Author, songwriter, and provocateur Kinky Friedman talks about his would-be country hits 

Author, songwriter, and provocateur Kinky Friedman talks about his would-be country hits 

In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.

The artist: Author, songwriter, homespun philosopher, and politician Kinky Friedman has led several lives. He was one of the unlikeliest talents in the outlaw country movement of the ’70s, a smartass provocateur who named his band The Texas Jewboys and recorded songs with titles like “Ride ’Em Jewboy,” “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” and “The Ballad Of Charles Whitman,” an upbeat ditty about the notorious mass murderer. Friedman reinvented himself in the ’80s as a prolific author of comic mysteries centering on a fictionalized, crime-solving version of their author. In the 21st century, Friedman reinvented himself yet again, this time as a populist, irreverent candidate in the 2006 race for governor of Texas. Friedman lost the election but won an ocean of press in the process, and he continues to perform and write: He recently co-wrote The Billy Bob Tapes with longtime pal Billy Bob Thornton and is currently on the road with his “Bi-Polar Tour.”

“The Ballad Of Charles Whitman” (from 1973’s Sold American)

Kinky Friedman: Well, “The Ballad Of Charles Whitman” is perfect for the Bi-Polar Tour. It was written at a ranch up in the hill country of Texas the summer that Charles Whitman climbed the Texas Tower and killed 27 people. [Friedman may have gotten his numbers crossed: Whitman shot from the 27th floor of the Tower, and killed 16 people. —ed.] That was in 1966, and the song was not greeted with universal approval. A lot of people didn’t like the song, but the song really just reflects that today, we would probably say that Charles Whitman was bipolar, since he was such a nice guy—apparently—and a straight-A student. He was an Eagle Scout and so forth, Marine sharpshooter and everything, and an architect, and on and on. We would say he’s bipolar today. We could’ve probably medicated him properly today. What I believe now is that either nobody’s bipolar or everybody’s bipolar. It’s a disease like restless leg syndrome, RLS, which really doesn’t exist. That was an easy one to write; that was fun. I think there’s a little bit of Charlie in us all. 

The A.V. Club: What about that particular massacre made you think, “There’s a funny song to be written about this”?

KF: That, if you’re a masochist, it’s a funny song to write… There’s a lot of truth in that song. It persists in being very popular, and so does Charles Whitman, by the way; he was kind of the first modern mass-murderer that really caught on. 

“Old Ben Lucas” (From 1976’s Lasso From El Paso)

KF: Oh, I started writing songs when I was about 10 or 11. My first song was “Ol’ Ben Lucas,” the one Eric Clapton played slide dobro on. “Ol’ Ben Lucas had a lot of mucus”—I wrote that when I was 11. It’s a little children’s song, and it has not been a financial pleasure for the Kinkster. It’s not played on the radio much, but around the world, in Australia and in Europe, even in Africa, a lot of people know that song. So I usually do that one. By the way, speaking of icicles, a guy I was talking to in Kitchener, Ontario, where I’m gonna be playing, he was telling me that Roger Miller wrote “King Of The Road” in Kitchener, Ontario. ’Cause we were talking about the fact that Roger Miller and Willie [Nelson] and Kris Kristofferson, the most talented janitor in Nashville, wrote great songs when they were drunk and broke when they were in Nashville, and nobody since then—even though they’ve tried so hard to put these songwriters together in these little rooms and hallways and publishing corporate whorehouses—nobody has written “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” and nobody’s written “Hello Walls” or “King Of The Road,” either. 

I’ve always believed an artist is someone who should be ahead of his time and behind on his rent, and that once you get too much success, it distances you from your art. There’s many people who are living proof of that. The problem is that the culture’s changed too, so if Kristofferson wrote “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” today, would we even know it? Would we appreciate it if we listened to it? Would we even have time to hear the whole song? Probably not, ’cause the whole culture has ADHD. And here’s the point: We live in this Barry Manilow bubble—and I’m not picking on Barry, ’cause he’s more successful than God—but America wants songs that make you feel good for a short period of time. What I’m championing are songs that may stay with you for a lifetime and that may make you think, and you get those if you go see Kristofferson or Merle Haggard or Billy Joe Shaver or Bob or Willie or, if you had a chance, the great Levon Helm. Those are a different kind of song, and we’re not seeing many of those today. 

I think it probably reflects what’s happening politically, too. Politically, everybody in Washington seems more like Neville Chamberlain than Winston Churchill these days; they like to be perpetually behind the curve. So you’re not getting anything out of Washington or Nashville, and you see what you’re getting out of Hollywood, which as Billy Bob Thornton accurately said, “Every movie is a $150 million videogame movie aimed at 14-year-olds, or it’s the story of a chubby kid with curly hair who takes a goat to Las Vegas and screws all the chorus girls.” [Laughs.] Those are the movies that are coming out of Hollywood. 

“They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” (from 1974’s Kinky Friedman)

KF: That has come full circle. That song is probably the most popular one I do now, and it’s being seen as an anthem against political correctness, and that’s as it should be. That title was given to me by Mickey Raphael, Willie’s harmonica player, back in 1973 when Mickey asked me, he said he’d been offered a job by Willie and by Waylon [Jennings], which one should he take? And I said, “Go with Waylon.” [Laughs.] He went with Willie, and he told me recently that if he’d gone with Waylon he’d be dead. That song was a real incident that happened at a bar in the hill country of Texas near Kerrville, where our ranch is. Because it uses the word “nigger,” along with a lot of other racial slurs, it was kept out of circulation. I kept it out of circulation for a long time; I didn’t want to say it because I didn’t want that to make that what the song is all about, which it isn’t. I mean, Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce or Mel Brooks or George Carlin would all tell you that calling things the “n-word” is just not a healthy thing for an individual or a society to do—we gotta call things what they are, and particularly if it fits the song and it’s something you’re trying to get across. 

I think Barbara Jordan, Texas’s great gift to politics, was correct when she said back in the ’60s that political correctness would drown America if we let it, if we didn’t do something. And we didn’t do something. So we’re in the situation today that we could not make the movie Blazing Saddles. Everybody loves it today, but we couldn’t make it in Hollywood today if we had all the money in the world.  Nor could we make Richard Pryor a big success, or any of those names I mentioned. If you had a young Lenny Bruce or young Richard Pryor walk into your office today, you’d be hard put to get them to the Barry Manilow, Justin Bieber level. 

AVC: This song embodies your in-your-face, confrontational approach to Judaism. 

KF: I felt that we were a country band with a social conscience, essentially. I kind of thought that songs like “Rapid City South Dakota” and “Wild Man From Borneo” and “Sold American” and “Lady Yesterday” would get through, but that didn’t happen. It’s the curse of being multi-talented; people see you for one thing. People see Roger Miller for writing funny novelty songs and they don’t appreciate the other songs he wrote, like “Husbands And Wives,” and “When Two Worlds Collide.” I see, even in the novelty songs, like “My Uncle Used To Love Me But She Died,” something very deep in Roger’s work. There was a real genius—not just the comedy, not just a clown. 

I like to think of myself as the last nail that hasn’t been hammered down. It may be like Billy Joe Shaver says, “I’m a serious soul nobody takes seriously.” That could be. On the other hand, I don’t see any reason to be too serious. You let the audience decide what’s funny and what’s not, you know? They can do that. What’s profound and what’s profane? That’s really for them to decide, not me. I like to think of the Bi-Polar Tour as having a little bit of a Woody Guthrie spirit, a little bit of Will Rogers, maybe, and a little bit of Judy Garland. 

AVC: What’s the Judy Garland influence?

KF: Well, there’s a few minutes—not even a few minutes, a few seconds onstage every other night or so, when I feel like Judy Garland. I’m kind of channeling her. I think, along with a book that I’ll be reading from and I’ll be signing after the shows—Heroes Of A Texas Childhood, 23 heroes of mine when I was a kid—I realized when I researched that book that those people are really not successes; they were heroes, but they were tragedies, they were failures. Most of their lives were very tragic, with all kind of obstacles and failures, and how they overcome them was what made them heroes. Today, I’m quite disappointed to learn, when I show this book to college kids in Texas—college graduates, even—that they’ve never heard of Barbara Jordan, that they’ve never heard of Molly Ivins, for instance, and that they’ve never heard of Audie Murphy. So they don’t know upon whose shoulders they stand.

I think part of it is what we’re teaching in the school system. I would think that a well-educated kid from Texas would know that the most decorated soldier of World War II is Audie Murphy, a little bit about the challenges of his life, or even who he was, that he was a soldier—they don’t even know that. They think he was a rapper or baseball player; they don’t have a clue, and that ain’t good. If I ever am governor of Texas, this book will be mandatory reading of the public schools, and after the concert, of course, I will sign anything but that legislation. 

AVC: Getting back to the story behind “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” you said you counseled Mickey Raphael to go with Waylon instead of Willie. Why?

KF: I liked both Willie and Waylon at the time, but I felt that Waylon maybe had the best voice going. Willie has a great voice too—not a good voice, but a great voice—and that’s also true if you look at Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash. There’s something to that, and there’s something to the fact that Willie and Bob Dylan—I’ve noticed—that they leave their guitars off and not tuned perfectly. They don’t like people to tune their guitars, even though the people are guitar techs, they want to leave them a little out of tune. With both of them I’ve noticed that, and Willie got really mad when his producer had his guitar tuned when he took a break. I think there’s something Zen-like about that. I don’t quite know what it is, but maybe that’s where they focus the best, being a little out of tune. 

AVC: They’re able to live with imperfection.

KF: Yeah. It’s a conscious effort on both of their parts, I know that. Guys like that, those are the inspirations. If you want to get inspired about music, you’re going to be hard-put seeing a hard group that inspires you, because Billy Bob Thornton is right—there’s not a hell of a lot of John Lennons or Jimi Hendrixes coming out these days.   

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AVC: And you’ve worked with them.

KF: Yeah. Very different styles. Willie’s is typified by the making of Red Headed Stranger. We’ve written about that; Willie and I have a book called Just As I Am coming out in October. This book I actually had to write my part of it. The Billy Bob Tapes was all Billy. All I did was deal with agents and publishers and editors, which was tedious enough, as you can imagine. With the Willie book, I’ve actually contributed some writing. In Red Headed Stranger, there’s a whole lot of stuff I didn’t know. I knew he wrote “On The Road Again” on an envelope on an airplane, I did not know he wrote “Shotgun Willie” on a feminine sanitary napkin. And he wrote that 15 minutes before he walked into the recording session in New York. He found that in his hotel room, the sanitary napkin, and wrote “Shotgun Willie.” He did Red Headed Stranger in four days, for $20,000 is what it cost him, a little studio outside Dallas. And he wasn’t happy with the way the band sounded, so he said, “Look, if you can’t add something… If you don’t feel it, just let it be a solitary thing, here.” And so most of the band walked out into the control room. This was “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain.” And only Mickey Raphael and the late, great [Dan] “Bee” Spears, on bass, stayed. So Willie and the two of them cut that song. And when that thing reached New York, all hell broke loose. I mean, the president of Columbia Records, all their producers, all said, “This is a piece of shit. This wouldn’t even make a good demo. We can hear the drum pedal squeaking here on these songs. Nobody cuts a song with just a guitar and bass and a harmonica today—that’s so sparse, it’s ridiculous. We’ve got to add strings, we’ve got to add background vocals.” And they sent it down to their best producers in Nashville and they all agreed, and a lot of the country artists listened to it and said it sucked, you know? First of all, nobody thought that “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” was a hit! That wasn’t even a single. What they thought was, it was a good collectors’ album, maybe, but that was it. And they didn’t have a clue. The minute it got to the disc-jockey level, it was a smash. Just was the biggest hit of the year. And none of the record company A&Rs got it. And of course, the same thing happened again, amazingly, with Stardust. They all said, “Why are you doing this? You’ve got this “Luckenbach, Texas” thing going, you know? You’ve got something going here with the country stuff, and now why are you doing this Stardust? Which nobody is going to relate to. And Willie was right on the money both times. He’s not always, but then he was. Even the guys in the band knew that the suits were going to hate it. And part of the reason is, if they had paid him $2 million to produce it and it had taken him two years, they would have liked it better.

Because Red Headed Stranger was Willie’s first record that he had artistic control. And when he played the demo for the guys in the studio, it’s the first time they heard the songs. And Willie’s dog was barking—was howling—in the background at certain songs. One of them was “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” which the dog liked, apparently. Really liked. And that was about the only two people that liked it. It’s almost inconceivable today. If you and I were sitting in some A&R meeting and we heard that play, that we wouldn’t know… I mean, it was a long-forgotten song. It was never a big hit, but it had been written 40 years ago. But when Willie recorded it, I think we would have known, “This song has got something.” I think we would have known it. Maybe not. 

“Ride ’Em Jewboy” (from 1973’s Sold American)
AVC: Willie Nelson covered this on the 1999 tribute album to you, Pearls In The Snow.

KF: Well, we sent Willie a whole bunch of songs to do for this, whatever you call it, tribute album bullshit. And that was one of them, and that was the one he wanted to do. Bob Dylan likes the song too, very much. But he’s never recorded it, because Bob, you know, just does what he does. Willie’s version is quite spectacular. That Pearls In The Snow really has some good songs. As Lowell George once told me, though, “It’s 10 minutes too late to make any difference.”

That song was written in Borneo, in the Peace Corps. And so was “Sold American.” And you would think that “Sold American” would be written in Nashville because that’s where it takes place, but sometimes when you’re far away from something you write better, you see it more clearly. I’ve been able to write about New York from Hawaii and from Texas better than when I’m in New York. Maybe a distance lends some kind of a…

AVC: Perspective?

KF: Yeah, something. I mean, the best writing is always done with kind of a childlike image in your head. You know what Sherlock Holmes was like: You remember the fog and the streets and the hansom, horse-driven cabs going by and so forth. And you kind of have an idea of New York, too, because New York today is not what it was. Like Joseph Heller says, every change is for the worse. But New York has changed a lot, and the whole country has become very homogenized. Very sanitized, shall we say. And I think that has trivialized us. You don’t see a trailer park like Willie’s talking about that much anymore. You see suburban areas. I’ve written about some of that, in the story that I read to the audience about my dad, the navigator. About what it was like in the late ’20s, working for a Polish peddler with a horse and cart on the old West Side of Chicago. And now all of that’s gone. And it’s now slums and suburbs and Starbucks, everywhere you go.

AVC: “Ride ’Em Jewboy” is a very sad, substantive song, yet it has an irreverent title.

KF: It’s a song that I’ve seen Christians really relate to. Jews, I think, are a little uncomfortable with it. Not all Jews—there’s different kinds of Jews. But the “Jewboy” thing kept us out of a lot of record-store chains and record-company deals. But “Ride ’Em Jewboy” is kind of a transcendent song. That’s one of those that I say the song just wrote itself one night. I don’t even think I was home at the time. That applies to “Ride ’Em Jewboy.” Although I do remember writing some of that in Borneo. And looking at America, where you’re seeing Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy murdered while you’re in the Peace Corps overseas, you kind of look at your country from a great distance, from the other side of the world. And I think that is a great way to write about it, actually. And then when I got back to America, I wrote “Wild Man From Borneo,” which is one of my better efforts even though… Well, Guy Clark’s recorded it, and James McMurtry, and a few other people, Charlie Robison. But most of these songs have not really been a financial pleasure for the Kinkster. But that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about being a financial pleasure; it’s about reaching people. It’s about a young person seeing you perform that you never maybe even meet, who says, “That’s what I want to do. I want to be that guy.” That’s what teaching is about—should be about. It’s not, but it should.

AVC: Songs like “Ride ’Em Jewboy” and “Sold American” and “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore” have endured in a way that songs that were more popular have not.

KF: Well, that’s a wonderful point. And I’ll tell you, it’s a privilege to be able to do a tour like this, to draw the kind of crowds we’ve been drawing, and to have them not come out of nostalgia as they do to see The Rolling Stones or my pal Jimmy Buffett, both of whom are rendered pretty much nostalgia acts, I think, partly because of their great commercial success. But at least they’re artists. When you get to the Lady Gaga/Justin Bieber level, you’re product. You just turn into product. I’d like to be able to be product, but the fact is, I can’t. [Laughs.] But that’s kind of where we are today: You’re either an artist doing something or, if you’re real successful, you turn into product instantaneously, and it wouldn’t matter to you and me if Justin Bieber were to write an album as good as Leonard Cohen, we probably wouldn’t appreciate it. I don’t think we would. We’re predisposed to not like Justin Bieber or to think that he couldn’t be good.

“Get Your Biscuits In The Oven And Your Buns In The Bed” (from 1973’s Sold American)

KF: That song was a little feminist ditty—kind of a joke. We did it in 1973 at the University Of Buffalo, and the provoked a group of very excitable lesbians to attack the stage. And they started wrecking the equipment and fighting with the Jewboys and they were winning. So the cops were called. And the campus cops showed up just in time to prevent another Alamo. And we were escorted off the campus. Later that year I received a Male Chauvinist Pig of The Year award from the National Organization for Women. I don’t think anybody gets their nose bent out of joint on this song today. I’d be very surprised.

AVC: Did people not understand that it was satirical?

KF: One would think. It’s really poking fun at the guy singing the song. But that was an ugly one. It sounds funny now, but it was an ugly altercation that went on for, it seemed like a very long period of time before the police arrived. But that was something.

AVC: One of the dangers of being a satirist and writing songs like that is that you’ll be misunderstood, willfully or otherwise. 

KF: Well, it is a joy to be understood. There’s no question about that. It’s also really nice to see an audience that’s not brought there by some record-company promotion campaign. I don’t have any hit songs that anybody would come to see especially. So the crowd—a genius audience makes a genius performance every time. You come to see what you want to see. But the audience, you will see the young people, who as I said were probably jumping rope in the schoolyard when I was writing these songs, and I might have been selling dope in the schoolyard. And then you see the older folks, who I call the “insects trapped in amber,” who remember me from the ’70s. And then you see the political types, because when I ran for governor in 2006 as an independent, we won that race every place but Texas. So everywhere in the world that I go, people respond to that very favorably. They were all watching that campaign. Then you got your literary types who don’t know all that much about the music, but they’ve read all the books. So this is kind of a fractured audience. It’s an eclectic audience. Next time you see Jimmy Buffett, look at his audience. They’re all middle-aged lawyers wanting to go back to a happier time. And his audience also is about a hundred times bigger than mine. But I’m not bitter. [Laughs.] We’re the ones who found that fine line between fiction and nonfiction and snorted it in 1976.

“Rapid City, South Dakota” (from 1974’s Kinky Friedman)

KF: Oh man, that one. I had a girlfriend from South Dakota. I’ve never been there myself. But she had had a rough life, and that’s kind of what I call my pro-choice country song, that one. It’s a pro-choice song, and it’s, I think, the only pro-choice country song, and I’m proud to have written that one. That should have been a hit, that little song. You could see Charley Pride or somebody doing that song. Or Glen Campbell. Maybe Justin Bieber will do it. We’ll see.

AVC: Dwight Yoakam does a lovely version on the tribute album.

KF: Dwight just would not say “Rapid City, South Dakot-er.” He mispronounced it, I contend.

AVC: That’s also a very subtle song. It’s not a big message song, overtly.

KF: No, it’s got—a young kid came up to me last week, the son of a friend of mine, guy who’s 18, maybe 20, and he said the best thing he liked about the show was two lines in that song that really hit him, and they were, “He left her just a blanket of snow upon the farm / And that don’t keep your conscience very warm.” I think he got the song, right there.

“Sold American” (from 1973’s Sold American)

KF: Well, “Sold American” is the kind of thing, if I could still do it, I would. If I could still write that way. I have not been quite successful enough to distance me from my heart, but that one—I told you I wrote that one in Borneo, I’m not sure now. Maybe I did write it in Nashville. 

AVC: There seems to be a yearning for a simpler, bygone time even in songs you wrote at the very beginning of your career, like “Sold American.”

KF: Through the whole experience, I think some songs percolate. Like Roger Miller seeing that sign on the trailer where Willie was living: Trailer for Sale or Rent. And then later writing it when he’s on the road in this little town of Kitchener, Ontario, where apparently he wrote it. And probably wrote it very quickly, once he wrote it. That’s kind of the way it works. You live some of this stuff and then you write. I think it does pay to be miserable. I think a happy American creates nothing great. If you’re talking about something great, it has to be done when you’re miserable.

“We Reserve The Right To Refuse Service To You” (from 1973’s Sold American)

KF: Even the movie Giant has that in it, that sign that is a vestige of real racism. Not the kind of racism that politicians like to accuse their opponents of, but before all that shit started happening. This is real racism. As a Jew, I didn’t really see a lot of it in Texas, but certainly the Mexicans did and the blacks did. So, yeah, “We Reserve The Right” is kind of a journey for a Jewish kid in Texas. Who the hell knows? I think a lot of my stuff probably is written between the lines, a lot of my best work. I really think so.

I mean, it’s not actually what’s written there, but what you’re able to get out of it. Like the kid who caught those two lines out of “Rapid City”—I’m not sure Dwight Yoakam understood those lines. He might have, but a lot of times we get too close to the thing. We’re just trying for a hit too hard or to make it sound a certain way. Dwight’s a guy who’s been pretty true to what he is, though. He’s pretty great and pretty consistent. And he’s got some hit songs. I don’t have any hit songs. “Sold American” is as close as you get. “Sold American” was in the top 10 all around the country. And we did that on Vanguard Records, which is almost impossible to have a country hit on Vanguard Records, which is an East Coast, New York, collectors’ item company. But there was really no chance. My career was pretty star-crossed before it ever started and I should have realized that. How could I think I was going to have a hit when I have songs like “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” “Ride ’Em Jewboy,” and “Asshole from El Paso”? You’re just not going to have a hit. I shouldn’t have been surprised.

AVC: Was that important to you, to have a hit?

KF: Well, it’s important to anybody who’s trying to make a living as a singer, yeah, I would say. I did a lot of stuff. I met just about everybody in the business and hung out a lot with them, and still do. And I have to see what I’m going to do. I may make one last hurrah at politics here. We’ll see. But right now I’m enjoying this. This is definitely a higher calling. Definitely musicians could better run the country than politicians. There’s no question. And we wouldn’t get a hell of a lot done in the morning, but we’d work late.

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