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Nashville Scene Twisted Roots

Country iconoclast Kinky Friedman holds forth on modern-day Music Row

By Michael McCall

JULY 19, 1999:  The husky, playful female voice on the phone message asked if I'd be interested in a "Kinky conversation." Knowing a good time when I hear one, I returned the call. Kinky Friedman--author, performer, and country music songwriter--was coming to Nashville to hold court. I wanted a piece of that action, I told her.

These days, Friedman is probably best known as the successful author of a series of detective fiction novels. But the colorfully named iconoclast also claims some renown, at least in music circles, as the unpredictable and entertaining leader of the Texas Jewboys, a raucously irreverent combo that gathered a cult following on the longhaired country music circuit of the 1970s.

From then to now, Friedman has owned a knack for pulling off the unexpected--and for having an especially rowdy and ribald time while doing so. He came to Nashville recently to celebrate an unanticipated accomplishment: Nearly 30 years after he started recording, Friedman finally has his name on a No. 1 country album.

OK, so it's on the fledgling Americana, or alternative country, charts--perhaps an appropriate location for him, since few country performers have presented quite as wholehearted an alternative to Nashville's music as Kinky Friedman. Nonetheless, Pearls in the Snow: The Songs of Kinky Friedman recently replaced Mandy Barnett at the pole position of The Gavin Report's Americana album charts.

A tribute album, Pearls in the Snow features Friedman's '70s work revived by an impressive list of performers, including Willie Nelson, Tom Waits, Marty Stuart, Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett, Lee Roy Parnell, Delbert McClinton, Guy Clark, and Asleep at the Wheel.

"To be alive and have a tribute album," Friedman says, lighting the thick tip of an ever-present cigar, "well, it's awkward. You're supposed to be dead, you know. But Tom T. Hall's got one, too, so I guess I'm in good company among the living. Anyway, you got to be gracious about it."

Graciousness is usually the last thing one expects from Friedman. Still, there's a reason for his happiness: Pearls in the Snow does more than rekindle interest in Friedman's music; it also suggests that his work has more depth than the salacious novelty songs that most fans associate with Friedman.

He's a fine songwriter who can spin insightful narratives and clever traditional country songs. Lo and behold, the Kinkster, as he's known to friends, can even pen genuinely sensitive love songs. That's quite a coup, considering his best-known tunes are the irreverent "They Don't Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore" and the satirical anti-feminist tirade "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed."

The album was produced by Nashville-based songwriter and performer Kacey Jones, who came up with the idea one night while sitting in a bar with Friedman and a longtime friend, Music City raconteur Captain Midnight. Jones, who once led the satirical country group Ethel & the Shameless Hussies, thought Friedman's songs deserved more attention. With Friedman's help, she put the word out; many of the artists on the album heard about the project and called to ask if they could participate.

"I pretty much stayed the hell out of the way," Friedman says, sitting in Jones' kitchen during his recent visit. "I'm real pleased and surprised with how it came out. It would be hard not to be. There's a lot of great performances on there."

Friedman is happy his new success is coming in the burgeoning Americana movement. "I think it's best not to swim in the toxic mainstream of this country," he says. "We've become a chain people. Everything is chain restaurants, chain stores, and chain radio stations. That's really our problem: It's the homogenization, trivialization, and sanitization of everything. You see the result real clearly in country music."

Friedman once tried to enter the Nashville system, even performing on the Grand Ole Opry in 1973. But today he wants no part of it. "I aims to break those chains," he says with a broad smile. "Face it, Nashville has been the death of country music. If it's going to have a future, it's going to come from those who survive outside of that system. Americana music, or whatever you want to call it, is going to be the way of the future. It has to be."

Warming up, Friedman rolls into a rambling and thoroughly ribald testament about the steady decline of country music during his lifetime and the role Nashville has played in digging its grave. Willfully outlandish and lewd--the words he uses most during his sermon are "masturbate" and "mental hospital"--Friedman nonetheless shows a passionate concern for country music and an encyclopedic knowledge of its history and its characters.

"When you hear a Roger Miller song or a Hank Williams song, you know it wasn't written by a professional songwriter in a Music Row office building," he says. "Profound songs aren't written by a committee of pampered professionals who schedule writing appointments around their lunch breaks. You can't just work hard at it and do it. You've got to live the life of what you write, and it helps if you're a little crazy or fucked up."

When he first started, rather than relying on Nashville to become known, the Texas native found he fit in better with the boisterous and disorderly young country crowd that formed in Austin in the early '70s. At that time, Nashville still occasionally presented inspiring songs. But they came from rebels, not from those who toed the Music Row line.

"Roger Miller was a great American philosopher," Friedman says. "But, the truth is, he was never really understood in Nashville. And Willie [Nelson] would have been an obscure footnote in country music if he would have stayed here. You have to wonder, with all these damn people here in the music industry, why one of 'em couldn't see how damn talented the guy was. You think they'd say, 'OK, he sings a little differently, he's a little eccentric, but let's see what we can do with him?' How did they miss that?

"Something's terribly wrong here, and it's been that way for a long time. With the death of Shel Silverstein and the phasing out of people like Tom T. Hall and Willie Nelson, the cleverness is gone. The Roger Millers and Kris Kristoffersons have gone their way, and we're left with this really homogenous sound. You have to put a gun to their head to get anyone with a brain to listen to country radio anymore."

As harsh as his words are, Friedman delivers them with a devilish twinkle; as with many satirists, he uses humor to leaven his outrage and his disappointment. Asked why he continues to stay involved in music after the success of his novels, he remarks, "I'm not."

He still gets the Jewboys together once in a while for a few shows, and he still puts together brief concert tours of Europe, where his music is more revered than in his own country. "We operate on a satirical level, which Americans don't quite get," he says. "Europeans and Australians do. Having traveled quite a bit now, it's clear to me that Americans are the most hung-up people on the planet in terms of sex, race, and religion and God knows what else. If there's a way to misunderstand something, they'll find it."

Yet, here he is, in Nashville, talking about an album with his name on it. "I didn't think I could be sucked, fucked, or cajoled back into it again," he says. "But this sort of happened outside of anything I did. And, I have to say, I'm pleased to find there's still some interest in my old songs."

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