Editors’ note: As we approach our fiftieth anniversary, in February 2023, we will, every week, highlight an important story from our past and offer some perspective on it.

Kinky Friedman was already an eminently well-known quantity when we gave him a monthly column in the spring of 2001. In the seventies, he’d been a breakout star of Austin’s cosmic cowboy scene, though with songs like “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” and “Asshole from El Paso,” it was never clear if audiences were meant to take him as seriously as he seemed to be taking himself. In the eighties and nineties, after musical tastes shifted, he refashioned himself as the author of noirish detective novels with titles like Armadillos & Old Lace and Elvis, Jesus & Coca-Cola, all starring a profane, Jameson-swilling, Texas variant of Sherlock Holmes named, naturally, Kinky Friedman. He was adept enough at both pursuits to count genuine heavy hitters among his diehards—Bob Dylan went to his gigs; Bill Clinton and Larry McMurtry blurbed his books. So turning over the magazine’s back page to him, under the heading “The Last Roundup,” was akin to SNL restocking its cast with seasoned comics Billy Crystal and Martin Short in 1984: the move was unexpected—and absolutely brilliant.

Then–editor in chief Evan Smith was the one who thunk it up. “We had not had a back-page columnist before,” Smith, who left Texas Monthly in 2009 to cofound the Texas Tribune, said last week. “It gave readers a second point of entry to each issue: the cover and the back page. And Kinky’s readership then became the magazine’s readership.”

The plan was met, however, with genuine consternation by the editorial staff. As irascible as the Kinky character was in his books, the real dude was even more so, and in real time. He phoned his editor, Brian Sweany, almost every morning at 9:15, opening each call with, “Are you letting the bean counters and lawyers ruin my story?” He refused to use email, so he’d fax in typed drafts, which then had to be transcribed by interns for entry into our editing software. As his frequent fact-checker in those years, I can attest that things got no easier at press time. One month, I discovered that he’d misquoted Larry McMurtry in a punch line. It’s a long story, but the upshot is that where McMurtry had written “catfish,” Kinky had remembered “chicken tenders,” which Kinky felt was significantly funnier. When I insisted we had to make a change—“You’re a hundred percent right, Kinky, ‘chicken tenders’ is much funnier. But we’re quoting McMurtry . . . ”—he grew enraged. “I’ll tell you what’s f—ing funny,” he shouted. “Dealing with you f—ing people each month!”

Still, issue after issue, the staff kept at it, and not just because his profile raised the magazine’s. Kinky was a master at what he did. And while some of his columns were riffs he’d been working on for years, like an expansion on his 1973 song “The Ballad of Charles Whitman” (“Psycho Paths,” July 2002), other months he produced pieces that struck deeply resonant, emotional chords. His ode to his father, who flew 35 successful missions in a B-24 bomber over Germany during World War II before founding a beloved Hill Country summer camp for kids in the fifties (“The Navigator,” June 2001), reduced our copy editors and fact-checkers to weeping, grateful wrecks. It’s one of the most beautiful stories Texas Monthly ever ran.

And then we were on to the next issue. For his part, Kinky was always on the lookout for newer, taller hills to climb, and being no stranger to self-promotion, a stab at politics was a logical fourth act. (Take that, F. Scott Fitzgerald!) In February 2005, at a predawn press conference in front of the Alamo, Kinky announced he was running for governor. It meant the end of his column and the start of a national attention–grabbing quest that was either quixotic or Henny Youngman–esque, depending on your take on the Kinkster. Were the slogans he repeated incessantly—“I’m for the little fellers, not the Rockefellers!” “Friedman’s just another word for nothing left to lose!” “Why the hell not?”—canned lines from a stump speech? Or bits from a stand-up routine? As was ever the case with Kinky, the wider world never could be quite certain. Either way, in November 2006, Governor Rick Perry handily won reelection. Kinky finished a respectable fourth, netting 12.4 percent on nearly 550,000 votes. Eventually he returned to the column.

But the other thing the wider world likely never learned about the campaign was its origin story. In early 2003, a full two years before announcing his bid, Kinky was struggling mightily to come up with a topic for his next column. In a panic, he called Smith to think aloud. “Working with writers,” recalled Smith, “you spend as much time being their therapist as their editor. So I said, ‘What do you do when you have nothing to write about? Make something up. Say you’re running for governor.’ ”

In his column that March, “Oaf of Office,” Kinky did just that. And then, as Texas history proves, the gears started grinding. The race was on. “Many times I’ve been awake in the middle of the night,” said Smith, “afraid the whole damn thing was my fault.”



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