Kinky Friedman performed at a different New York venue Saturday night (Union Pool in Brooklyn) and in a new format, touring solo with fellow Texas singer-songwriter Dale Watson for the first time. Together they packed the tiny standing-room performance space so tightly that those in front were crammed right up against the stage.
Billed as the Lone Star Legends Tour, the two take turns opening, and Friedman closed out the Union Pool show—with a mid-set assist from Watson.
Friedman, in typical black attire, came out with Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” which he’d released on his 1995 album From One Good American to Another, a compilation of previously unreleased material culled from several sources. The song, in which Guthrie famously contrasted the notorious Depression-era bank robber with foreclosing bankers, ends with the line “You won’t never see an outlaw drive a family from their home”—a perfect tone-setter for Friedman, who as ever, veered back-and-forth between uproarious political incorrectness and incredibly moving original songs, several from his acclaimed album from last year Circus of Life.
The album was Friedman’s first to contain all new original material in 40 years, and resulted, he related, from a 3 a.m. phone call from Willie Nelson while he was watching a Matlock rerun—a sure sign of depression, according to Nelson, who suggested that instead, Friedman should return to writing songs. Then again, when Friedman later called Nelson a month later to report that he had in fact penned a dozen new songs thanks to the advice, Nelson asked which channel Matlock was on.
Hence, Friedman now refers to the songs on Circus of Life as “The Matlock Collection,“ and from it he culled, for the Union Pool set, the weary-wise “Autographs in the Rain (Song to Willie)” and the poignant lead track “A Dog Named Freedom,” said dog being a three-legged one accompanying an equally down but not out handler on a train trip to Texas. He noted how he had written a dozen songs in the month following Nelson’s call—his songwriting having lain fallow the preceding 40 years—and that the stripped-down album that came out of it proved you could make a great record without a recording studio.
"A Dog Named Freedom"
And then he announced that the sudden spurt of creativity has continued, and that he’s now wrapping up another album of new material, due for release this summer and produced by multi-instrumentalist—and like Friedman, a former associate of Bob Dylan--Larry Campbell.
“Larry’s proved that you can make a great record with a recording studio!” declared Friedman, who offered his own proof with a wonderful song—another wonderful dog song--from the new album, “Dog in the Sky,” about a dearly departed best friend, Mister P.
“Mister P was dropped off by a friend who was dying of cancer,” said Friedman, who has six dogs and donates all sales of his Man in Black Tequila to benefit the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch in Echo Hill, Texas, where Friedman lives on the grounds of the children’s camp his family operated for many years. At first, Mister P wasn’t too happy about his new home, though, and “bit the s**t out of my hand,” related The Kinkster.
“But he then became my shadow,” Friedman wistfully related, “until he disappeared. Now Mister P is a dog in the sky.”
Again, it was all very moving, as so many, if not most, of Friedman’s songs are, even the most politically incorrect-titled ones like “Ride ‘Em, Jewboy,” his mournful yet remarkably hopeful lonesome trail song about the Holocaust, from his 1973 debut album Sold American--for which one young gal who arrived long after its release could be seen holding up a cellphone to read the lyrics and sing along with everyone else.
Then again, he also did the dreadfully incorrect Kinky chestnut “Okie from Muskogee” parody “A**hole from El Paso,” prefaced here by tasteless but undeniably funny (depending, of course, on which side of the aisle you’re on) political jibes at the likes of Mitt Romney, Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi and his fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke, and embellished by an assist from tour mate Watson. But his expression of sentiment afterward was touching indeed.
“This relationship is getting stronger,” he said of his new road companion, spelling it out thusly: “Never above you, never below you--always by your side.”
Such is the dichotomy of Kinky Friedman in a nutshell: Satirical political incorrectness on one side, heartfelt personal connection—not to mention deep social consciousness/conscience--on the other. Also from the latter side came songs like “Jesus in Pajamas,” from “The Matlock Collection,“ about a dirty, disheveled and drooling supplicant begging for help at a Denny’s in Dallas only to be “left on the cross again”--as unpredictably affecting as “Ride ‘Em Jewboy.”
And for every raucous “Homo Erectus” —performed, from his self-titled 1974 second album—there’s at least four to match the gravitas of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” the much-recorded (Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, and Friedman, on his 1976 album Lasso from El Paso) Peter La Farge song relating the tragic life of the one Native American among the six Marines who raised the flag during the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima. Prior to singing it—and when he did it was to sudden silence from the boisterous crowd--Friedman hailed Hayes as his favorite American hero.
"The Ballad of Ira Hayes"
He closed with a tribute to another hero, one of 23—including Willie Nelson, Barbara Jordan, Davey Crockett and Ann Richards--profiled in his 2009 book Heroes of a Texas Childhood. The reading was the chapter devoted to Tom Friedman, Kinky’s father.
Tom Friedman, recited his son, had been a heroic B-24 bomber navigator during World War II, and with his wife, opened Echo Hill Ranch, the children’s summer camp, in 1953: “He is a significant American because by his example, his spirit, and his unseen hand, he has guided children of all ages safely through the winding, often torturous courses of their lives,” his son said, adding, “One of them was me.”
Again, the crowd was rapt, and remained so during his coda, “Sold American.” Before exiting, he imparted: “Remember: If you fall on your face, you’re still moving forward.”
“There was a lot of love in the room,” he was overheard saying later, moments after reading aloud, from the Tom Friedman chapter, “love has no ‘sell by’ date.”