Band of Brothers
In the seventies my country music group, the Texas Jewboys, set out to prove the world wasn't square. What happened to us when we left the spotlight?
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A happy childhood, I’ve always believed, is the worst possible preparation for life. Be that as it may, my dream as a child was to grow up to be a country music star. But if you dream of becoming a country music star as a kid, you’ll invariably wind up a best-selling novelist. It’s just a little trick God plays on us, like the channel swimmer drowning in the bathtub. But for me, becoming a writer has been a rather fortuitous turn of events. For one thing, I’ve always wanted a lifestyle that didn’t require my presence. For another, I’ve always been somewhat ambivalent about performing, and lately I’ve come to realize that anyone who uses the word “ambivalent” should never have been a country singer in the first place. As Joseph Heller once observed, “Nothing succeeds as planned.”
With country music still in my head after I graduated from the University of Texas, I joined the Peace Corps and worked for 11 cents an hour in the jungles of Borneo. As an agricultural extension worker, my job was to help people who’d been farming successfully for more than two thousand years to improve their agricultural methods. I was supposed to distribute seeds downriver, but the Peace Corps never sent me any. Eventually I was forced to distribute my own seed downriver, which had some rather unpleasant repercussions. Still, it was in Borneo that I wrote some of my first country songs and dreamed up the great notion of putting together a band called Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys.
Several years later the Texas Jewboys became a reality, a country band with a social conscience, a demented love child of Lenny Bruce and Bob Wills. The group included four Texans: Jeff “Little Jewford” Shelby, Kenny “Snakebite” Jacobs, Thomas William “Wichita” Culpepper, and myself, Richard Kinky “Big Dick” Friedman. All of us except for Wichita were Jewish. The other original members–Billy Swan, Willie Fong Young, and Rainbow Colors–were all Texans and Jews by inspiration. There were other Texas Jewboys over the years, of course: my brother, Roger Friedman; Dylan “Clitorious” Ferrero; Cowboy Jack Slaughter; Bryan “Skycap” Adams; Panama Red; Major Bowles; and Arnold “Big Jewford” Shelby, to name just a few.
In 1972 we got our first big break, when Chet Flippo wrote a story about us in Rolling Stone. The title of the piece was “Band of Unknowns Fails to Emerge.” The following year we did emerge, traveling about the country, irritating many of our fellow Americans. With songs like “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” and “Proud to Be an A–hole From El Paso,” we were not destined to be embraced by Mr. and Mrs. Back Porch. In fact, in 1973 the Texas Jewboys received death threats in Nacogdoches, got bomb threats in New York, and required a police escort to escape radical feminists at the University of Buffalo.
We also had an audience with Bob Dylan after a show in L.A. (he was barefoot and dressed in white robes), walked on our knuckles after hanging out with Ken Kesey in San Francisco, played a farewell gig for Abbie Hoffman in New York before he went underground (we were co-billed with a video of Abbie’s recent vasectomy), and were unceremoniously tossed off the stage by the management of a Dallas nightclub and resurrected the same night at Willie Nelson’s house. On June 2 of that year, I had the rare distinction of being introduced by Hank Snow’s son, the Reverend Jimmy Snow, as “the first full-blooded Jew ever to appear on the Grand Ole Opry.” Through it all the Jewboys believed that the purpose of art is not merely to reflect a culture, but to subvert it. We also believed, just as passionately, that some things are too important to be taken seriously.
What happened to the Texas Jewboys? We live in the fine dust of the far horizon, beyond time and geography, where music and dreams play in perfect harmony. Little Jewford and I still occasionally travel the world (he plays keyboards and the most irritating instrument in the musical kingdom, the kazoo). Snakebite Jacobs blows his horn with the New Orleans Nightcrawlers (you can catch him in the Big Easy any Sunday morning). The last time I saw Wichita, who played guitar, mandolin, and fiddle, he was living in his car with his dog, Dwight. Like Mr. Bojangles’ dog, Dwight died–from a rattlesnake bite in a trailer park. I would like to find Wichita. Billy Swan wrote “Lover, Please” and “I Can Help” and still lives and makes music in L.A. Skycap has a band in St. Louis. My brother, Roger, who originally managed the band, is now a psychologist with three kids and lives in Maryland. Dylan Ferrero, our tour manager who always wore dark shades and a python-skin jacket, now teaches special ed in Comfort and is married to a woman named Sage who has 25 tattoos, signs for the deaf, and runs my Web site.
The only one who has left us is Jack Slaughter, our road manager. Jack, an expert on forest preservation and endangered animals, was a gentle spirit who always reminded me a bit of Johnny Appleseed. Last year, while jogging on the walkway of the Lamar Street bridge in Austin, he was killed by an SUV with big tires driven by a teenager. Of all of Jack’s accomplishments and after all these years, the obituary in the paper began with “Road manager for the Texas Jewboys.” That’s not a bad thing, I remember thinking at the time, to have done in your life.