Various Artists: Why the Hell Not…: The Songs of Kinky Friedman

[2 November 2006]

By Steve Horowitz

You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Like Kinky

Kinky Friedman has been in the national media recently because he’s running as an independent candidate for the governor of Texas, and he has a shot at winning. Additionally, Friedman is probably more famous today for his best-selling, smart-ass tough guy mystery novels than he is for his music. However, Friedman has written an impressive body of tunes over the years, doing the Lone Star state proud. This isn’t just a layman’s opinion. In his prime, musicians like Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton played on his recordings, Billy Joe Shaver toured the world with him, and has Willie Nelson routinely sung Kinky’s praises as well as songs.

The Red Headed Stranger also contributes his vocals to this new collection of Friedman’s material as sung in tribute by other musicians. Nelson’s version of “Ride ‘em Jewboy” reveals the pathos of Friedman’s lyrics about the Holocaust without being maudlin. While Kinky’s black humor and biting satire are clearly evident as he compares concentration camps with cattle round ups, tunes like this one also suggest the depth and breadth of the Texan’s writing talents. Nelson sings it straight—just like Friedman wrote it—to show the degradation that occurs when people are treated like animals. Dwight Yoakam also vocalizes earnestly for full-effect. The Bakersfield boy’s cover of “Rapid City, South Dakota” poignantly conveys the sadness and dreams of a young man running away from home and deserting his pregnant girlfriend. Friedman’s narrative evokes the pathos of a boy who escapes a life of settling down, but can’t help but be haunted by the thoughts and memories of a girl he has loved—and maybe still does.

If it seems like you’ve heard those renditions before, it’s because you might have. Four of the ten tracks (including Lyle Lovett’s “Sold American” and Delbert McClinton’s “Autograph”) on this new album were previously released on an earlier tribute to Kinky, Pearls in the Snow, back in 1999. This new disc was issued to help raise Kinky’s profile and some funds before the November election. Whatever you think about his politics, the music lover in you should be thankful.

The six fresh tracks are well worth the price of admission. There’s a kick butt version of Friedman’s silly ode to a lady anthropology professor, “Homo Erectus”, that features the booming bass voice of Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson played against the jaunty rhythms of the band Reckless Kelly. Married couple Bruce Robinson and Kelly Willis sweetly harmonize on a song that celebrates the virtues of long-lasting love, “Lady Yesterday”. Bruce’s brother Charlie does an emotionally touching cover of an homage to a circus freak, “Wild Man of Borneo”, which implicitly shows the psychological connections we all share as human beings that have known the pains of love.

But Todd Snider’s update of “They Don’t Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore” provides the album’s highlight. Snider retains the offensive lyrics, meant to poke fun of racists of all types, and the bouncy barrel-house rhythms that would sound right at home in an Old West whorehouse. He spits out the lines with glee (i.e. “We Jews believe it was Santa Claus that killed Jesus Christ”) and basks in the glory of Kinky in the governor’s mansion. “Why not Kinky?” Snider shouts, as he preaches about the end of ethnocentrism.

Yeah, why not? You don’t have to be Jewish to like Kinky. Most of the performers on this collection certainly are not. But it helps if you like Texas music, because Kinky and the overwhelming majority of the contributors hail from the Lone Star state, and play in the tradition that has made Austin famous. That’s only appropriate for a man that wants to sit in that city’s capital building and lead Texas into the future.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/various-artists-why-the-hell-not/