Sing It Again, Kinky

By Alexander F. Remington
Washington Post staff writer
Friday, August 22, 2008

"The only thing Jews and cowboys have in common is we both like to wear our hats indoors," says the rarely bareheaded Kinky Friedman, reached by phone at his Echo Hill Ranch in Texas. A novelist, magazine columnist, humorist, cigar maker, animal lover, Texas gubernatorial candidate and occasional touring country singer, he is playing the Birchmere on Thursday.

Friedman is coming by happenstance: Washington is on the way to Woodstock, where he is headed to see and play with his old buddy Levon Helm, drummer from the Band. Friedman will be joined on stage at both venues by longtime bandmate Little Jewford (Jeff Shelby) and old friend Washington Ratso (Larry Sloman).

He doesn't have a new album and hasn't written a song in decades, but he has a new book, "What Would Kinky Do?," and, ever the gracious entertainer, he welcomes autograph-seekers: "I will sign anything but bad legislation," he says in his usual sound-bite-like way. The show will feature the classic songs and stage banter he has been honing for years: Friedman is known as a funnyman who doesn't shy away from repeating his best lines.

Friedman first rose to semi-prominence in the 1970s with Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, styling the band's name after Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. He wrote traditional-sounding country songs with provocative or satirical lyrics, such as "Sold American," "We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You" and "Ride 'Em, Jewboy."

But he couldn't find mainstream success in America. So he turned to writing mystery novels starring an amateur detective named Kinky Friedman, writing 28 books since becoming a full-time author.

Then, in 2006, he ran for governor of Texas as an independent, using the slogan "Why the Hell Not?" and received 12 percent of the vote. He is seriously thinking about running again in 2010. This time, though, he'd be a Democrat.

Between the writing and the hustings, Friedman has been an infrequent performer. He still tours Europe every couple of years; after a successful few weeks there this summer, where he often sang to audiences younger than the songs, he is playing the East Coast for the first time in a decade.

His physical appearance (cowboy hat, mustache, cigar in mouth) looks just as it did in the '70s. So does his curly hair, the reason he got the nickname Kinky.

Sixty-three years ago, he was born Richard Friedman, but he has been Kinky for a long time. He occasionally refers to himself as "the Kinkster," which sounds like Kinky the persona rather than Kinky the man.

Onstage, he gets into character by thickening his Texas accent, warming the audience up with off-color anecdotes and one-liners that he reuses in columns from Texas Monthly, novels and -- as evidenced here -- interviews.

Interviewing him feels a bit like being in an audience: He uses all the same jokes, and although his tone is a bit more intimate, he rarely breaks the fourth wall. Offstage, he calls those reruns "literary echoes." He constantly references Mark Twain and clearly sees the humorist as one of his models, often sounding Twainlike himself. (As Friedman says, "Being funny is a serious thing.")

And he is serious about being funny. "I'm not really a simple kind of guy," he says. "I hate intellectuals, but I am one." He uses the redneck persona and accent to tell sharp truths. "Ride 'Em, Jewboy" is a country ballad that mourns the Holocaust with western and folk imagery: "So ride, ride 'em, Jewboy/Ride 'em all around the old corral/I'm, I'm with you, boy/If I've got to ride 6 million miles."

Other songs perform similar sleights of hand with genre. The 1973 song "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed" satirizes a stodgy anti-feminist; "Rapid City, South Dakota" is what Kinky calls "the first pro-choice country song"; "They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore" imagines a persecuted Jew taking matters into his own hands.

Within the humorist is an altruist. He says, "I think it's a real measure of your humanity, what you do when a stray creature crosses your path." In 1998, he co-founded Utopia Animal Rescue, an animal orphanage next to his ranch in Texas, and supports it with the profits from sales of one of his cigar lines, the Utopian.

"What Would Kinky Do?" is mostly a retrospective of his column, but he's not quite in retread mode just yet. The themes he has sung and written and stumped about have endured, but he continues to refine them, as he admits on one of the rare occasions that he breaks character: "I always say that I -- I forgot what I say. That's good; if I forget some of the stuff I say, maybe I'll come up with something new."

He's a little worried about the show falling on the last night of the Democratic convention, but he says, "My advice: TiVo Obama." On Thursday, with their DVRs at home faithfully recording, the audience at the Birchmere will find out just exactly what Kinky would do next.

Kinky Friedman Appearing Thursday with Brian Burns, Tommy Alverson and Bob Livingston at the Birchmere (3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria). Show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets:$29.50, available at or 703-549-7500.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company