significant,” Friedman says in a deadpan voice.

“Most people in Texas don’t know upon whose shoulders they stand upon,” Friedman laments.

“He [Perry] doesn’t deserve a place in the Heroes of a Texas Childhood,” he adds, referring to his 28th book to date, which consists of essays about his childhood heroes, including Barbara Jordan, Willie Nelson and Davy Crockett. “If I am ever governor, this book will be mandatory reading in the public schools.” (Friedman will read a chapter from the book at every stop of the current tour.)

Politically, Friedman is tethered to neither mainstream party (whom he calls the Crips and the Bloods).

He’s for gay marriage, border control, lower taxes, lower spending, higher teacher salaries, school prayer, alternative energy, and the decriminalization of marijuana use, though he doesn’t advocate making its sale legal. He’s not against the death penalty, but notes that Texas has “never executed a rich man.”

He is fond of former presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, but has few nice things to say about George W. Bush and President Barack Obama (whom he voted for in 2008). “Bush Jr. is a good man trapped in a Republican’s body,” he says of the former. “Leave it to America to elect a black man as a president without any soul,” he says of the latter.

“Mark Twain was right,” Friedman fumes. “There is no native criminal class in America except the U.S. Congress.” Although he has told several news outlets that he is done with politics, he sounds non-committal when asked if he’ll run for governor again. “As long as Willie (Nelson) keeps playing, I may keep running,” he jokes. “I don’t have to decide for several years. But I sure as hell am not going to run to be the next Ralph Nader.”

“I see Kinky as a kind of golden child,” says Cleve Hattersley, his friend and fellow musician. “He’s too honest to be successful, but people adore him for it – he’s amazingly in-tune with his constituency. He’s neither left nor right, which confuses and angers opponents, but which sets him apart from most candidates. Win or lose, he inevitably shines a light on something.”


The days ahead

Back on the subject of the West Coast tour, Friedman speaks with a voice that grows softer, as if he were sharing a secret. “I’ve got to wonder, after all these years, if I’m still relevant,” he says, alluding to the nearly 30 years he’s gone without writing a song. Last year’s European tour suggests he is as relevant as ever. “It was a sold-out tour, and the audience, made up of people who were younger than the songs, knew every lyric and every book,” he says.

Friedman will be joined by an original member of the group, Little Jewford (“He’s a Jew who drives a Ford”) and Washington Ratso, whom Friedman describes as “a little Lebanese boy I met on the gangplank of Noah’s Ark,” adding, “We consider ourselves the last great hope for peace in the Middle East.”

He says he’ll happily sign anything “except bad legislation.” He is also quick to note that this is not a nostalgia tour.

“If you’re lucky enough, and you strive for it, you may become significant. Anybody that can sell platinum records is important, but not necessarily significant. Songs from Jimmy Buffett and the Rolling Stones are worth a fortune, but they’re not relevant. They’re nostalgic.”

Looking forward, Friedman is hoping to soon finish a book he is working on with actor Billy Bob Thornton. “He’s eccentric, but he’s also authentic in the sense that he knows who he is and where the culture is going,” he says of Thornton.

Friedman, Thornton and Billy Joe Shaver are planning a tour of Australia in December – a country Friedman says he’s been enough times to be prime minister.

Looking back, he offers a heavy and healthy dose of pessimism in the vein of his hero, Mark Twain.

“I’m not happy with anything. I fight happiness. It’s the enemy,” he says. “All the great work is done by people who feel bad.”

jfoster@syvjournal.com


Friedman performs at the Maverick Saloon for one night only Saturday Aug. 7. For more information, call the Maverick Saloon at (805) 686-4785. To purchase tickets, visit http://www.syvjoneshouse.com