There is no question that viewing great art has the potential to inspire an individual’s own great works. The Parthenon and ancient Greece had a lasting impact on architecture. Great African art helped inspire Pablo Picasso’s Cubism. Citizen Kane went on to inspire film work by the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino and others.
While a beloved show in its own right, the late 1980s and early ’90s courtroom drama Matlock has debatable credentials as timeless art. But nonetheless, the Andy Griffith-starred show played a role in inspiring Kinky Friedman’s album Circus of Life, his first album of new original material in nearly four decades.
The titular attorney’s knack for justice did not play a direct role in inspiring Friedman. Instead, it was the show’s constant presence on the eccentric 73-year-old’s television that finally convinced him to do something different with his life.
It seems that there would be an unlikely story behind Friedman’s new record because the singer-songwriter/renaissance man is about as unlikely as they come. Raised by Jewish parents on a ranch in Texas, Friedman’s distinct and unconventional point of view in country music was highlighted in his former band The Texas Jewboys, known for the anti-racist hit “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore.” Outside music, Friedman’s extensive life experience includes work in the Peace Corps, as a writer of mystery novels and a former candidate in Texas’ 2006 gubernatorial campaign. (He came in fourth out of six candidates.)
Friedman — regarded by many in the same league of Texas country royalty as Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings — will perform some of his classics along with new, personal material from Circus of Life during his Tuesday performance at The Blue Door, 2805 N. McKinley Ave. Tickets are $35-$40.
Oklahoma Gazette recently caught up with Friedman to speak about what inspired his new album, the state of modern country music and an outsider’s view on true Christian charity.
Oklahoma Gazette: This was your first album of original material in quite awhile, right?
Kinky Friedman: Yeah, apparently in 40 years. That might be true, and if it is, I blame Willie [Nelson]. I was watching Matlock at 3 o’clock in the morning and my psychiatrist, Willie Nelson, calls and says that it’s a sure sign of depression, watching Matlock, and to start writing. That kind of inspired me, and I wrote all the songs on Circus of Life in about a month. And then I called Willie and that’s when Willie said to send them to him. I asked Willie how he was feeling because I was hearing these rumors about his health not being the best, and Willie, he said, “A little up, a little down, the usual.” And then he said, “By the way Kinky, what channel is Matlock on?”
OKG: And on the album, you have that great tribute to Willie also.
Friedman: Yeah, “Autographs in the Rain” has turned out to be as close to a hit as we’re going to get. We’re a small, independent record place at Echo Hill Records. But I think the pendulum is swinging our way. I think more and more people — the majority are no longer just hearing the kind of music that comes out of Nashville, which is produced or overproduced and that’s about all you get. You don’t even really get a song. These songs are written in corporate brothels, and they’re written by committee. And they have one idea in mind: whatever the idea is that they tell them, like ‘This is a song for someone who is going to a tailgating party’ or ‘This one is a commercial for Coors beer.’ They’re writing with that stuff in mind, and I don’t think that’s the way the really good stuff from Roger Miller or Shel Silverstein or Kris Kristofferson was written. Those guys, they wrote out of tragedy mostly. That’s pretty much what I did on Circus of Life. If I had to say who they sound like to me, they sound like early Leonard Cohen and early Kristofferson.
OKG: Is it easier or harder to write now than it was 40 years ago?
Friedman: Well, 40 years ago, there was a climate; there were songwriters everywhere. The Glaser brothers opened their studio Hillbilly Central (Glaser Sound recording studio), and they let all kinds of people, all kinds of ideas in there that the rest of the music world did not. [The music industry] was a closed fraternity, and because they were a closed fraternity, they never understood Willie Nelson. So when he said goodbye to Nashville like Davy Crockett did — you know, ‘You can go to hell; I’m going to Texas’ — in 1971, I don’t think anyone in Nashville thought they’d see or hear from him again. If you want to go back some earlier decades, they did the same with Hank Williams.
OKG: At these shows you’ve been playing recently, are you seeing any younger fans out there? Are younger fans connecting to this music?
Friedman: Oh, I don’t think there’s any question. The only place with more young people than America is Germany. At least they’re coming to the shows. Last time I was there [in Germany], they sold out every show, the young people. I am rapidly becoming the new David Hasselhoff.
OKG: Maybe you were the first David Hasselhoff, then he came around later.
Friedman: Well, not only that, but the young people in Europe and the audiences in Europe, they know the songs. They think America is great for a different reason than we do. They, I think, get it better. When you look at guys like Warren Zevon, the people who weren’t really mainstream people, they think those are the reasons America is great. I think that’s admirable and I think it’s right, too. I’m very happy to be part of that group of Iggy Pop and Tom Waits and Gram Parsons.
But if we could all sit down and write a song that would be significant, we would do it. I mean, all I know of step one is to be miserable.
OKG: Yeah, that’s where a lot of the good stuff starts.
Friedman: I think that’s true. As Nashville has become more and more corporate, you’re hearing sanitized, homogenized, trivialized music. Not to be a snob, because Jesus rode in on a jackass.
OKG: On your album, you have the “Jesus in Pajamas” story, which I think was inspired by a real-life event.
Friedman: Yeah, it was. It was this guy who was a soulful-looking, fucked-up guy wearing a dirty green knit cap and pajamas who came into a Denny’s at close to 3:15 in the morning. I was very depressed, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t have any money and I didn’t have enough to give him any. I just walked out and I left him there. About three minutes later, I turned around and came back, thinking, ‘I’ve got to give this guy something.’ And he was gone. Nobody had seen him, which was a little hard for me to believe. The cashier and the few customers in there hadn’t seen a guy like that. So I guess we were able to help and we didn’t. And my Christian friends tell me that song is what Christianity is. Or what it should be. I know a lot of people who are able to help and they just don’t.
OKG: I’ve heard you say a few times you were feeling miserable. Do you still feel miserable now, or have things changed?
Friedman: Well, I’ve been miserable for about 72 years, but things are starting to pick up. You know, I’m 73 but I read at a 75-year-old level.
OKG: Is there anything else you want to add before the show?
Friedman: Well, just that the audience loves the new songs. I was shocked because I thought they would want to hear “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore.” But they don’t. They want to hear the Matlock collection. And I hope I can do it all again.