Before he was a novelist, and before he ran for governor of the state of Texas, Kinky Friedman was known as a musician. Proof of that can be found in his first new album in close to four decades, Circus of Life, being released on his own Echo Hill label.
As the lead singer of Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys he was responsible for such country classics as “Asshole from El Paso” and “They Don’t Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore”. The band also hold the distinction of being one of the few who were filmed for the famed TV show Austin City Limits but whose segment was never aired. (It is available on DVD if you look hard enough).
While Kinky has mellowed somewhat since those halcyon days, only “Little Jewford” Shelby (piano) still rides with him, and his songs aren’t as in your face as they used to be, none of that impacts on the quality of the material you’ll find on this album. For while the twelve songs on the disc only add up to just over 35 minutes of music, their substance can’t be measured by how much time they take up.
From the album’s opening track, “A Dog Named Freedom” through its closing number, “Sayin’ Goodbye’, Friedman reminds us of the simple joys of listening to a well written song. There’s nothing ornate, fancy or world changing about any of them. They’re simply straight from the heart observations on life, friendship and trying to get by in a word which doesn’t offer many choices.
The title song, “Circus of Life”, is possibly one of the more heartfelt and genuinely poignant songs you’ll hear for a while. “That night he dreamed of his regret/He walked a wire without a net high above the screaming shadows in the stands/then he plunged into the dark/They found him dead in Central Park/He slipped right through the Angel’s tiny hands/Come to the circus, come to the circus/The Reaper’s sharpening his scythe/Come to the circus, come to the circus, come to the circus of life.”
In this song Friedman manages to capture the quiet desperation people can hide under their facades of normalcy. Like all good poets and songwriters his words build upon each to gradually create the atmosphere he desires. He doesn’t stoop to using sentimentality or cheap emotions to manipulate listeners – he just lays out the bare essentials of a story and allows us to fill in the gaps with our hearts and minds.
Of course this doesn’t mean he can’t be sentimental. “Autographs In The Rain (Song To Willie)” is an unabashed peon of praise to his old buddy Willie Nelson. It was Nelson who gave Friedman the kick in the butt required to get him writing music again, so it’s only fitting there’s a song for him on the album. As the title suggests, this song celebrates Nelson’s generosity of spirit and compassion. For no matter how famous he’s become, he’s still a guy who will sign autographs in the rain for fans.
The great American Poet e.e. cummings has the lead character in his play Him say “Damn everything but the circus”, and uses the circus and tightrope walking as a metaphor for an artist’s creative process. In Circus of Life Friedman has expanded upon this idea to include all of us and our lives. No matter how prosaic our lives might feel, we are all caught up in this wonderful and frightening thing called life.
With each song Friedman has created a vignette which captures a brief moment of time in somebody’s circus and brings it to life with beauty and love. This is a great album from an amazing writer whose musical talents have been sorely missed. Here’s hoping this marks the beginning of a Kinky renaissance.
(Article originally published at blogcritics.org as Music Review: Kinky Friedman - Circus of Life)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.