GOD AND COUNTRY BEING WHAT THEY ARE, you usually have to go to Jesus before anybody gives you a tribute album. The late Townes Van Zandt, who was the precise weight of Jesus at the time of his death, now has about ten of them. Jesus, of course, has more. But when Jesus was alive, He was relatively uncelebrated and totally broke. That is why, directly following the Last Supper, He told the waiter, “Separate checks, please.” True greatness is rarely recognized when it walks among us. It almost always dies in the gutter or, occasionally, in the back of a 1952 Cadillac, as Hank Williams did. Talent is invariably its own reward. As Bob Dylan once told me, “When you die, they let you off the hook.” The leopard of humanity never changes its spots.
I’d been thinking about a tribute album to myself for a long time, but I didn’t want to have to die to get it. I didn’t want to be too successful either. If you’re too successful in life, you’ll never get a tribute album. Someone like Garth Brooks, for instance, whom I refer to as “the Anti-Hank,” is so commercially viable that probably no one will remember his name by the time he wakes up in Hell next to Oscar Wilde. And that’s the way the Lord wants it. The Lord doesn’t want people singing Garth Brooks songs to their grandchildren. He wants them to sing the songs of the guy who died in the back of the Cadillac, or the songs of Willie Nelson, or the songs of Stephen Foster, who died on the Bowery in New York City. Or, I decided, the songs of the Kinkster, which is why some of you are now holding in your hands Pearls in the Snow: The Songs of Kinky Friedman .
How exactly did that fine record—picked as a spotlight album of the week in December by Billboard—come to be? Glad you asked. In the early seventies, along with my band, the Texas Jewboys, I traveled the land annoying many Americans with songs like “The Ballad of Charles Whitman” and “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore.” I thank the Lord we didn’t have a big hit because instead of getting a tribute album, I’d be playing Disneyland with the Pips. About two decades later, once I had enough decent (or indecent) songs and my career had gone so far south that people thought I was dead or wished I was, I knew the time was right for a tribute to me.
The first thing I needed was a title. Every tribute record requires a classic-sounding, moderately pretentious title. Fortunately, I had a number of them. The top contenders were “Ridin’ ’Cross the Desert on a Horse With No Legs,” “Strummin’ Along With Richard Kinky Big Dick Friedman,” “Come Home, Little Kinky,” and Don Imus’ rather facetious suggestion, “Hillbilly Has-Beens Sing the Hideous Songs of Kinky Friedman.” The title eventually chosen came from a conversation I’d had in the eighties with my friend Timothy B. Mayer, who’s since gone to Jesus himself. Tim was lamenting the fact that my more sensitive songs had been overshadowed by obnoxious, outrageous ones like “Ol’ Ben Lucas (Had a Lotta Mucus),” which I wrote when I was eleven years old. Tim said that the best songs I’d written had been lost over the years like “ pearls in the snow .” He told me this when we were both out where the buses don’t run on a snowy New Year’s Eve on Martha’s Vineyard and I was urinating on a house and shouting, “It’s going to be a power year for the Kinkster.” (It wasn’t.)
Fast-forward ten years or so. I was in Nashville hanging out one night with seminal Music City deejay Captain Midnight and Kacey Jones, formerly the lead singer of Ethel and the Shameless Hussies, when Kacey asked, “Whatever happened to all those beautiful songs you wrote?”
Paraphrasing Sammy Allred, I answered, “Nuthin’.”
“Well,” she said in a voice fraught with irritating gentile optimism, “why don’t we do something about that?”
“Why don’t we just get a drink?” Midnight said. As fate would have it, we did both.
Since Hank Williams was working a package show with Johnny Horton and Faron Young, we decided that the best centerpiece for our aural table would be Willie Nelson. We sent Willie a dozen vintage Kinky songs from which he was to select one tune to record for us. We waited for the gestation period of the southern sperm whale, but nothing happened. When a tribute album gets off to this kind of a slow start, the honoree can often become somewhat dispirited. I thought that possibly my own precisely timed country music death might increase interest in the project.
Then I saw the light: If you want mankind to honor you, you’ve got to get off your ass. I called Lana Nelson, Willie’s daughter, and Doug Holloway, Willie’s illegitimate son, promised each of them two or three hundred dollars, and soon the wheels were turning. (To quote Sammy Allred again, “When Kinky offers you two or three hundred dollars, you always know which one it’s going to be.”) Lana and Doug graciously refused the cash, and two weeks later Willie was in the studio with his band, recording a brilliant version of “Ride ’em, Jewboy.” Later that night I sat in my car, listened to the cut, and smiled for the first time in two hundred years.
After Willie, we selected artists who, like him, walk their own roads. These were all people who, if someone in the record business said it couldn’t be done, would spend the rest of their lives proving them wrong. Fortunately, they turned out to be the kind of stars a hopeful little Jewboy could make a wish upon. The only pain, disappointment, and humiliation I felt was when I was turned down flat by one particular person. After all I’ve been through,