Album Review

After 40 Years, Kinky Friedman Returns with New Songs

Kinky Friedman - Circus of Life

In the immortal words of Hunter S. Thompson, get set for some “bad craziness.” These songs from the Kinkster have been brewing and stewing in this Texan’s kooky brain for 40-odd years. Since his last record of original material, Friedman has penned mystery novels and run for political office, so there were plenty of life experiences to draw from.

Thank fellow Texan Willie Nelson for getting Friedman off the couch (literally) and kick-starting his muse. The backstory goes like this: Kinky received a 3 a.m. call from Willie, who asked his friend what he was up to at that hour. “Watching Matlock!” Kinky replied. Willie’s wisdom came through the line all the way from Hawaii with this advice: “That’s a sure sign of depression. Turn Matlock off, Kinky, and start writing!” When you get an order from one of the greatest living songwriters, you listen. The result: Circus of Life – or as Friedman has referred to it, "The Matlock Collection." These dozen new creative compositions range from odes and oddities (“Jesus in Pyjamas”) to ruminations and reflections on a life lived; these are songs that only could come from the pen of this 73-year-old songwriter.

Appropriately, the disc opens with an ode to Nelson: “Autographs in the Rain (Song to Willie)." Behind a simple drumbeat and Mickey Raphael’s harp, Friedman gives thanks to his compadre with these telling lines: “He took me in when life was really hard/I never really thanked him so I’ll put it in a song. I hold him in the highest regard!/ I knew a man who signed autographs in the rain.”

Throughout the rest of this collection the wisdom and wit and skill at turns of phrase of the Texas-based song-slinger is on display. To country fans, the Kinkster is best known as the leader of the Texas Jewboys, the Jewish voice of outlaw country in the turbulent '70s. The new collection features Sir Douglas Quintet alum Augie Meyers; Joe Cirotti and Mickey Raphael; and Little Jewford Shelby from the original Texas Jewboys. These country-tinged tunes sound like early Kristofferson in their poetic simplicity.

Other highs include “Back to Grace,” a tender contemplative ballad where Friedman sings in a tone just above a whisper. He compares life to a 12-step program. After spending time in the gutters and adrift on some wrong roads, he’s looking to “get back to Grace” — a faithful love that is there throughout all of these misadventures: “I’ll be there at your funeral and I’ll wear my wedding dress.”

“Me and My Guitar,” finds the songwriter paying homage to his long-time nameless companion he found years ago in a pawn shop just as many other musicians have done before. (Think Neil Young’s “This Old Guitar” from Prairie Wind.) Friedman sings: “People came to listen/Some traveled from a far/ they stood in line as if to find salvation in that bar. I told myself there are just two things that got you this far/ just me and my guitar.”

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait until 2058 to get another batch of new songs from the Kinkster. 

*     *     *

The author (sporting a vintage ND T-shirt) meets Kinky Friedman "a number of years back" at Hugh's Room in Toronto.