Insidious Kinky

Richard Kinky "Big Dick" Friedman is many things to many different people: country music satirist, mystery novelist, friend of U.S. presidents, Texas Monthly columnist, savior to a multitude of stray mutts and on and on. Those are some of the ways the world sees Kinky. How he sees himself is another matter: Over the course of a 30-minute interview, he compared himself to Billy Graham, Jesse Jackson and Gandhi.

But until quite recently most people weren't aware of another hat the Kinkster wears, that of native Houstonian. The graduate of Edgar Allan Poe Elementary and John J. Pershing Jr. High shared his memories of growing up in 1950s West University in the current issue of Texas Monthly, which is a sort of salute to Houston. The Kinkster's reminisces included his sullen, faith-based boycott of the fourth-grade Christmas pageant (he whiled away the other kids' rehearsal time by writing love poetry to the school librarian), his bar mitzvah at Temple Emanu El on Sunset, and ditching the accordion in favor of the guitar and learning his first tune, Bobby Helms's "Fraulein." At the same time and in the same town another Texan singer-songwriter of note -- Townes Van Zandt -- was also polishing off a youthful version of the very same tune.

These days Friedman has been spending most of his time with another Texas songwriting legend, Billy Joe Shaver, with whom he recently toured Australia. Shaver had just suffered a heart attack and took the trip against his doctor's orders. "It was Russian roulette," Friedman says. "His doctors told him he was going to die at any second. He said, 'Fuck you, I'm gonna do the tour and then come back and do the surgery.' So he would be on stage and his face would be turning red, and he'd be getting dizzy and all this. His performances were great, but it was a close call. You know, chest pains on the airplane coming back and all that shit. Pretty fuckin' tedious."

Friedman reports that he and Shaver both had a blast in Australia, the "tedium" of Shaver's close call with death aside. "They not only get us, but they're a very different kind of audience," he says. "Billy Joe's got this song that he opens with that goes like this: [singing] 'My good girl done left me, and I'm so glad she did / my good girl done left me and I'm so glad she took the kid.' Australian audiences are laughing their asses off as soon as he says 'I'm so glad she did.' American audiences are like, 'Is this serious? Is this funny?' "

In addition to having a better sense of humor, Friedman also credits the Aussies with being more discerning than we are. "They're better fans," he says. "They drive hundreds of miles to see the show. They're big Billy Joe fans and big Kinkster fans. In fact, Australia's got the best bullshit detector in the world. That's why Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmy Buffett and my friend Dwight Yoakam reported that they didn't like Australia. Dwight should have, but it didn't happen. Joe Ely does very well. Willie and Waylon did great there. It's a very smart audience, a very literate audience."

For their upcoming Houston show, Friedman is promising to show his more serious side and Billy Joe's funnier side, not to mention a clash of faiths. "This show is very free-form," he says. "We flip a coin before the show to see who starts, like football captains. And then there's a little religious tension as the fervor kicks in about halfway through the show. He does a few, then I do a few. It's very interesting. I think it brings out the best in both of us. We're a very odd couple. I think playing with me lightens him a little bit, leavens him, because he's got some very heavy material."

Friedman's also high on the band they'll be bringing, which includes Jesse "Guitar" Taylor, Little Jewford Shelby and Jimmy Silman, better known to readers of Friedman's mysteries as "Washington Ratso." "Jewford's an idiot-savant who plays keyboards and the kazoo -- the most irritating instrument in the musical kingdom," says Friedman. "And Ratso's the little Lebanese boy in the band. We've been playing together for almost 30 years, and he and I regard each other as the last true hope for peace in the Middle East."

If Washington Ratso and the Kinkster ever craft a plan, Friedman's friend George W. Bush will no doubt have a look at it. When asked about his Texas Monthly gig, Friedman quickly steers the conversation toward his next column, which is about how he spent the night at the White House this past Pearl Harbor day. "It's a real job," he says of his column. "My first one, with deadlines and all that crap. It's going okay. I've got four women, four dogs and four editors right now."

Friedman says he prefers the dogs to the editors and women, though he recently tried to take the women and the dogs to the White House with him. "You know, Bush and I have been penpals for a while, and I asked him if I could bring the four dogs and four women to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom," he says. "And he wrote me back from Camp David -- and it's kind of frightening that he has the time to do this -- excuse me…Did you hear that?"

Friedman temporarily loses his train of thought as -- of all things -- a donkey brays outside his door. (Guess it heard all the Republican talk and decided to sound off.)

"Anyway, Bush wrote back that I could bring the dogs but not the women, and I didn't get to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom, anyway," he says. "I slept at the White House, but not in there."

This was neither his first trip to the White House nor even the first regime to host him. Friedman was also a guest during Clinton's reign. "I'm kind of a secular Billy Graham, John," the Kinkster explains. "I'm a professional friend of presidents -- like Jesse Jackson."

It was while he was visiting Clinton that he joined Willie Nelson in the ranks of Texan singer-songwriters who have broken smoking-related laws at the White House. As is widely known, Nelson once climbed on the roof and smoked a joint. (You can read all about that caper in this month's Modern Maturity. No lie.) Characteristically, Friedman's intentional faux pas involved not a joint but one of his trademark cigars. "In front of about 50 people, I gave Bill Clinton a Cuban cigar," he says. "He said, 'Don't you know those are against the law?' And I said, 'Remember, Mr. President, we're not supporting their economy. We're burning their fields.' "

His summit with the Bushes had a more immediate goal: He wanted Laura Bush to host a benefit for the Rescue Ranch. "I had asked Willie if he would do the benefit, and he canceled out on it," he recalls. "He'll say yes to anything that's more than two weeks or more away. Then we asked Lyle Lovett to do it. We approached him, and shortly after that he was approached by a large angry bull. So then I asked Laura, and I told her about Willie and Lyle, and she said, 'So I'm your third choice?' But she did it, and it was quite a financial pleasure."

As was his recent appearance in his old hood. On Friday the 13th he signed copies of his latest mystery, Meanwhile Back at the Ranch, at Murder by the Book, right around the corner from Poe Elementary, and the bookstore kicked back 5 percent of the proceeds to the Rescue Ranch. "Our motto is 'Money can buy you a fine dog, but only love can make it wag its tail,' " Friedman says of his animal shelter. "We've adopted about 500 dogs and sent them into caring homes. I didn't know there were that many caring homes. It's run by my cousin Nancy Parker and her husband, Tony Simons."

But don't confuse Friedman with a clench-jawed animal rights activist of the PETA stripe. "There's nothing more stultifyingly dull than a true animal person," he says. "I am the Gandhi-like spirit of the Rescue Ranch, which means I don't do any work."

Which is not to be confused with any of his other personae. "A friend of mine from Shreveport was at a bar the other day, and he told the bartender he was going to Texas to visit Kinky Friedman. And the bartender said, 'I love his books.' And the drunk down the bar said, 'I love his music.' And the bartender says, 'I didn't know he did music.' And the drunk didn't know I wrote books. If I can get those two audiences together, I would be something. But I can't. And there's no point in trying to join the fucking sickly mainstream of America, anyway. I don't want to reflect culture, I wanna subvert it."

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax