Kinky Friedman Brings his Big Black Hat, and a Lot of Folk Rock, to Bay Street Theater

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Kinky Friedman.
Kinky Friedman.
Kinky Friedman.

By Tim Sommer

Behind the outrageous name, outspoken political opinions, outsized hat and super-sized personality, Kinky Friedman is a classic American songwriter and storyteller who walks in the footsteps of Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and Stephen Foster.

Mr. Friedman, who will be playing at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor on August 24, is all of these things (and many more) too: a best selling-author, the not-so-unofficial ambassador to Texas, a politician, a songwriter of great wit and compassion, the first Jew ever to sing at the Grand Ol’ Opry, a friend of Presidents and musical legends, and the seller of his own line of cigars and tequila. Kinky Friedman is the ultimate hyphenated man.

“Well, it’s the curse of being multi-talented,” Mr. Friedman explains. “I guess I stand for something, which is being on the outside looking in, and that’s the best vantage point. I’ve always thought it was a privilege to be doing anything, I mean, I’m 70 years old, though I read at the 72 year-old level. I’ve written about 34 books now, 20 mysteries, and the animal rescue has been a big deal for the past 20 years…but I guess music is something that’s been a constant thread in my life.”

Drumming legend Corky Laing performed at the Bay Street Theater in 2013 and will join Kinky Friedman next Monday. Michael Heller photo.
Drumming legend Corky Laing performed at the Bay Street Theater in 2013 and will join Kinky Friedman next Monday. Michael Heller photo.

Amidst the spirited quips and the haze of cigar smoke, there is one thing that makes the Kinkster both proud and humble: that’s the amazing connection between Mr. Friedman and Nelson Mandela. While in his prison cell on Robben Island, the future President of South Africa reportedly constantly played one of Mr. Friedman’s songs, “Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” and took great comfort in its’ message. Despite the somewhat inflammatory title, “Ride ‘Em Jewboy” (which first appeared on Mr. Friedman’s “Sold Americanalbum in 1973) is a gentle song about hope in the face of hopelessness, and how to retain both personal and cultural dignity in the face of great trials.

“If someone asked me, ‘If you had a choice between playing in stadiums and making millions of dollars or you could know that a song you had written had been listened to every night, like a mantra, like a source of comfort or inspiration, by Nelson Mandela in his prison cell, which would you pick?’ I know what I would pick. I could pretty much spiritually retire on that Mandela situation,” said Mr. Friedman. “I think of that little fraternity of men – Gandhi, Jesus, Martin Luther King, and Mandela – and how they continued to do what no political person on the landscape of this country or any country in the world seems to be able to do, which is inspire. It’s nice to be part of that, in some small way.”

Mr. Friedman, of course, has famously thrown his own big, black hat in the political ring. In 2006 he made a (mostly) serious run for governor of Texas, receiving over half a million votes (and 12.4 % of the total vote cast). The winner of that race, by the way, was current Presidential hopeful Rick Perry.

Kinky-Loneliest-COVER

“I have my last will and testament worked out,” Mr. Friedman notes. “When I die, I’m to be cremated, and the ashes are to be thrown in Rick Perry’s hair.”

Does the one-time gubernatorial hopeful have any advice for the current crop of Presidential candidates?

“Stop before it’s too late,” Kinky suggests. “I’m with Mark Twain on this one – history does not repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. And that’s what we’re getting, we’re getting a whole lot of derivative, uninspiring people and policies, and it looks like we’ve seen this one before. I can’t think of any living politician who really inspires me. I think Bernie Sanders inspires affection – he is a lovable guy, and he’s not corrupt. He speaks from the heart. For that matter, so does Donald Trump, I think that’s the attraction for both of those guys, I think they’re definitely both not politicians, they’re not members of the Crips or the Bloods, really.”

Mr. Friedman is an America treasure, a sensitive and articulate author and songwriter and America’s greatest living curmudgeon. I asked Kinky about one of my favorite Kinky-isms: “A happy American creates nothing great.”

“I’ve come to that conclusion now more than ever,” Kinky confirms. “I listen to a lot of classical stuff, and I see a linkage between great classical music and great country music — and the linkage is melancholy. The great stuff was written when these people were very, very depressed, when they were in a tailspin of blind despair. So if you want to be an artist, I think the first step is to be miserable. Which isn’t too hard these days.”

Despite his roguish and articulate irascibility, Mr. Friedmans is very excited about a pile of things right now. On October 9, he releases “The Loneliest Man I Ever Met,” his first album of new material in 41 years; on October 2, he begins a long tour to promote the album; and plans are in the works for Billy Bob Thornton to star as Mr. Friedman in a television series based on his popular mysteries. He also continues to be actively engaged in animal rescue, a cause very near and dear to him.

“Well,” Mr. Friedman says, “as Will Rogers said, ‘If there are no dogs in heaven, I want to go where they went. I feel very close to animals. I’ve done this for about twenty years, and rescued thousands and thousands of dogs over that period of time. It’s a never-kill sanctuary, and it’s called Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch. It’s something I always wanted to do, and I hope we’ve opened the gates of heaven a little bit wider. We survive on the kindness of strangers.”

Kinky Friedman will be appearing with Corky Laing at the Bay Street Theater, 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor, on Monday, August 24 at 8 p.m. For more information or tickets, call (631) 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.

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