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Kinky Friedman | Circus of Life

The Texas icon returns with some of the most beautiful, sharpest work of his career.

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Many moons ago, I bumped into Kinky Friedman one night in Austin. And I mean bumped; we were basically shoved into each other in the crowd at a typically jam-packed SXSW gig at Antone’s. Being a fan of both his iconoclastic songcraft and his hard-boiled detective sagas, I took advantage of the situation by whipping out my notepad (hey, I said it was a long time ago) and asking for his autograph. (Note to millennials: Autographs were the selfies of the pre-smartphone era.) Without batting an eye or shifting his massive (but courteously unlit) cee-gar, the Kinkster grabbed my pad and pen, quickly scrawled something and handed it back to me just before being swept off again by the next peristaltic wave of the shifting horde. Eventually I was jostled close enough to a light to eyeball what he wrote: “See you in hell!” Naturally, I’m thankful it hasn’t come to that yet. I am more thankful that after years of relative inactivity on the musical front, the 73-year-old self-proclaimed Texas Jewboy is back with his first full album of new original material in several decades. This, in and of itself, is cause for celebration. The fact that it also contains some of the most beautiful, sharpest writing of his lengthy career is icing on the kugel. These dozen songs find Friedman deftly toeing his usual thematic and lyrical tightropes, weaving sadness, silliness, sincerity, sardonicism and sage wisdom together into gorgeous vignettes of love, life, friendship and loss. All of it comes set against a backdrop of tastefully understated folk, country and honky-tonk, wistfully voiced in Kinky’s smoothly sanded world-weary tones. And it features a cast of characters that includes Jesus in pyjamas, downed fighter pilots, alcoholics stumbling toward grace, unrequited lovers, three-legged dogs, his beloved guitar, the mandatory girl in a peach-coloured dress and even his old pal Willie Nelson, signing autographs in the rain. The latter can reportedly claim credit for nudging Friedman back into the spotlight with a late-night phone call that convinced the Kinkster to get up off the couch and quit watching Matlock. Looks like he might have caught a glimpse of hell after all.