October 15, 2010

He’s a Poet, He’s a Picker

by Jim Newsom

Kris Kristofferson has come a long way from sweeping floors in Nashville recording studios in the mid-to-late ‘60s through superstardom in the 1970s to performing alone with his guitar and harmonica at the Ferguson Center for the Arts on Sunday, November 14th.

Possessing an unusual resume for a country singer-songwriter, he had been Phi Beta Kappa at Pomona College, studied at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship, flew helicopters in the army and turned down a position teaching English at West Point to move to Nashville to write songs in 1965.

His first composition to make the country charts was “Viet Nam Blues,” a #12 hit in 1966 for Dave Dudley, the guy who had popularized “Six Days on the Road” three years earlier. His biggest boost came from Johnny Cash. According to legend, Kristofferson landed a chopper on Cash’s lawn while he was working as a commercial pilot for a Louisiana oil company in his early days pitching songs on Music Row. Johnny took note and the two became lifelong friends.

The rock and pop music worlds first met Kris Kristofferson through former girlfriend Janis Joplin’s version of “Me and Bobby McGee,” released in 1971 a few months after her death. But he had already brought literary legitimacy to country music songwriting and made his mark in what was then a relatively small corner of the music business: In 1970, he won the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year award for “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” a huge hit for Cash. He also won Song of the Year from the CMA’s rival Academy of Country Music for Ray Price’s version of “For the Good Times.” It’s the only time a songwriter has won the same award from those two organizations in the same year for different songs.

By 1972, he was one of the top songwriters in any genre. He had also found an audience as a performer with his gritty huskiness and earthy baritone, singing his songs of the hard living side of life in a deep, scruffy voice that felt like he had lived what he sang. The Silver Tongued Devil and I, Border Lord and Jesus Was a Capricorn were Top Ten albums and “Why Me” was a number one country/top 20 pop hit. But that scratchy, from-the-gut sound was an acquired taste for some.

“Good God,” he said in a 1977 Time Magazine interview, “anyone who sings my songs sings them better than me.”

Even as he became a movie star, Kristofferson thought of himself primarily as a songwriter.

“None of the other stuff would ever have happened,” he told an interviewer for Great Britain’s Guardian, “if it wasn’t for the songwriting. I’ve come to appreciate how special a song is compared to other art forms, because you can carry it around in your head and your heart and it remains part of you. It just comes as natural as a bird to me, always did. It’s the way singer-songwriters make sense of our lives.”

At his commercial peak, Kris Kristofferson turned his energies from music to films. A 1970s cinematic sex symbol in his 30s and early 40s, he established himself as a first rate actor and box office heartthrob with performances in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1976) and A Star is Born (1976). He won a Golden Globe and outshone Barbra Streisand in the latter. He also drank himself to the edge, wrecking his marriage to beautiful pop singer Rita Coolidge.

Fortunately, he was blessed with many lives, and the 1980s found him rekindling his music career, primarily through his dream teaming with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings as The Highwaymen. The last 25 years have seen the 74-year old legend get his due, with countless awards and ongoing respect from his successors in country music. His 2009 CD, Closer to the Bone, ranks with his best work, a stripped down affair filled with personal glimpses and hard won wisdom.

But it’s hard to imagine songs as intelligent as his finding a place on country radio playlists these days. Some of his lyric lines have entered the lexicon among the great quotations of American literature:

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose; nothing ain’t worth nothing but it’s free.” (“Me and Bobby McGee”)

“On the Sunday morning sidewalks, wishing Lord that I was stoned; ‘cause there’s something in a Sunday, makes a body feel alone.” (“Sunday Morning Comin’ Down”)

“As I was searching from bottle to bottle for something un-foolish to say, that silver tongued devil just slipped from the shadows and smilingly stole her away.” (“The Silver Tongued Devil and I”)

“I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountains in the skies; aching with the feeling of the freedom of an eagle when she flies.” (“Loving Her Was Easier”)

It’s an old cliché but true nonetheless: They don’t write songs like that anymore. But Kris Kristofferson did, and he’s still got the goods.

Kris Kristofferson
Ferguson Center for the Arts
Sunday, November 14 – 7:00 pm
Tickets: $27.00 – 47.00
757-594-8752; fergusoncenter.cnu.edu

copyright © 2010 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.


PortFolio Weekly
April 20, 2004
A review of The Essential Kris Kristofferson.