Sold American, Kinky Friedman’s inimitable 1973 debut album, showcased an artist who proved equally adept at writing and performing traditional country/folk and outrageous satirical novelties like “We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You.” Unfortunately for fans of that quirky record, Friedman followed it with only a few more albums before turning his attention to other pursuits, such as writing crime novels, touring with Bob Dylan and running for governor of Texas.
Now he’s back on disc with The Loneliest Man I Ever Met, his first new studio recording in more than 30 years. Disappointingly, after all this time, he delivers not a single new song—just covers plus versions of two fine original tunes that he first released in 1974 and 1976 (“Wild Man from Borneo” and “Lady Yesterday”) and a decades-old collaboration with guitarist Tim Hoover that Tompall Glaser once recorded (the title cut).
The absence of fresh compositions isn’t the only thing that sets this apart from Friedman’s earlier work: whereas his older records came loaded with put-ons, put-downs and reasons to chuckle, Loneliest Man finds the singer playing it straight. In fact, the mood here varies mostly just between sad and romantic; even the few tracks that employ a bit of humor are essentially melancholy. This side of Friedman’s music has been present from Day One—just listen to Sold American’s title cut and “Western Union Wire”—but until now, his downbeat and sentimental sides have been overshadowed by his lighter ditties. Loneliest Man is consistently satisfying, even moving at times, but it’s not quite what we’ve come to expect from this artist.
The songs here include several from Nashville’s outlaw-cowboy contingent. The album opens with Willie Nelson’s “Bloody Mary Sunday,” with Willie himself sharing vocals, and the CD also taps Merle Haggard (“Mama’s Hungry Eyes”), Waylon Jennings (“Freedom to Stay”) and Johnny Cash (“Pickin’ Time”). From the rock and folk world come Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” and two numbers that sound like ones Kinky might have written: Warren Zevon’s “My Shit’s Fucked Up” and Tom Waits’s “A Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” a bittersweet piano-backed monologue. Seemingly more out of character but equally effective are readings of Lerner and Loewe’s “Wand’rin’ Star” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” the romantic British pop tune that dates from 1940.
The overall excellence of the material represents less of a surprise than the inclusion of those last two covers: it makes sense that Friedman would know a good song when he hears one, because he has written more than a few himself. And while this album is first rate, its trio of old originals and the memory of Friedman’s other past creations make me hope his next outing will include some fresh compositions of his own.
Jeff Burger edited Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, both published by Chicago Review Press. He is working on a third book for the same publisher. His website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary.