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Kinky Friedman Comes Home

At 74, is country music’s most rebellious renaissance man finally ready to be himself?

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Kinky Friedman, the Seventies country provocateur behind songs like "Ride 'Em Jewboy," looks inward on the new album 'Circus of Life.'

Ken Swartz

Kinky Friedman cracks a mischievous smile as a fan hands him a Kinky Friedman Talking Action Figure. Surrounded by a smattering of onlookers, Friedman, cigar in mouth, leans down and presses the button on the toy, a remnant from the country singer’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign in Texas.

“If you elect me the first Jewish governor of the state of Texas, I’ll reduce the speed limit to 54.95.”

“That one was hard to overcome,” Friedman, beaming, looks up and says before letting the action figure cycle through some of the irreverent Friedman campaign slogans.

“I’m not pro-life. I’m not pro-choice. I’m pro football!”

“I’ll sign anything but bad legislation.”

“I’m gonna de-wussify Texas if I’ve gotta do it one wuss at a time.”

“One wuss at a time,” Friedman says, chuckling to himself, as the small crowd encircling the singer erupts in laughter.

“I support gay marriage: They have every right to be just as miserable as the rest of us.”

“I’ve got a head of hair better than Rick Perry’s; it’s just not in a place I can show ya.”

“That’s some brilliant shit,” Friedman, still grinning, says to the crowd. “All of my fucking brains; it’s right there…. If I had gotten a fucking talking-action figure to every single Texan, I would have won the election,” Friedman, who earned an astounding 12 percent of the vote running as an Independent, announces, before admitting, “We probably would have had a scandal-ridden administration. Let’s face it.” Friedman abandons the action figure and zooms over to a nearby table to take a shot of tequila with his fans.

“Can someone remind me the Irish way of saying ‘l’chaim’?” he shouts to no one in particular.

It’s a midsummer evening in rural New Jersey, and Friedman, dressed in his trademark outfit of black leather boots, black jeans, a black jacket, black sunglasses and a black cowboy hat, is doing what Kinky Friedman does best: schmoozing with fans. The Kinkster, as he is sometimes called, is signing autographs, taking selfies, rattling off one-liners and flaunting obscure campaign memorabilia before taking the stage for one of the last shows of a grueling monthlong tour — 21 shows in 22 days — that Kinky has booked in support of his new album, Circus of Life.

Circus of Life, his first collection of original material in 35 years, represents something of a tectonic shift for Friedman, who, at 74 years old, has turned again to songwriting after a three-decade detour as a novelist, columnist, failed politician, and traveling personal brand ambassador.

But the songs Friedman has resumed writing in the last few years bear little resemblance to the trailblazing, incredibly fringe country records that he became infamous for in the early Seventies. Those albums — 1973’s Sold American and 1974’s Kinky Friedman — were sardonic, sarcastic put-ons that established Friedman as the outlaw’s outlaw, a Jewish Vaudeville-indebted honky-tonk provocateur who, among his cohort of singers that included Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, was willing to go the furthest, for better and for worse, to defy, disobey and make an outright mockery of just about every convention and standard of decency in country music.

Friedman became most well-known for button-pushing songs like “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed,” and “We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You,” thorny missives that walked a delicate, constantly blurry line between satire and seriousness, between pointed social commentary masked as reactionary shock antics and reactionary shock antics masked as pointed social commentary. Sometimes, Friedman’s songs lampooned small-minded bigotry; sometimes, those songs embodied that bigotry so fully that the line between parody and seriousness became meaningless; and sometimes, those songs used a veneer of humorous irony and satire to traffic in edgy intolerance.

As virtually the only Jewish country singer operating out of Nashville in the Seventies, Friedman made his religious identity the central operating subject and object of his caricatured satire. But his work did not shy away from addressing, however clumsily, any number of topics one normally would not find in a three-minute country hit: abortion, mass shootings, post-civil rights race relations in the South, the Holocaust.

Friedman’s new songs are something else. They’re heartfelt, late-in-life reflections and spiritual meditations on salvation and regret, and largely devoid of humor. Most notably, they’re entirely stripped of the caustic wit that earned Friedman a beloved cult following but also banished him from ever earning the type of late-career recognition and adulation as a Seventies outlaw-country pioneer that many of his contemporaries enjoyed.

After a lifetime of being Kinky, Circus of Life feels, in a sense, like the debut offering from Richard Friedman, Friedman’s birth name. “It seemed to me like it was written by another person,” he says of the new album. “That’s all I can say.” Circus of Life is a collection of first-person revelations, earnest confessions to lifelong friends and regretful remembrances of long-forsaken love. “Each one,” he says of the new songs, “has a dead sweetheart or a lost cat or something in it.”

“What he’s doing is creating something beautiful out of some of the difficult roads and sorrows that he’s traveled,” says Roger Friedman, the entertainer’s younger brother and former manager. “The work he’s doing now is as sophisticated lyrically as his earlier work, but it is deeper, more personal.… He sings each song as if they happen to him, and most of these new songs did happen to him. There’s a gravitas and a charisma that comes from that that he didn’t have before, because it brings with it some vulnerability, a vulnerability he never would have tolerated in himself long ago.”

Friedman’s latest writing kick has not stopped with Circus of Life. Within months of releasing the album, he already had written close to another record’s worth of material. When I speak with him in October, he’s about to demo those songs for a potential 2019 EP that he plans on calling Mandela’s Blues. He hopes his former bandmate Buddy Miller might produce the collection. “These are songs for the lonely beekeeper, which is a title I struggle with,” is how he describes his material, which he says was written in the same surge of renewed creative spark that brought about Circus.

When he’s not on tour, Friedman lives alone at home at his family ranch in central Texas. He does not own a computer, or use e-mail, and writes exclusively by typewriter or longhand. He smokes eight cigars a day. When he takes a vacation, it’s typically to Las Vegas, where he spends his days glued to the slot machines.

Friedman’s early unconventional songs earned him famous fans like Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, who serve today as the foremost of the legion of celebrities, artists, novelists and politicians (including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton) that Friedman is proud to rattle off.

These days, Friedman is somewhat unnervingly fixated on Dylan and Nelson, in particular. Songs devoted to both of them appear on Circus of Life. He is currently at work on a memoir he’s co-authoring about Dylan with Dylan’s childhood friend Louie Kemp, a project he relishes in promoting at most any given opportunity. As for his old friend Nelson, whom Friedman refers to as “my psychiatrist,” Friedman name-drops the Texas legend almost compulsively. He solely credits a recent pick-me-up phone call from Nelson as the inspiration for Circus of Life (“I told Willie I was watching Matlock. He said, ‘That’s a sure sign of depression. Turn Matlock off, Kinky, and start writing'”). During our series of conversations that ranged three some-odd hours, Friedman uttered the name “Willie” 54 times.

Today, Friedman’s records are mostly out of print. At this point, he plays mainly small bars and tiny clubs, sometimes to no more than a few dozen people at a time. But Friedman has a strong, unshakable belief that something might finally be changing with Circus of Life. SiriusXM has been playing it. For the first time, young listeners are starting to discover Friedman on Spotify. The singer’s stature has grown immensely in Europe over the past few years.

“I have a strong feeling that the last record really got out there, in a spiritual way,” Friedman says of his new work, which has replaced his older, more outlandish material as the centerpiece of his live show.

As he begins, for the first time, to reveal some parts of himself in his music in his eighth decade, the question remains: Who, then, is Kinky Friedman? Throughout his entire life, the Kinky persona has thrived on its dizzying swell of contradictions: part vaudeville showman; part astute Twain-and-Vonnegut-indebted social satirist; part consummate personal brand salesman; part nihilistic song-and-dance man; part boundary-pushing forward-thinker; part reactionary anti-political correctness crusader; part militant Texas populist; part celebrity name-dropping elite.

“Kinky is who he is,” says Larry McMurtry, the legendary Texas novelist who once arrived at a Texas literary festival in the Nineties to find that Kinky Friedman had taken McMurtry’s name tag and was impersonating the legendary author. “He’s innately fun, ballsy, and a natural-born entertainer.” Roger Friedman thinks the question is more complicated. “These professional names that we develop help us hide from our vulnerability,” says Friedman’s brother, who works today as a clinical psychologist in Maryland. “I think that over time, for my brother, he’s lost Richard Friedman, who I think was too scary for him. It’s the Dorian Gray idea: You become your mask.”

At 74, is it possible that Kinky Friedman has rediscovered Richard Friedman? If he has, it’s not entirely clear on this night in New Jersey, where Friedman is, one might say, back on his bullshit. He is cycling through his favorite topics — the vile “motherfuckers” that make up Nashville’s country music establishment (he calls modern country “fraternity party music”), the many wisdoms of Willie Nelson, the projects and side-hustles he is constantly promoting, his latest album-sales numbers and concert-attendance figures, and the many modern plagues infecting contemporary American culture. “I’m very well adjusted to a sick society,” he says.

Among a sea of admirers and acolytes, Friedman is easily distracted, nearly constantly lighting and relighting his cigar and quickly abandoning particular trains of thought as he switches from one talking point to the next. At the moment, he is particularly enthralled by his routine of trashing Nashville. “Fuck ’em and feed ’em Fruit Loops,” is how he describes modern country-music record-making.

“Most guys my age are masturbating like a monkey in a mental hospital, they’re not really performing.”

When a fan asks him a question, he snaps back: “Speak up. I’m fucking deaf, and I’m enjoying every minute of it.”

“Kerrville’s finest!” another fan shouts. “The almost governor of Texas! I voted absentee many times over. I voted often!”

Friedman cracks a grin, his cigar never leaving his mouth. He leans over and says to me, “You start running on pure adrenaline after a while,” referring to his marathon tour pace, which allows for virtually no downtime between gigs, no time to stop being Kinky.

“Most guys my age are masturbating like a monkey in a mental hospital, they’re not really performing.” The implication being that Kinky the showman, on the other hand, is very much still performing, that being Kinky requires some sort of constant performance.

Friedman is still an oddly magnetic entertainer, though his brand of showmanship is exceedingly hard to make sense of in 2018. In an era when there’s an increasing compulsion to neatly divide and sort the world into competing ideological camps, Friedman resists all easy categorization. Onstage, he will preface his haunting rendition of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” a folk standard made famous by Johnny Cash that vocalizes the plight of the famous Native American WWII veteran, with a series of dated, insensitive Native American jokes.

As soon as he ends his set, Friedman, the consummate politician, walks into the crowd and begins shaking the hand of each audience member. Earlier in the night, before he had departed the pre-show crowd to get ready for the show by himself, he had told me to call him as soon as he got back to his ranch in Texas in a few days. “The index of my life is pretty empty,” he says, and the smile disappeared from his face before he vanished into the crowd.

Richard Friedman was born in Chicago in 1944. A month after his birth, Richard’s father, Tom Friedman, who had served in World War II, was discharged from the Air Force. The following year, the Friedmans moved to Houston after Tom received a job offer organizing an interfaith religious council. Although the Friedmans faced no outright prejudice as Jews in Houston, Mary Lou Sullivan writes that “the alienation of growing up as a Jew in Texas — where ‘kike’ was a common slur, and ‘No Jews or Dogs’ signs were not unusual — permeated Kinky’s early years.” When Kinky was 7, his parents, young Jewish progressives who loved working with children, bought a ranch outside San Antonio and opened up a summer camp called Echo Hill Ranch.

As a kid, Richard had not yet transformed into the all-encompassing personality of Kinky, but he loved entertaining his friends and family. He began writing humorous songs as a teenager, including an early campaign song for a classmate running for fire marshal in junior high school in Houston. At Echo Hill, where he spent his summers, Richard met Jeff Shelby, his longtime musical partner who’d soon become known as Little Jewford (“He’s a Jew and drives a Ford,” Kinky likes to says) when he became a founding member of Friedman’s band the Texas Jewboys.

“The precursors of the Jewboys were definitely at Echo Hill,” Shelby says in Everything’s Bigger in Texas, Sullivan’s 2017 biography of Kinky Friedman. “The bits and repartee, the characterizations, and certainly the musicality.” As a kid, Richard Friedman became equally obsessed with country music and Texas mythology. He idolized Hank Williams just as he became captivated by the ideal of the Texas cowboy. Speaking today, Roger describes his brother’s art, in essence, as a lifelong project in untangling his many clashing selves.

“How do you be a cowboy and a Jew and a Texan and an American and a son of liberal immigrants and a white man?” he asks. “How do you integrate all of these identities?” Friedman moved to Austin for college, where, taking after his socialist father, he became politically active, joining radical activist group Students for a Democratic Society and organizing to integrate local businesses and fraternities at the University of Texas. He also began to take songwriting more seriously. During Friedman’s senior year, in 1966, a student named Charles Whitman shot and killed 14 people, inspiring Friedman to write an impossibly dark, jarringly upbeat song called “The Ballad of Charles Whitman.”

Kinky Friedman and his longtime friend Willie Nelson, in 2012.

But it would be seven years before that song would wind up on Friedman’s debut album. After college, Friedman enrolled in the Peace Corps. He spent two years in Borneo, Indonesia, entirely disconnected from the socio-political-artistic sea change of the late Sixties that his generation was experiencing back home. When Friedman returned from the South Pacific, he moved to Nashville to become a songwriter. Friedman’s life as a behind-the-scenes professional country songwriter never panned out, but it’s a dream he still hasn’t given up, almost 50 years later. As much as he disdains the country music establishment, he remains hopeful that the positive reception Circus of Life has been receiving could eventually lead to one of his new songs being recorded by artists such as Toby Keith or Garth Brooks. Back in the early Seventies, when it became clear that Friedman would have to sing his own songs if he wanted anyone to ever hear them, he was initially reticent.

“The idea of him being a performing artist was not something he was very comfortable with,” says Roger, who moved to Nashville around this time to manage his brother’s musical career. One way Richard Friedman dealt with the discomfort of playing his own personal material for crowds was to begin to develop a persona. To start, he would use an old nickname he had been given in college: Kinky.

“I didn’t think the name Richard Friedman was a good name for a struggling country artist of the outlandish type I had imagined,” he told Sullivan in 2017. From the onset, Kinky Friedman’s act in Nashville was a mix of boundary-pushing humor, old-world theatrics and aggressive confrontation. He began provoking music-industry professionals from New York to Los Angeles to Nashville long before he released his debut, Sold American, in 1973, when he named his live outfit Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys.

Despite playing old-fashioned, unabashed country music, Friedman developed a following among New York intellectuals and artists, a combination that made for a confusing career path. Friedman’s first tour found the singer performing at the Grand Ole Opry one night and Max’s Kansas City the next. Being one of the only other Jewish country music performers in Nashville in the early Seventies, Mickey Raphael, Willie Nelson’s longtime harmonica player, remembers being enthralled with Friedman’s act the first time he saw it.

“I thought he was brilliant, and very brave,” says Raphael, who played on Circus of Life. “I got the joke, but I wouldn’t have wanted to stand too close to him at that time. I still keep my distance. It was like, ‘That’s funny, but don’t say you know me.’”

At one point during that time, Raphael gave Kinky Friedman an idea for a song title: “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore.” Friedman loved the idea, and soon turned it into what would become one of his signature songs, an obscene, absurdist story of a bigoted “redneck nerd” drunkenly talking religion and race with a Southern Jew.

“What Kinky was doing then is what Sacha Baron Cohen is doing now. He was totally ahead of his time,” says Raphael. “He was digging and hitting right on that sense of anti-Semitism. It’s the idea of, ‘If you come to grips and put all this stuff out in the open, it dulls the bite.’”

“They Ain’t Making Jews” was one of Friedman’s many early attempts to make his identity as a Texas Jew the focal point of both his art and his public persona through outlandish humor. According to Sullivan, the singer’s early stage outfit included a cowboy shirt with embroidered Stars of David and menorahs, as well as a “weird thing around his neck that looked like a miniature gold purse.”

Although he was not consciously aware of such a tradition, the Cowboy Jew archetype Friedman was drawing on in the Seventies was a decades-old Jewish vaudeville trope, dating back to popular early-20th century Jewish minstrel songs that found Jewish entertainers playing up accentuated stereotypes for humor. Songs like “I’m a Yiddish Cowboy” and “Yonkel, the Jewish Cowboy” spoke to a specific subset of that style of music that centered around ethnic humor and slapstick: the premise of a Jewish frontiersman and rugged cowboy was a near-contradiction in terms, as the gag went, a scenario inherently set up for laughs.

Kinky Friedman’s music mixed his love for straight-ahead classic country à la Hank Williams and Hank Snow with a postmodern, pseudo-nihilistic rendering of those early-20th century vaudeville tropes. Within the span of just a few years, Friedman transformed from a shy songwriter uncertain about putting his own face behind his music to a performer whose stage persona began to take prominence over the complex, commanding songs he was writing.

From the beginning, Kinky courted controversy and solicited press attention. Some songs from that era, like “Asshole From El Paso,” were obscene exercises in piling on layers of meta-parody until the songs simply became little more than thigh-slapping rhetorical violence passed off as anarchic farce. That song was a parody of Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” itself a thorny mix of right-wing parody and genuine conservative resentment whose meaning was entirely unfixed and subject to the whims of its context.

When asked to reflect on whether or not he ever felt like he walked on the wrong side of prejudice and parody in his older music, Friedman shrugs off the question.

“I’ve always said bigots need to be entertained, too. It’s just entertainment,” he says, before changing the subject back to promoting his new album.

“In a way, Kinky was like the court jester of country music, the ‘don’t give a shit’ prankster of country,” says Ben Hoffman, who, like Friedman, performs self-consciously belligerent country music under the brash, all-consuming alter-ego of Wheeler Walker Jr. “He was the guy who said, ‘Guys, don’t forget this is showbiz. We’re not wearing cowboy hats because it’s too sunny onstage. We’re all wearing a costume. We’re all dicking around. So why are you more serious than me? Because you pretend that you actually wear the cowboy hat and the boots when you’re offstage?'”

“It was this mix of fearless Texas chutzpah that defied everybody. I admire that character trait in anybody,” says the blues singer Taj Mahal, a longtime admirer of Friedman. “There are people like Ken Kesey, Frank Zappa, Stanley Crouch and Charles Bukowski who never held back. Even if you didn’t agree with them, you can hear what they’re saying. They show you how they think. Kinky is outstanding among that group of men.”

Before his generation of contemporaries had figured out how to brand themselves as “outlaws,” Friedman perfected the image of the indignant country music outsider. His contemporaries, like Waylon Jennings, openly pondered at the time why they weren’t garnering the type of attention as Friedman, who, despite selling virtually no records, was appearing on Saturday Night Live and receiving constant coverage in Rolling Stone.

Throughout the mid-Seventies, Friedman gathered a cabal of famous friends and admirers. When he once showed up to a party at Roger McGuinn’s house in Los Angeles, he arrived to find Bob Dylan, sitting on the kitchen counter, strumming along to Friedman’s song “Ride ‘Em Jewboy.”

These days, Friedman is mostly interested in reflecting upon his satirical, button-pushing Seventies career to the degree that he now realizes it doomed his legitimate musical career. He is much prouder of his older, overlooked material that was more serious, like “Rapid City, South Dakota,” which he has referred to as “the first pro-choice country song” or the aforementioned “Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” a haunting reflection on the Holocaust that would later become, as one of his prized stories goes, one of Nelson Mandela’s favorite songs.

“I don’t get any credit for this shit,” Friedman says. “Once you come in as a comedian, as a funny, outrageous guy, it’s hard for people to take you seriously.” He describes his career as “the story, basically, of a failure. As opposed to Mariah Carey or Garth Brooks, this is a failure. I didn’t make it.”

After the peak of his trailblazing musical career fizzled out, Kinky never stopped being Kinky: the songwriting ended, but the character remained. As a result, Kinky Friedman has spent the bulk of his adult life inhabiting the persona that first gained him fame while actively trying to resist its limits and trappings. He spent much of the Eighties living in New York City, playing weekly shows at the Lone Star Cafe. During that time, Friedman became a heavy cocaine user.

“Kinky was living on Vandam Street, subletting, doing a lot of coke, and basically doing nothing with his life,” Friedman’s longtime friend and associate Larry “Ratso” Sloman told biographer Sullivan. Roger Friedman characterizes that time period more bluntly.

“He became somebody that I didn’t recognize as my brother,” he says. At one point, Friedman followed his manager’s advice to get away from drugs in New York and moved to Chappaqua, an upscale suburb north of the city.

“It was not the highlight of my life,” Friedman says when asked what he remembers about that period.

By then, Friedman had stopped writing songs altogether, and in the mid-Eighties he decided to reinvent himself as an author of meta-mystery novels, most of which featured a humorous, charismatic narrator and protagonist named “Kinky Friedman.”

Friedman’s novels eventually gained more of an audience than his music ever had, and the singer-turned-novelist enjoyed a second career in the Nineties and early Aughts. Friedman befriended Bill Clinton, a huge fan of his novels, as well as fellow Texan George W. Bush. In 1998, he founded the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch, an animal shelter and dog-rescue organization based at Friedman’s home ranch in Medina, Texas, to which Friedman returned after his stint in New York and where he still lives today.

All the while, the Kinky legend and brand continued to grow, particularly in Texas. In 2001 Friedman began his decadelong tenure as a columnist at Texas Monthly, where his humorous musings on family, state politics and Texas history earned him a following as a Lone Star state original. Friedman decided to run for governor of Texas in 2005, emboldened by former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura’s surprise tenure as Minnesota governor in the early Aughts. He hired Ventura’s campaign chairman, Dean Barkley, and settled on the campaign slogan “Why the Hell Not.”

In retrospect, Friedman’s quixotic gubernatorial campaign — part burlesque farce, part entirely serious — which earned him more than half a million votes as a partially liberal, partially conservative Independent candidate, feels like an eerily prescient precursor to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Both candidates ran with a mix of attention-grabbing humor and burn-it-all-down nihilism; both made railing against political correctness and corrupt mainstream politicians a cornerstone of their campaign; both befriended Bill O’Reilly and floated the idea of a border wall (Friedman called it a “fence”); both garnered an enormous amount of free publicity from a bemused, voyeuristic national media; and both campaigns revolved around each candidate’s bulletproof personal brand and hypnotic cult of personality.

Friedman, who considers himself a Sixties-era Democrat, is sympathetic, if not outright supportive, of Trump’s presidency, much to the shock and chagrin of his largely left-leaning fan base.

“My politics are pretty jumbled and mostly fueled by bitterness,” the singer admits. Friedman, who is nothing if not a solipsist, sees Trump through the prism of someone who pulled off what he himself could not. “If I had had some kind of Karl Rove kind of guy with me and could have cajoled my way into the Republican or Democratic primary,” he says, “I think I could have won.”

Friedman reserves one of his highest compliments for the current president: “Trump has pawn-shop balls,” he says. More specifically, he is admiring of Trump’s foreign-policy negotiations with North Korea and with his decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

When Friedman discusses the particulars of such issues, he sounds not unlike a typical Fox News junkie, prone at times to conspiracy theory. But the lifelong iconoclast bristles at the notion that his politics have become standard-fare elderly Republicanism. He would say instead that “a lot of people today who call themselves Democrats are not really Democrats.”

Friedman includes current Democratic Senate nominee Beto O’Rourke in that category, despite agreeing with the candidate on his pledge to end the war on drugs and legalize marijuana. He doesn’t think O’Rourke will win, though he does offer, “if all the people Willie ever supported and endorsed won, the world would probably be a better place.”

Asked what he dislikes about O’Rourke’s candidacy, Friedman recites one of Ted Cruz’s campaign talking points that O’Rourke failed to vote to provide funding for Israel’s missile defense. (At various times, both O’Rourke and Cruz have voted in support of and in opposition to such funding.)

Like many Jews of his generation, Friedman seems singularly fixated on Israel and Palestine. “I’m very pro-Jewish and pro-Israel,” he says, which is his way of saying that he’s aligned himself with the American right as the closest supporters of the current Israeli government’s aggressively Zionist, uncompromising policy-making.

Hearing Friedman discuss politics, I am taken with the idea that he has become, in some senses, the very sort of close-minded, insular Texan that he used to lampoon in his most incisive Seventies originals. “He’s so lost in the Fox News world,” says his brother Roger. “My father would roll over in his grave if he knew that. So would my mother.”

Asked to further expound on his attitude toward Trump, Friedman is typically evasive, reverting back to his trademark Texas humor. “It’s like what Billy Joe Shaver told me regarding Trump,” says Friedman, “He said, ‘Remember that Jesus rode in on a jackass.’”

Early last year, Kinky Friedman was sitting in a Denny’s in Dallas at three in the morning after a bad gig. He was homesick, worn-out and lonely.

“I was depressed as shit,” he says. At one point, a homeless man walked into the Denny’s asking for change. Friedman did not have any money to give, but after leaving the diner shortly after, he was overcome with a profound sense of guilt about not helping and returned to try to find him, only to realize that he was gone.

Friedman left Denny’s for good and made the 30-mile drive from Dallas to his hotel in Fort Worth. By the time he arrived, Friedman had written a new song, “Jesus in Pajamas,” recounting his night. The song, a stunning commentary on salvation and mercy, is the centerpiece of Circus of Life. Friedman describes it as “that fucking thing that encapsulates an entire world religion in three minutes.”

When Friedman performs the song live, the audience assumes, at first, that the song — which opens with the lines “Jesus in Pajamas/ Came at 3:16 one morning/ To a Denny’s by the freeway/ In the ancient town of Dallas” — is supposed to be funny, another left-field sarcastic take on religion from the Kinkster. Then, as Friedman puts it, arrives “a little Judy Garland moment where the song turns a corner. They wonder, ‘Jesus, is this serious or is this funny?’ and they conclude that not only is this serious, but that it’s coming right at them at 100 miles an hour.”

When I call Friedman at his ranch in Texas a few days after his gig in New Jersey, he sounds much more like the world-weary, lonely man who wrote “Jesus in Pajamas” than the high-energy huckster I had witnessed in person. I call in the late afternoon, and a groggy Friedman tells me he’s just woken up and will call me back shortly. Twenty minutes later, when Friedman calls, he’s in the middle of feeding hummingbirds, one of his favorite daily rituals at his ranch where he lives with his many dogs.

“I’ve always had a lot of animals, they’re kind of my family,” he says. The best part of coming home, he says, is greeting his dogs. “They’re very happy to see me.” He rattles off the list of his family of best friends: Sophia, Luigi, Duke, and Winston Randolph Spencer Churchill Friedman. “I buy them all the fancy stuff at Pets Plus,” he says. “The Friedmans are a rather spoiled lot, or maybe they’re not. You can’t really spoil a heart of gold.”

Friedman, a lifelong bachelor, dotes on his pets and hates leaving them for the road. “I’m married to the wind,” he once wrote, “and my children are my animals and the books I’ve written, and I love them all.” When we speak, Friedman is thinking back on fonder days. “At one time I had four girlfriends, four editors, four dogs and about a million hummingbirds,” he says. “Now I think I have one armadillo, four dogs, down to one editor, God knows how many girlfriends and still about a million hummingbirds.” Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Friedman begins to unload some of the immense grief he’s faced over the past year that came after several of his most beloved animals passed away.

“This has been a very sad year for me, animal-wise,” he says. “I lost Little Jewford, who was a little Donkey named after Little Jewford, then a deer on the property who had been tamed. He trusted other animals too much, and the coyotes got to him. That was Rodney, he was just like an angel. And then my dog Mr. P, who I lost. I had never had a dog like him before that was just like my shadow. That broke my heart. I don’t like to play favorites, but he really became my best friend.”

Friedman has written a song about Mr. P (“Goodbye Mr. P/A Dog in the Sky,” its called), that’s slated to be on Mandela’s Blues. After waiting nearly 40 years between records, the songwriter is already more than halfway done with his follow-up to Circus to Life. If, and it’s a considerable if, things go as well as he hopes, he has grand ideas to turn his ranch into a tourist attraction where he can perform in front of crowds without ever leaving home, much like Levon Helm, an old friend of Friedman’s, turned his upstate New York barn into a destination music venue in his later years.

How are songs suddenly coming to Friedman so effortlessly? He has a hypothesis.

“It could be that I’m just getting older,” he says. Friedman is more easily affected by what happens around him, especially if it involves mortality and loss. He wrote Circus of Life in the backdrop of life at the Medina ranch starting to slow down and unwind. Echo Hill summer camp, which had been operated by the Friedman family since the Fifties, shut down in 2013, just a few years before Friedman closed his animal shelter. To explain what he means, he describes a hypothetical scenario:

“If you were struck by lightning and fell off your perch right now, at [74], it might be a traumatic thing for me to have this interview terminated in such fashion. It might affect me more. I might write a song about you,” he says. “Whereas, if I were younger, I don’t think it would mean that much,” Friedman continues, his mind starting to wander, as it does quite often these days. “Some of it is, if you’re alone, if you don’t have a wife and kids… how would you feel if you were… it’s a little bit like living in a lighthouse, maybe. I mean, really, you’re on your own.” That’s all he has to say on the matter and changes the subject to Dylan and Nelson.

When I suggest to Mickey Raphael that throughout the process of getting to know Friedman I had been struck by a certain poignant sadness and loneliness lurking just beneath the surface, Raphael interrupts me. “Totally,” he says with emphasis. “Totally. I wasn’t going to go there, but yeah, he’s a lonely guy. He needs a nice girl.”

Brian Molnar, a New Jersey singer-songwriter who has become Friedman’s closest musical associate over the past decade, producing his last few records and touring frequently as his opening act, has more to say on the matter. “When Kinky says he’s depressed, he’s not lying,” says Molnar. “He is a pretty depressed guy, and he doesn’t do much about changing it. He’s got insomnia, but as he likes to point out, it keeps him working. But it can be tough to travel with him. He needs about a pot of coffee in the morning to get going. He’s all over the map emotionally.”

Speaking to Friedman at the ranch during our final conversation, it feels at times like he’s alternating, from one question to the next, between the old Kinky and the new Richard. When I ask him if anyone stills calls him Richard, he answers me as Kinky:

“Various women call me Richard. And they seem to not want to call me Kinky. Some do, some call me… well, my dad and Billy Joe Shaver always call me Kinko. There’s Kinks. Kinkster. Richard Kinky Big Dick Friedman is my full Christian name.”

But when I ask him if he thinks there’s a difference between Kinky and Richard, he answers, perhaps, as Richard. “I do. Somewhere I read that having an alter ego is a very good way of shielding yourself from suffering. I thought that was interesting.”

Before Friedman says goodbye, I ask him one more question. Has assuming the Kinky Friedman identity helped you process and shield yourself from your own difficulties in life?

“Yeah. It might be true. It might be true that Kinky Friedman is one thing and Richard is another,” he says. “God loved both of them.”

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