We are wayfaring, wandering gypsies alone
Looks like looking for is where we'll always be
Cursed to be born as serious souls
No one will take seriously
--Billy Joe Shaver,
country singer and spiritual adviser
to Kinky Friedman
All across Texas
When it comes to black, Kinky Friedman picks up where Johnny Cash left off. He wears a black bull-rider hat, black boots, and a black belt with a buckle the size of a Mini Cooper hubcap. Over his black pearl-button shirt, he mixes things up a bit. He'll either wear the black leather vest, given to him by Waylon Jennings, or the black "preachin' coat," cut by Manuel, the famed former head tailor of Nudie's in Nashville.
In the airy, pastel atrium of the Ambassador Hotel in Amarillo, Ma and Pa Frontporch do double takes at the breakfast buffet, pausing by the Froot Loop dispenser, saying, "Isn't that . . . " when they spy the dark rider with bandito facial hair hunched over his omelet, skimming the newspaper. Kinky looks less like a Texas gubernatorial candidate than a desperado fortifying himself to knock over a stagecoach.
As I join his table, he welcomes me warmly. I've read a stack of Kinky stories on the plane, so I know how it works: Kinky is a shtick-Tommy gun, so if you tape eight hours of interviews with him, but are looking for original material, you know you'll have to throw seven out right off the top. Most of it will already have traveled several times around the world. He's pro-recycling: He calls it "rotating the crops." And so I try to peel the onion a bit, getting right down to his raw, vital essence--not political, but musical.
Kinky (so named for his "Jew-fro," as the ladies at Supercuts call it) is most famous these days for trying to become the first independent governor of Texas since Sam Houston in 1859. For two decades prior, he was known for his 17 well-reviewed comic-mystery novels, with himself cast as the protagonist ("I'm not afraid of anything, just that I may have to stop talking about myself for five minutes," he's said). But it was as head cheese-maker in Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys that he first entered public consciousness.
Before that, Kinky did a two-year Peace Corps stint in Borneo, where he introduced the locals to Frisbee while they introduced him to betel nut and hallucinogenic rice wine. Perhaps under the influence of it, he conceived the Jewboys. When Kinky got back to Texas in the early '70s, Austin had become a hothouse for outlaw country heroes who'd said adios to the slick sounds of Nashville in order to do some honest-to-God songwriting. Cosmic Cowboys and gypsy troubadours like Michael Martin Murphey, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver, and other guys with two first names walked the land.
Kinky and the Texas Jewboys served as the court jesters of the movement, though they were no redneck Weird Al Yankovics. There was much more going on. Kinky lampooned bigotry by assuming the role of the bigot in songs like "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore" and "Proud to Be An Asshole From El Paso." He could also pull off grim weepers, like "Ride 'Em Jewboy," undoubtedly the most haunting country song ever written about the Holocaust, even if it's the only one. "Anything worth crying can be smiled," he sang.
Because of his place in this universe, he has played, gotten drunk, or played drunk with nearly every musical hero of mine, from Levon Helm to Kris Kristofferson to the late, great Townes Van Zandt. Lyle Lovett is on his speed-dial. He has gotten baked on the secondhand smoke of Willie Nelson. Bob Dylan ate barbecue at his late parents' ranch. ("Thanks Mrs. Friedman," said Dylan, "You must be very proud of your son.") When I ask him about hanging out with Tom Waits and Chuck E. Weiss on the Bukowski side of Los Angeles in the early '70s, he lights up: "You know Chuck E. and the Goddamn Liars!!? [Weiss's band] Have you ever heard his 'Bad Jews in Malibu'? It's f--ing great!"
The musical revelry hits a speed bump when we start talking about his close friend Willie Nelson, whom he calls the "hillbilly Dalai Lama," and with whom he currently has a double-or-nothing wager. Willie took him for a grand on how the Iraq war would turn out (Kinky thought Bush and Blair would be "heroes"). Kinky now stands to win two grand if Joe Lieberman beats Ned Lamont--eight thousand if you count his Lieberman side bets with other suckers. Kinky's an inveterate gambler who takes "fact-finding trips to Vegas," though "these days, I'm bettin' on Texas." Still, of Lieberman, he says, "That f--er better win."