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The Tale of a Kinky Cowboy Who Made Good

October 15, 1989|SHELDON TEITELBAUM | Sheldon Teitelbaum is Los Angeles correspondent for Cinefantastique and Present Tense magazine

When it comes to the Jewish spin on the American West, Kinky Friedman is especially fond of recounting that Anne Frank, not unlike many star-struck European girls her age, had a thing for American film cowboys. The young Dutch teen-ager would tack pictures of them on the wall over her bed in the Amsterdam warehouse that offered her family a lengthy, if sadly impermanent, refuge from the Nazis.

Richard (Kinky) Friedman, 44-year-old founder of the now seldom-heard but oft-lamented country and Western ethnic ensemble, the Texas Jewboys, imagines, sometimes, that horrific roundup that herded Anne Frank and her family to Auschwitz.

Now pursuing a successful career as a mystery novelist, Friedman remains haunted by that image, and as eager as ever to grapple with the aftershocks it continues to trigger in his psyche.

His latest novel, "Frequent Flyer" (William Morrow & Company), pits his detective hero "the Kinkster" against a Nazi revival in, of all places, Borneo, where Friedman served in the Peace Corps. He has written four books--the others are "Greenwich Killing Time," "A Case of Lone Star" and "When the Cat's Away"--since 1985, and he appears in each of them as the Kinkster, a kinky-haired, wise-cracking, Jewish ex-country crooner turned Greenwich Village gumshoe.

Mystery master Robert Parker says Friedman has "a wonderful eye for detail, a good grasp of irony, the same kind of sense of humor I have, and a nice social conscience."

But is the world truly ready for a Jewish country and Western New York detective? Says Parker, "I don't think the world has ever been ready for Kinky, but there he is."

Crusty Persona

Although Friedman doesn't fancy himself a writer of "Jewish" mysteries, his Yiddishkeit or Jewishness, remains as much a part of his crusty persona as his gleaming white Stetson, his trail-worn cowboy boots and his Western tie with a mother-of-pearl map of Texas.

Part of his literary success can be traced to his decision to set the exploits of Kinky Friedman, amateur sleuth, in New York, where Friedman spends about half his time. He believes that had he kept the Kinkster in Texas, the New York literary establishment would scarcely ever have given him or his literary alter ego any notice.

It also helps, he said, that he spends the rest of his time in the Texas hill country living in a trailer with three cats and a tame armadillo. This is the stuff legendary dust jackets are made of.

A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where he completed a four-year liberal arts program, Friedman is the son of a psychologist from Chicago and a speech therapist who moved to Texas during the early '50s to establish a Jewish summer camp. He began songwriting between 1966 and 1969, while a Peace Corps volunteer.

In 1973, Friedman assembled a group in Nashville, which he christened with a name inspired by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. The Texas Jewboys signed a contract with Vanguard Records, a small folk label, and hit the road.

The commercial expansion of country music during the 1960s had already lured a gaggle of ethnic outsiders eager to tear a hole out of the industry's Anglo-Protestant consensus.

During his first year touring honky-tonks and Hillel centers with fellow Jewboys Billy Swan, Willie "The Singing Chinaman" Fong Young, Thomas "Wichita" Culpepper, Kenneth "Snakebite" Jacobs and Jeff "Little Jewford" Shelby, Friedman wrote a country ballad about the Holocaust, "Ride 'Em Jewboy."

Friedman still meets Orthodox rabbis, Jewish Defense League alumni and American-born Israeli Army vets who say "Ride 'Em Jewboy" became a personal anthem akin, in some respects, to the civil rights movement's "We Shall Overcome." The tune, which appeared in 1973 on his first album, "Sold American" (Vanguard Records), offended many American Jews as well.

Angered Many

"Many people," recalls Friedman, "never could get past the title of the song or, for that matter, the name of the band. It got a lot of people's backs up."

Another tune that gained the Jewboys notoriety was "They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Any More" (which novelist Joseph Heller has declared to be his all-time favorite tune).

Despite the often irreverent nature of their material, the Texas Jewboys were never a novelty act, Friedman hastens to note. Many of his songs received considerable airplay on country and Western stations, and "Sold American" became a genuine hit. In 1974, Friedman cut a second album, "Kinky Friedman," on the now defunct ABC Dunhill label, with some help from fellow country stars Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson (who produced the record) and Tompall Glaser.

"And our third album, 'Lasso From El Paso,' featured just about everyone on the planet, including Bob Dylan, Van Dyke Parks, Lowell George, Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton," says Friedman.

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