Kinky Friedman is one of Texas's truly bizarre characters.
He's a successful novelist, an internationally-known performer, a former gubernatorial candidate, the creator of a dog rescue, and the White House guest of two different presidents. I sat down with Friedman at his rustic ranch house outside Medina and talked about his big new project.
That ranch is about an hour and a half northwest of San Antonio and a few miles out of Medina. Richard "Kinky" Friedman's parents bought the 500 acre ranch in 1953 to turn into a youth camp, welcoming all kids, primarily Jewish ones.
It's called Echo Hill, and as you navigate its gravel road, just across Wallace Creek, is Kinky's place. His home is one of dozens of rustic camp buildings on the acreage.
The pine-paneled walls of his well lived-in house are covered in paintings, pictures and memorabilia — including masks from his Peace Corps stint in Borneo — illustrating a half century of creating mischief and exploring the world. This ranch is more than his home.
"Yeah, it’s been an anchor. It's been a harbor, and all my animals are buried around here," he said.
Friedman is a big animal lover, having created the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch to keep dogs from being euthanized. His four dogs, including a deaf and blind one, wandered through during the hour and a half we spoke on the vine-covered front porch.
The soft spoken Kinky I met wasn't the wild performer whose stage antics in the 1970s and 80s kept fans so amused.
After years of performance excess, he mostly gave up touring, finding pleasure while making a living as a writer of more than a dozen gumshoe detective novels, starring a fictionalized version of himself. Decades had passed since Kinky composed his last music record.
Then, out of the blue, he got a 3 a.m. call.
"Willie called — my psychiatrist Willie Nelson,” Friedman said. “He says 'What are you doin' Kink,' and I said, 'I'm watching Matlock.' And he said, 'That's a sure sign of depression. Turn Matlock off and start writing.' "
When Willie tells you to write songs, apparently, you write songs, he said. "(I) wrote a dozen of them in one month."
And these were not the raucous, profane, satirical pieces he's primarily known for. Friedman says tragic circumstances spawned each cut.
"When I finished, I was pretty excited. I thought I really had something, had echoes of early Leonard Cohen and Kristofferson for me to describe what I think it sounded like," he said.
For those of you who know Kinky's past sound, his new album, "Circus of Life," is nothing like what you might expect. There’s not a party song in its 12 tracks.
"Spotify has a named it the premiere pick of the week worldwide. That was last week," he said of the internet radio streaming service.
While he cites Spotify picks, Friedman has never made the leap into the computer age. He doesn't have internet access — not even an email account. His more technologically connected friends had to tell him what Spotify even was.
"Whether it ever results in a financial pleasure for the Kinkster, very debatable," he said.
And the album’s stripped down production style was no accident. Friedman said part of the album was recorded in his house.
"It's very sparse. It's not a Nashville recording, it's not sanitized or homogenized. Very different,” he said. “Calculated not to be played on (traditional) radio. As a result, Sirius XM (satellite radio) is playing the hell out of 'Autographs In The Rain' right now.
"‘Circus of Life’ wasn't recorded in a high-dollar recording studio, but right there on the ranch.
While he thinks highly of the musicians and engineers who helped him create the album, he said the circumstances of its creation are a large part of how good it's come out.
"It was the professionals that gave us the Titanic. It was the amateurs that gave us (Noah’s) Ark,” Friedman said. “That's what we're hoping to deliver: the ark.
“And the way to do that is to consciously break every rule that you can."
He has advice for those who also want to create:
“Step one if you want to be a songwriter is be miserable. Find a way to be miserable. I personally, I fight happiness at every turn. A happy person, a well-adjusted person creates nothing great,” he said.
He also suggests something that worked for him.
"You may have a different ‘Matlock,’ but you've got to find what your ‘Matlock’ is and turn them off," he said.
The results of following his own advice?
"At 73, I'm able to do, arguably, my best stuff," Friedman said.
Texas's most irreverent troubadour, its most famous Jewish cowboy, has had four or five careers. So which was his most comfortable hat to wear? Without pause, he said:
“A defender of ... strays I would say is the highest level of activity that you can get involved with,” he said. “I mean, some are two legged some are four legged, but that opens the gates of heaven a little bit wider I think.”
Jack Morgan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org