Sizing up his legacy in song

Storied musician Kris Kristofferson, 71, comes to Yountville

By Richard Bammer/Features Writer

Kris Kristofferson released his newest album, “This Old Road,” in 2006. (Courtesy photo)

Kris Kristofferson is at an age when he can look back and size up his legacy. “It’ll probably be connected to the songs, I think,” the singer-songwriter and film legend, 71, said during a recent telephone interview from his home in Hawaii. “That’s what I’m feeling on the road – is an appreciation for the songs, the way I’m doing them now, by myself.”Which is what he will do Sunday in a special solo acoustic setting in the Lincoln Theater at the Veterans Home of California in Yountville. He will no doubt reprise his best-known tunes, among them “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “For the Good Times” and “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again).”

Lincoln Theater
Veterans Home of California
100 California Drive
$45 to $65 944-1300

But he will also likely perform tunes from his latest CD, “This Old Road,” an 11-track disc released in 2006 on the New West Records imprint, as well as songs from his acclaimed albums, such as “The Silver-Tongued Devil and I,” “Jesus Was A Capricorn” and “Highwayman,” the latter a collaboration with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.

While he enjoyed his days of playing with a full backing unit – “I could hide behind some people,” he quipped – Kristofferson relishes the unplugged, stripped-down ambiance of facing audiences alone with just a guitar and his warm, gravelly baritone voice.

Critics generally credit him and fellow singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver as the inventors of “outlaw” country, but he said he had no idea at the time, the late 1960s and early 1970s, his heyday, that his lyrics would spawn a new subgenre of American music.

“You know, you’ve got no control over that kind of stuff,” he said. “But I remember that I had just gotten out of the hospital for pneumonia. And I grew a beard while I was in there. They took a picture for Look or Colliers (magazines), a big picture and the title was ‘The New Face of Country Music.’ After that shot, everybody was wearing beards.”

Kristofferson’s songs, noted for their unusual points of view and spare imagery influenced by 17th- and 19-century English poetry, have been covered by more than 400 singers, according to some accounts. He believes the lyrics suggest a bare-bones honesty and intimacy that was unusual for the times.

“When I went to Nashville (in 1965), I was 10 years older than everybody else,” he said. “I had already been in the Army (resigning as a captain and forsaking an English teaching job at the United States Military Academy). I had the idea of just writing the best I could write and be as close to Hank Williams that I could. After about four years, it worked, but there was a lot of trial and error. There were a lot of good songwriters to hang out with.”

The son of an Air Force major general, the Brownsville, Texas, native said his decision to give up a promising military career “was pretty scary. It was a lot scarier for my wife and for my parents because they weren’t in love with the songwriting life like I was.”

Kristofferson, encouraged to move to Nashville after a meeting with his idol, Johnny Cash, tried to pitch his songs while working as a night janitor at the Columbia studios, cleaning ashtrays, vacuuming and emptying wastebaskets while Bob Dylan was recording “Blonde on Blonde” there.

“I felt at home the minute I was in Nashville,” he recalled. “I was hanging with ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement and Merle Kilgore. From then on, I was living in a place that I loved. Everybody there was creative and funny and it was fun.”

No conversation with Kristofferson could overlook his films, a career that began in 1972 with “Cisco Pike,” followed by “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “Semi-Tough” “Convoy” and “A Star is Born.” He starred in TV miniseries but, in 1995, he starred in what may be his most memorable film role, playing against type, as the murderous sheriff in John Sayles’ “Lone Star.” He said he had great respect for Sayles.

“I asked him why he hired me (for the sheriff role), because it represented everything I stood against,” Kristofferson remembered. “We talked about the character and I came to realize that there were enough points in his character I could identify with. Those points of contact with his character made him believable and I began to feel sympathetic toward him. It allowed me to go in a direction that I hadn’t been in.”

Known for being politically outspoken on occasion, he said that his convictions led to a break with Columbia in the late 1980s. Still, he feels compelled to speak his mind, using his celebrity as an opportunity to challenge what Washington, D.C., politicians – and presidents – tell the public. He asserted that the Reagan administration in the 1980s was, essentially, terrorizing the Nicaraguans, who freely and democratically elected leftist leader Daniel Ortega as president.

“I just pissed people off back then,” Kristofferson said, adding, “But people were also thinking about” his opinions. “Today, the atmosphere is different. The world has beat up on us. I just think we’re in a worse place because we’re not living up to what we’re supposed to be.”

A former Rhodes Scholar, Kristofferson, who earned a doctorate from Pomona College, said his time at Oxford University allowed him to study not only 17th-century English metaphysical poetry but also the poets William Blake and William Shakespeare.

“It can’t but help you as a writer,” he said.

One Response to “Sizing up his legacy in song”

  1. […] The brief history of Kris Kristofferson’s career. The secret to writing like Kristofferson? Studying 17th-century English metaphysical poetry along with the poets William Blake and William Shakespeare. Sounds daunting. […]

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