kinky friedman: the lonely, sold american

kinky friedman. photo by brian kanof.

kinky friedman. photo by brian kanof.

“Start talking.”

That’s how Kinky Friedman answers the telephone as we begin our interview. You discover quickly, though, that the veteran Texas songsmith, author, one-time gubernatorial candidate and all-around raconteur isn’t being rude or abrupt. He’s just anxious for a conversation – any conversation – to begin.

For the moment, talking is a good pastime. Friedman is on the road – specifically, “Pennsylvania somewhere on the way to Ohio.” It’s Sunday morning as well as his 71st birthday. So what better way to pass a few minutes and miles than talking music, politics and writing, and then wrapping it all up with a Texas-sized dose of wry humor.

“It’s just the curse of being multi-talented, that’s all,” Friedman said. “I’ve written about 34 books. Then, of course, the politics takes up all kinds of time and sucks most of the energy out of your life and turns you into a bad person if you stay with it too long. I mean, it’s the only field where the more experience you have, the worse you get.”

For the singer who popularized Sold American decades ago, life in the Americas today is a quizzical, troubled journey. Yet he still finds audiences outside of Lone Star country taken with his vintage songs as well as music from his newest album, The Loneliest Man I Ever Met.

“I think Raymond Chandler, the mystery writer, said, ‘Scarcely anything in literature is worth a damn except what is written between the lines.’ So what we have here is really a record stripped down to the soul to where you can bring your own imagination into the songs, which you can’t really do with all this over-produced crap today where everything sounds like Beyonce or Taylor Swift.”

While Loneliest Man boasts a few Friedman originals, the bulk of its leanly arranged repertoire is devoted to what he calls “interpretive renderings” of songs by Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon, Tom Waits and other fellow renegades.

“We puts some tracks down at our ranch in Texas, tracks that sounded so damn good that we said, ‘Why the hell do we have to make this like something coming out of Nashville, some over produced background music for a frat party? Let’s just pick songs we love and keep it sparse, just like Willie (Nelson)’s Red Headed Stranger.’ That seems to have worked.”

A Chicago native, Friedman was part of a wave of country-inspired songwriters headquartered in Austin, Tx. during the early ‘70s. The satirical elements of his music were often severe (his long running band was called The Texas Jewboys), but Friedman’s inspiration was vast. His landed a recording contract with the help of Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen in 1973 and became part of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975.

“It’s a heady experience being around great, original talent,” Friedman said. “Nashville now is like a corporate publishing house. You’ve got a songwriters meeting with three guys working on a song that should sound a little like this guy and a little like that guy and since it’s going to be for Toby Keith, it has to sound a little bit like Toby’s last record. I’ve never met Toby. I’ve got nothing against the guy. But this just shows you how the business part took over.”

“Look, I’m 71. But I read at the 73 year old level. Young people today… their bands may be good, bad or indifferent, but what you’re hearing coming out of the radio is not something that’s going to inspire anybody. I’ll tell you, just going to see a concert by Levon Helm used to inspire me, or by Merle (Haggard) or Bob or Willie or Billy Joe Shaver. They all inspired me. There are just a handful of people doing their thing and that group is diminishing all the time. I mean, these guys will make you think with a song that may stay with you for a lifetime.”

Friedman’s career has regularly veered outside of music. He mounted an independent campaign for Texas governor in 2006, finishing fourth in a six-candidate race won by Rick Perry. But he has been especially visible since the 1980s as a writer of crime novels (curiously, most of them were set in New York). He has subsequently written a column for Texas Monthly and several non-fiction works.

“A question was posed to me by a child once. He knew I was a songwriter and he knew I wrote books. He asked when I’m typing the books if I was hearing music in my head. I guess the answer is yes. For songwriting or writing a novel, I think the best bet is you’ve got to find a way to be miserable. If you’re a happy, well-adjusted person, you can pretty well forget it.

“My definition of an artist is someone who is ahead of his time and behind on his rent.”

Kinky Friedman and Kacey Jones perform at 6:45 p.m. Nov. 23 for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour featuring at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center , 300 East Third. Tickets: $20. Call (859) 280-2218.



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