A Tribute to Me
Usually you have to be dead before famous musicians pay homage and record your songs. Did you really think I would wait?
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, I’m not reticent about mentioning that performer by name. The artist who rejected me was k.d. lang. I’d sent her my song “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed.” I still can’t understand it.
As far as the actual recordings went, the artists chose their own song, studio, city, and planet. (We put the songs on the CD in the exact chronological order in which they were recorded; we didn’t need the bungling hand of a record company mortal to play God.) Several of the songs were cut in Austin, but that didn’t pose a problem, as I stayed the hell away. It’s always a good idea for a songwriter to steer clear of the studio when someone is recording his song. On a tribute record, particularly, the honoree should be either dead or working in Branson—anywhere but lurking around the studio. I’m proud to say that I wasn’t present for any of the fifteen guest artist performances on Pearls in the Snow. Instead, I retired into a rather petulant snit, only emerging two years later, when everything was completed. I left the recording duties in the much more capable hands of Kacey, who served as supervising producer and turned out to be a pretty fair engineer as well. Of course, with a name like Kacey Jones, I was not all that surprised.
Money was an issue, of course. You’ve got to have money to make your own tribute album. If you’re dead, you probably don’t have any and the project moves along without you (or dies with you). If you’re alive, the musicians and studio personnel, despite their obvious affection for you, like to get paid. Cognizant of this, I went to see my friend Johnny Marks in San Antonio. Johnny coughed up some bucks and officially became our executive producer. The bucks lasted until Dwight Yoakam did 49 overdubs on “Rapid City, South Dakota.” Now we had a problem. With Willie, Dwight, Delbert McClinton, Lee Roy Parnell, Asleep at the Wheel, and the Geezinslaw Brothers already recorded, we had everybody in the can but Prince Albert, yet we still had only half a tribute album. “Half a hero’s better than no hero at all,” I said to Kacey one afternoon. “Get out of the studio,” she said, “and get more money.”
With my artistic feelers hurt now that the artist in me had been overtaken by the loan shark, I proceeded to fat-arm my friend John McCall in Austin. John ponied up more bucks and officially became, along with Johnny, co-executive producer of Pearls in the Snow. As time went by, I repeatedly assured both former friends that the album would definitely be a financial pleasure. At about the two-year point, I changed my tune slightly. “Money may buy you a fine dog,” I advised them, “but only love can make it wag its tail.” This bit of folksy wisdom failed to comfort or amuse either man.
Nevertheless, McCall’s money carried us through Guy Clark, Marty Stuart, Tompall Glaser, Chuck E. Weiss and the G–d Damn Liars, Billy Swan, Lyle Lovett, a rather triumphant if somewhat tedious reunion of the original Texas Jewboys, and Tom Waits. I don’t know what studio Tom recorded his cut in, but you can hear roosters crowing in the background. This notwithstanding, his version of “Highway Cafe” remains one of my favorites. As Captain Midnight wrote in his liner notes, “If this music doesn’t reach down and touch you, remember . . . it’s only a . . . record.”
The final responsibility I had before the CD was released was to obtain participation agreements from all the artists. It was a formality, but it had to be done, and as CEO of Kinkajou Records, it fell to me. (A kinkajou, by the way, is a cuddly little Central American mammal with a prehensile tail.) So it was, with contract in hand, that I accosted Willie Nelson on his golf course one fine afternoon late last summer. I’d drawn up the one-page contract myself, and if not entirely legally binding, it was at least a fairly humorous document. It concluded with the following statement: “Trust me. As a Jewish record company president, I will not f— you.” Without hesitation, Willie graciously signed his name on the appropriate line. Underneath his signature, the greatest living country music star in the world today wrote, “Please f— me.”
But when all is said and done, every tribute album is really a tribute to all that has gone before. Just prior to Pearls in the Snow being released, I was playing a tape of it for Willie on his bus on the way to Gruene Hall, where he was doing a benefit for flood victims. Both of us were now straying rather dangerously off the reservation. We were listening to Lee Roy’s poignant version of one of my earliest songs, “Nashville Casualty and Life.”
“That sounds great,” said Willie. “Sounds a lot like Merle.”
“The influence wasn’t Merle Haggard,” I said. “Lee Roy told me that for two weeks before he went in the studio, he was listening to Lefty Frizzell.”
“So was Merle,” said Willie.