When Kinky Friedman performed last year at New York’s now shuttered B.B. King’s, he brought along with him a new five-song EP entitled Resurrected.
When he returned Sunday night for a show at City Winery, he had in hand what Resurrected only hinted at--his just-released Circus of Life, his first new album entirely of original material in four decades.
“It all started one night at the ranch,” Friedman said after the City Winery gig, referring to his home on a ranch in Echo Hill, Texas.
“I was watching Matlock reruns at 3 a.m. when Willie Nelson called and asked what I was doing--and I told him. ‘That’s a sure sign of depression!’ he said. ‘Turn Matlock off, Kinky, and start writing!’ So mildly inspired by Willie, I started writing and somehow produced 12 songs mostly triggered by personal events and tragedy. It’s very different from other things I’ve written, so much so that I’ve been called by several critics ‘the Leonard Cohen of Texas.’”
Indeed, Friedman, famed for frequently laugh-out-loud funny and politically incorrect performances, as well as often ironically moving songs like “Ride ‘Em Jewboy” and “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” recorded and performed in the 1970s with his notorious outlaw country band Kinky Friedman & The Texas Jewboys, said that Nelson’s classic 1975 album Red Headed Stranger served as the template for Circus of Life.
“It’s very sparse and simple,” he said, crediting producer Brian Molnar (also a singer-songwriter and Friedman’s opening act on his current summer tour--one of his longest ever).
“He didn’t have anything to work with other than some very talented musicians [including Nelson’s longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael, legendary Texas keyboardist Augie Meyers and original Texas Jewboy Little Jewford], and it’s not overproduced and sanitized like so much of the stuff coming out of Nashville, where production seems to be everything--but with nothing to deliver.”
Also referred to by Friedman as “The Matlock Collection,” Circus of Life starts with “A Dog Named Freedom,” which recounts a train trip to Texas with a three-legged canine traveling companion that manages to evoke Willie Nelson, Vietnam, and Bob Dylan—with whom Friedman famously toured as part of the Rolling Thunder Revue. Its first single, “Autographs in the Rain (Song to Willie)” is getting heavy play on SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country channel.
Other noteworthy album tracks include the unexpectedly affecting "Jesus in Pajamas," about a dirty, disheveled and drooling supplicant at a Denny's in Dallas, who begs for help only to be "left on the cross again." As for the titletrack, "Circus of Life" likewise sounds the sense of sadness and loss so present in Friedman's earlier songs, and when performed live with the others, leaves listeners in stunned silence.
“The album runs very deep--and finds people it needs to find,” continued Friedman. “Brian produced it at the ranch, and while it’s very different from what’s coming out of Nashville these days, I think the pendulum is swinging back our way to the small independent record label that breaks every rule it can: If it ain’t broke, break it!”
Circus of Life is in fact the first release on Friedman’s new Echo Hill Records indie label (Molnar has his own new album on Echo Hill Records, Within Blue).
Friedman said that he’s already received “over the top” reviews from publications including No Depression and Americana Highways. Rolling Stone premiered the titletrack online in May while characterizing the full album as “rooted in Texas-sized tall tales, atmospheric autobiography, Leonard Cohen-worthy musings and the vocal delivery of his fellow Lone Star statesman, Willie Nelson.”
“It’s not ‘tailgating parties for teenagers,’ written by committee, for radio play,’” said Friedman, returning to contemporary country music radio and promotion. “That’s their target, and it sounds like background music for frat parties. It’s okay, but we’re not doing that at all, and not promoting it the same way the record companies do--and we don’t care if a song’s too smart for the room.”
Putting it another way, Friedman added, “We don’t want be in the mainstream. The mainstream delivers very little--it’s always outside the mainstream where significant things happen.”
And Circus of Life is significant.
“It’s different from what anybody’s done before,” said Friedman. “It sounds like something Kristofferson wrote when he was the most talented janitor in Nashville! But it’s very hard for a serious soul to be taken seriously--double-hard once you’ve done comedy stuff like I have.”
Still, Friedman now expects “great spiritual legs” for Circus of Life.
“I don’t know how many people at 73 who are writing at the top of their game, and this is the top of my game,” he concluded.
Meanwhile, Friedman, who became a celebrated essayist and mystery novelist in the long interim between albums entirely of original material, is assisting Bob Dylan’s boyhood friend Louie Kemp on a memoir, while also finishing what he says is the final Kinky Friedman mystery--The Tin Can Telephone.
Kinky Friedman performs "Jesus in Pajamas" from his new album "Circus of Life"