Kris Kristofferson - Biography
Kris Kristofferson is, to quote one of his own songs; a silver tongued devil, a poet, prophet and picker full of contradictions - hellion and family man, redneck bard and Blake scholar, Grammy winner and industry pariah. His straightforward way of expressing himself, both in his songs and in his outspoken support for the Sandinista Revolution or the working poor on America’s farms may have taken its toll on his career, but he never looks back, and constantly downplays his myth.
“I still think of myself as a songwriter first,” Kris Kristofferson says, from his Maui home. “The other gigs — the movies and the social activism - came about because of my songwriting, not my voice or my good looks. I’m not a singer like Willie or Hank or Ray Price, but I can communicate what the songs are about. Songs are the way I organize my experience and make sense out of what I see going on around me. As long as I can remember, I was thinking like a writer when describing people or watching their behavior, and I hope before I’m done I’ll become a writer of fiction, but I got to get on that train if I’m going to do it. I’m conscious every day of the finite amount of time we get.”
Kristofferson was literary in a field that looked down on book learning and one of the first writers to introduce moral ambiguity into a genre dominated by the strictures of fundamental Christianity. With the help of Johnny Cash, Kristofferson had one of the most successful periods in the life of any songwriter. In 1971, during one six month period, Ray Price hit with “For The Good Times,” Roger Miller covered “Me and Bobby McGee,” Sammi Smith had a #1 hit with “Help Me Make It Through The Night” and Cash took “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” to the pop charts. He capped the year with a Song of the Year Grammy for “Help Me Make It Through The Night.”
“I wasn’t trying to be outrageous,” Kristofferson said, recalling the flurry of controversy the surrounded his sexual — for that time — songs. “When I wrote ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ and ‘For The Good Times’ I wasn’t getting anything cut, so I had no need to censor myself. I was attracted to country music ‘cause it talked about real feelings. It was the white man’s blues. And songwriting is one of the few fields where you can hear something you’ve created interpreted by another artist and transformed into something people carry around in their heads.”
“I grew up in the ‘50s and believed all the duty to God and country stuff,” Kristofferson says. “That’s why I enlisted in the Army when I got out of college. I went though Ranger training school and volunteered for Vietnam. Luckily my Commanding Officer decided I should be at West Point, teaching literature, so they didn’t send me.”
Kristofferson was already writing tunes in the Army, and near the end of his hitch, found out his platoon leader was a cousin of Marijohn Wilkins, who co-wrote “Long Black Veil.” “I sent her a tape, and went to Nashville to visit her. She introduced me to Bobby Bare and Tom T. Hall and on the day she was driving me back to the airport, I told her I was quitting the Army and moving to Nashville to be a songwriter. She started banging her head on the steering wheel. She said she’d ruined my life.”
“When I went to Nashville in 1965, I wasn’t thinking about being a singer, I was hoping someone would record [my songs.] At first, I had Johnny Duncan (another Texas songwriter who wrote “I’d Rather Loose You” for Charlie Pride and later became Janie Frickie’s duet partner) singing my demos, but when I started doing ‘em myself, more people started redoing them. They probably figured if I could sell the song, anybody could.”
Kristofferson’s whisky and cigarette rumble is still intact, even though he now leads a clean and sober life, and he’s still modest despite his credits as a songwriter — at least 500 artists have covered his songs at last count - recording artist, performer, actor, human rights activist and triple Grammy winner, including a best country song Grammy for “Help Me Make It Through The Night” in 1971.
Kristofferson’s first Nashville job was sweeping up Columbia’s Nashville studios, a fact that’s now a part of his legend. “I got the job from Billy Swan. The guy who hired me said I was over-qualified, but I wanted a job where I didn’t have to think, so I could concentrate on my songwriting.” Kristofferson witnessed sessions by Simon and Garfunkle, Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. Kristofferson used his position to chat up musicians and pitch songs to artists like Cash.
Kristofferson had a family to support, and with no one recording his tunes, he had to make more money. His next job was flying choppers out to oil rigs off the coast of Louisiana. He used one of them to famously land on Johnny Cash’s lawn to deliver a demo of “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
Soon Kristofferson started getting known as a hit songwriter: Roy Drusky took “Jody and The Kid” Top 40, Roger Miller hit with “Me and Bobby McGee” in 1969 and Faron Young got a Top 5 hit with “Your Time’s Comin’.” In 1970, Kristofferson’s publisher Fred Foster signed him to Monument Records, at that time an indie label, and released Kristofferson (1970), which eventually went Gold and in retrospect is almost a greatest hits collection with tunes like “Me and Bobby McGee”, “Help Me Make It Through The Night”, “For the Good Times”, and “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” His second album, The Silver Tongued Devil and I (1971 Monument) was another strong collection with “Jody and the Kid”, “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)”, “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33” and the title tune. Border Lord (1972 Monument), Jesus Was a Capricorn (1972 Monument), Spooky Lady’s Sideshow (1974 Monument) and Who’s to Bless and Who’s to Blame (1975 Monument) all had good moments, but lacked the quality of Kristofferson’s first two albums. Jesus Was a Capricorn did eventually go Gold when the track “Why Me” took off and topped the country and pop charts. His marriage to Rita Coolidge produced Full Moon (1973 A&M) an album of duets. It went gold and “From the Bottle to the Bottom” won the 1973 Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
Kristofferson was also working steadily as an actor, appearing in films like Cisco Pike (1772), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), and A Star Is Born (1976), with Barbra Streisand. He continued to release albums, most of them spotty, some forgettable. He stopped recording on his own for six years, although he did contribute to other projects, most notably the hit album Highwayman (1985 Columbia) with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. Highwayman 2 (1990) was also a success.
In 1986 the Reagan administration was waging an undeclared war in Nicaragua and Kristofferson visited that country to support the Sandinista revolution. He returned to the studio to cut two political albums for Mercury — Repossessed (1986) and Third World Warrior (1990), both dismissed as minor efforts. Kristofferson finished out the 90's with various live albums and compilations of earlier material. Then in 2006 he signed with New West and cut This Old Read, his first collection of new tunes since A Moment of Forever (1995 Justice). Most of the songs are delivered by Kristofferson and his guitar and recapture the timeless vibe of his earlier songs. The band tracks, with Los Angeles session heavies, bring out the rocker in him, still kicking butt at age 70. It stands up favorably to Kristofferson and The Silver Tongued Devil and I, proving the man still has something to say and a passionate way of saying it. in 2009 he released Closer To the Bone, followed by Feeling Mortal in 2013.