Kinky Friedman talks about new album with Willie Nelson


www.theaustralian.com.au
by Ian Cuthbertson

Musician, writer and two-time aspirant for governor of Texas Kinky Friedman is touring with Van Dyke Parks, of Beach Boys fame.

“A lot of things I’m doing lately just seem to be working out,” the veteran country singer says. He’s talking about Kinky Willie, a forthcoming album of covers of his satirical songs performed by old friend Willie Nelson. Then there’s Becoming Kinky: The World According to Kinky Friedman, a play about his life that opened in his native Texas in March.

He’s also halfway through a book project with actor and fellow country music performer Billy Bob Thornton, with the entirely Friedman-esque title Hey Me, I’m Talking to You.

Friedman found fame with country comedy songs such as Asshole from El Paso (a parody of Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee) and They Ain’t Makin’ Jews like Jesus Anymore, in which the protagonist beats up a drunken white racist who berates blacks, Jews and Greeks in a bar.

But even if you’re not a fan of his music, mostly recorded as Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, or of his very successful line in detective novels, chances are the name will ring a bell.

That’s because the 66-year-old Texan (“I’m too young for Medicare and too old for women to care”) is something of a latter-day Mark Twain, dispensing epigrams and getting quoted in the world’s press on everything from politics to gay rights.

He once offered Bill Clinton a Cuban cigar but the president refused, citing a US boycott of Cuban goods. “Don’t look at it like we are supporting their agricultural products,” Friedman told Clinton. “Think of it as we’re burning their crops.”

And Friedman’s is very likely the most quoted line on gay marriage: “Why shouldn’t gays be allowed to be as miserable as everybody else?”

Now, the two-time aspirant for governor of Texas, crime novelist, cigar manufacturer and country singer is on his way here for a national tour, performing as a duo with Van Dyke Parks, surely the oddest pairing in popular music history since David Bowie and Bing Crosby got together to sing The Little Drummer Boy.

Parks, 68, is best known for his work as a lyricist on the lost Beach Boys album Smile, which he finally toured with Brian Wilson in 2004. However, Parks began his career as a child actor, appearing with Grace Kelly in the 1956 film The Swan. He has also worked extensively as an arranger, producer and player on albums by artists including the Byrds, Loudon Wainwright III and Ry Cooder. He worked with Silverchair as orchestral arranger on its 2001 album Diorama and again on 2006’s Young Modern.

Though Friedman admits he is not entirely sure what the two will be doing on their upcoming tour, other than playing separately and together, he has no doubt about their compatibility.

“We’ve been friends since Christ was a cowboy,” Friedman tells The Australian. “We met on the gangplank of Noah’s Ark.”

The two first played together in the 1980s when Parks, for a time, joined the Jewboys. They played again recently in Los Angeles, with Parks sitting in on accordion and keyboards, and both found the experience enjoyable.

“Van Dyke has mostly been conducting orchestras in Europe lately,” Friedman says. “So on this tour he’ll be drinking Australian wine and I’ll be drinking Mexican mouthwash.”

One of the secrets of Friedman’s appeal is his willingness, not entirely common among American country singers, to be the butt of his own jokes. “My oeuvre consists of 31 books that I’ve churned out, I mean carefully crafted,” he says of his literary output.

Friedman promises to bring copies of his latest work, Heroes of a Texas Childhood, first published in 2009, to Australia with him.

“I’ll be signing copies after the show and I’ll be doing readings from the books as part of the show, so it’s kind of a literary, Mark Twain moment there,” Friedman says. “And, of course, after the show I will sign anything but bad legislation.”

This is surely a reference to the singer’s former political aspirations. His failed tilt for governor of Texas in 2006 with the campaign slogans “How Hard Could It Be?”, “Why The Hell Not?” and “He ain’t Kinky, he’s my Governor”, and as a Democrat last year (he failed to gain the party’s nomination) have scarred him. But the party’s loss is concert-goers’ gain. After his political and literary years, Friedman has taken to touring again with a vengeance.

“I was very fed up with politics. I wanted a purer art form and there is almost no higher calling than being a musician on the road,” the singer says.

“Sometimes it is art. Of course my definition of an artist is someone who is ahead of his time and behind on his rent.”

Asked if he comes from a stand-up comedy background, he says “No. I come from a stand-up tragedy background.”

The singer says being funny may have hurt him politically. “But, you know, that’s changing because on the current tour people are listening to every word,” he says. “Which just goes to show that if you fail at something for long enough eventually you become a legend.”

Never one to stand still, Friedman is keeping up with the times by releasing e-books on his website. “One of them is a collection of all my old columns that I wrote for the Texas Monthly,” he says.

“It’s called Drinker with a Writing Problem.”

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