It’s impossible to define Richard Samet "Kinky" Friedman in a word or two, but maybe “a character” is the quickest summation. There are other words too, of course: musician, singer, songwriter, irreverent humorist, novelist, columnist, politician, cowboy, dog rescuer, pro-marijuana activist, cigar manufacturer, tequila maven, chess master, and Peace Corps worker.
Those are some of the extended family of labels that could be stuck on the self-proclaimed Texas Jewboy who recently released his first studio album in more than 30 years.
Why so long between albums?
“Perhaps, it’s the curse of being multi-talented,” Friedman tells me. “Life sometimes just gets in the way. My producer, Brian Molnar, badgered me half to death to make this record.” The new album, The Loneliest Man I Ever Met, features three new songs written by Friedman and numerous covers, including songs written by Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon, Tom Waits, and Johnny Cash.
The album “is about romance,” says Friedman, who has spent many hours through the years hanging with Dylan, Zevon, Waits, Van Dyke Parks, and a cast of other very talented and eccentric artists. “As everybody knows, romance usually results in tragedy, just as true love usually results in a hostage situation.”
Friedman’s first album, Sold American, released in 1973, was praised by critics for its irreverent humor, insightful social commentary, and outlaw country music. More critical plaudits followed with the release of a self-titled album and Lasso From El Paso. Then Friedman's jaunt with Dylan on Dylan’s groundbreaking, legendary Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975-76 forever solidified a place for the him in pop music history.
So what does the Kinkster, who celebrated his 71st birthday this month and lives outside Kerrville in Medina, in Texas Hill Country, see as his legacy in American music?
“None yet, I hope,” quips Friedman who, as an independent candidate, lost a 2006 gubernatorial election in Texas.
Does he recall his first encounter with Dylan?
“I never remember where I met anybody, but I’m pretty sure I met Bob on the gangplank of Noah’s Ark.”
Friedman remembers the rollicking Rolling Thunder Revue tour, which featured a hastily arranged band of musicians, including Roger McGuinn, Mick Ronson, Joan Baez, and T Bone Burnett. Dylan brought along poet Allen Ginsberg and actor/playwright Sam Shepard, and he kept adding musicians, including Joni Mitchell, to the caravan.
Shows with little advance notice in small Northeastern theaters kicked off the tour in fall 1975, and the second leg concluded in 1976 with a Colorado stadium concert that was taped for national TV and a show at Salt Lake City’s Salt Palace. Dylan and some of his band made celebrated stops at Jack Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Massachusetts, and one in New Jersey where boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was imprisoned for a triple murder. A benefit concert to free Carter — the subject of Dylan’s 1975 single, “Hurricane” — was held at New York’s Madison Square Garden and included Mitchell, Robbie Robertson, Roberta Flack, and Muhammad Ali.
“It was a big, friendly blur,” Friedman recalls. “All Dylan’s security guys on that tour were friendly, really warm people. And all the stars were not prima donnas. They gave some brilliant performances. A snake rots from the head down. Bob’s style made everybody on tour proud of being there.”
Friedman says he somewhat got into trouble during one Rolling Thunder Revue show when the audience kept laughing and talking after one of his songs. The audience didn’t settle down when Dylan followed with a relatively unknown song. “I thought I was going to get dumped from the tour,” he recalls. “I told Bob to play something the next night that the audience recognized, like ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ and Bob did that.”
Friedman says another memorable moment of the tour was when Dylan gave his Nudie jacket — adorned with the face of Jesus and palm trees — to him. Friedman later gave the jacket to charities, and it was bought in an auction for $7,500 by the Hard Rock Cafe in Tel Aviv. Dylan eventually asked him what happened to the jacket, and, when Friedman told him about the sale to the Hard Rock, Dylan replied: “Bad move.”
Friedman says Dylan was right, because “seven years of bad luck followed for the Kinkster.” It “was cosmically a bad move,” he says.
Dylan, Friedman, Dennis Hopper, and other Rolling Thunder Revue musicians went to Yelapa, Mexico, for some R&R. “Everything that happened in Yelapa in 1976 must remain off the record,” Friedman says about the musicians’ stay at the small coastal town in southwestern Mexico.
But then he shares a little about the trip. “It was a spontaneous thing,” Friedman says. “Bob brought his guitar to a deserted beach, and, like magic, when he took the guitar out, people showed up. He was wearing his black leather outfit. He felt a chilly wind that others couldn’t feel. He was feeling like the king of the gypsies — his wife had left him and he had other problems. Like anyone else, Bob had his ups and downs.”
Friedman, who now promotes Nicaraguan-made Kinky Friedman Signature Series cigars and his Man In Black tequila on his website, says he last saw Dylan two or three years ago in Austin.
“Bob’s a very funny guy,” he says. “And part of that is because he is Bob Dylan. I remember we couldn’t get into a Fort Worth hotel because the hotel clerk wanted to see Bob’s driver’s license, and Bob didn’t have one with him.”
Friedman says he and Dylan shared a love — “not at the same time” — for “a girl from the north country” in the Midwest. They “lost her or let her slip from our fingers,” and both “were inspired by her,” he says, adding that the love interest was not the one cited in Dylan’s famous song “Girl from the North Country.”
The person may have been the same one as the woman in Tom Waits’ song “Christmas from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” jokes Friedman, who covers the song on his new album. “I was not trying to do an educational tool for millennials with this record,” he says.
The release of The Loneliest Man I Ever Met and the current national tour to promote the album were done with an awareness “that we have to navigate in a Miley Cyrus world,” says Friedman, the author of such songs as “Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” “High on Jesus,” and “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore.”
Many musicians, including his friend Willie Nelson, who plays on Friedman's new album, are very high on the Nashville scene and its benefits for country artists, Friedman says. He himself has no love for the Nashville music scene, though. Songs there are written by committee with an aim of making big money, he says, and, after all the important music Johnny Cash made, Friedman says Cash couldn’t get a record deal in Nashville.
“Warren Zevon described it perfectly: ‘Our Shit’s Fucked Up,’” Friedman says.
That Zevon declaration is also a song Friedman recorded on his new album. Zevon wrote the song about his failing health, but Friedman apparently likes to use the title to describe the music business, politics, and world or regional affairs. “Neil Young, Keith Richards and Bob Dylan loved Zevon,” he says. “He wrote so many beautiful songs like ‘Carmelita,’ and it’s a great tragedy that ‘Werewolves of London’ is his big hit.”
Zevon, one of America’s best and most underrated songwriters, died of cancer in 2003. But in his life, he was often a tour de force in concert — a powerful, booming presence even during solo shows.
“Jackson Browne helped Warren enormously early in his career,” Friedman says. “Jackson is a really important musician, but Warren is more significant today — and not because he died. It’s hard to be significant.”
Friedman says another powerful performer, Bo Diddley, gave the best concert he has seen — a long time ago in New York’s Greenwich Village. “Tom Waits and I once saw Bo Diddley together in the Village. It wasn’t a formal date, but we had a good time anyway. I just remember Tom said, ‘Remind me if I ever get to that age, not to let me get on stage.’”
An Ernest Tubb concert at the Skyline Club in Austin in 1957 most influenced Friedman as a musician. “Inspiration is a hard thing to define,” Friedman says. You didn’t really know what was going on in Ernest’s head, but he was a star, a real pro. Where it comes from nobody knows, but it tells you that you want to be that guy.”
Talking about music and musicians, though, is not how Friedman wants his interview to end.
“Do you want to hear my political preference?” he asks.
“I’m supporting Bernie Sanders, because I want to see a Jew in the White House!” he says with a mischievous howl. “If he wins, it will be the first time a Jewish family moved into a place where a black family just moved out.”