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Friedman, Kinky (1944—)

Friedman, Kinky (1944—)

Founder and leader of the Texas Jewboys, an iconoclastic country and western band of the 1970s, Richard "Kinky" Friedman has since become better known as a comic novelist.

Born in Chicago (not—as often claimed—in Palestine, Texas) on Halloween, Friedman was the son of a psychology professor and a speech therapist. The family moved to Texas during his childhood, buying a ranch near Medina to create the Echo Hill Ranch summer camp for boys. Interested in both music and chess from an early age, Friedman was chosen when he was seven years old to be one of fifty local chess players to challenge Polish-born U.S. grand master Samuel Reshevsky to simultaneous matches in Houston. While Reshevsky won all fifty matches, Friedman was by far the youngest competitor.

Friedman was a junior counselor at Echo Hill Ranch and then an honors psychology student at the University of Texas (B.A., 1966). He spent the next two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Southwest Pacific, ostensibly as an agricultural extension agent. According to Friedman, his greatest achievement in the Peace Corps was to introduce the Frisbee to Borneo. Upon his return to America he pursued a career in country music; he had already been in a moderately successful rock 'n' roll band in Austin, while an undergraduate. This band, King Arthur and the Carrots, had a local hit with "Schwinn 24," a parody of Beach Boys-type drag racing songs, this one about a boy and his bicycle.

In the early 1970s Friedman formed his own band, the Texas Jewboys. The name is a multilayered pun on Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, a famed Depression-era country band. Many musicians performed with Friedman, so there is no one correct lineup for the band. A central factor in the band's material, almost all of which was at least co-written by Friedman, is the tension in his background as a Jewish intellectual raised in rural Texas. His songs explore many topics, including feminism, racial relations, the stresses of a musician's life, and nostalgia for the past, but anti-Semitism and clashes with rednecks are frequent concerns. Among his most famous songs are "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore" and "Ride 'Em Jewboy." The latter song, in which the Holocaust is compared with a cattle drive, is a beautiful ballad with eerie lyrics, considered to be Friedman's most affecting song.

Some of Friedman's songs are strictly played for laughs, and a few are more traditional country tunes without an overt sermon, but most have some kind of social message embedded in them. His audiences have frequently mistaken Friedman's song persona for his authentic feelings and social agenda, as when the National Organization for Women gave him its Male Chauvinist Pig of the Year award in 1974 for "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed," a satirical song about a redneck and his women's-libber girlfriend.

The band was heckled for that and other songs, and some of their bookings were canceled, but this notoriety also led to greater success. In 1973 Friedman obtained a recording contract with Vanguard, releasing Sold American later that year. Another album followed in 1974, and in 1976 Friedman achieved his musical high-water mark with an album on the Epic label, Lasso From El Paso. (The song was originally titled "Asshole from El Paso," a parody of Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee," but Epic required a title change before issuing the record.) On Lasso, Friedman had guest artists like Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, having met Dylan and gone on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour the year before. Other important songs on his early albums include "Sold American," "Wild Man from Borneo," and "Homo Erectus." More recently, he has released From One Good American to Another, and a "greatest hits" compilation entitled Old Testaments And New Revelations.

Friedman spent several years living in a Greenwich Village loft in New York City. While there, he was a frequent performer at the Lone Star Cafe, a Texas-themed hangout in Manhattan. His act and a bit of his lifestyle are described in No Laughing Matter, by Joseph Heller and Speed Vogel, and Thin Ice: A Season In Hell With The New York Rangers, by his close friend Larry Sloman. In the early 1980s Friedman returned to the Echo Hill Ranch, eager to make a radical change in his life after seeing several friends die from drug-related causes. Back in Texas, Friedman began writing comic mystery novels, set in New York, with a fictionalized version of himself as the sleuth. He has published nearly one every year since 1986, with such memorable titles as A Case of Lone Star (1987), Elvis, Jesus, and Coca-Cola (1993), and God Bless John Wayne (1995). The fame resulting from his second career has helped create a renewed demand for his recorded music, though he expresses little interest in performing again.

—David Lonergan

Further Reading:

"Friedman, Kinky." Contemporary Authors, Vol. 147. Detroit, Gale Research, 1995.

"Kinky Friedman." The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music. London, Salamander Books, 1977.

Sloman, Larry. On the Road with Bob Dylan: Rolling with the Thunder. New York, Bantam Books, 1978.

Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon. The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music. 2nd Ed. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1983.

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