Outlaws have been romanticized in stories since the first story told. Every culture has their own breed, wearing tall leather boots, a gun on the hip and a knife in the boot, and wide-brimmed hat to cover their brooding eyes. The American cowboy has captured the imagination of the world through radio, movies and syndicated television, but to have them walk through a bar nowadays is more than a little rare. Though they are a “dying breed”, there are a few still roaming around, sniffing out freedom in the wind, reminding us where we came from. Kris Kristofferson has spent a lifetime writing about freedom, and the road few realize exists. He should know; he helped to pave it.
Brownsville, TX bore him but couldn’t hold him. He joined this world on June 22, 1936, born to an Army Air Corps Major General and his wife. As with many military families, they migrated to whichever base needed them. He grew up on the fly, finally landing and graduating from San Mateo High School and attending Pomona College. In 1958, he graduated with a bachelors degree and crossed the sea to attend Oxford, on a Rhodes’ Scholarship. Military service was in the cards for Kris, as it had been for most of the men in his family. Upon graduation from Oxford in 1960, he joined the US Air Force, being stationed in West Germany.
Throughout his high school and college careers he fostered an urge to write. Having a creative literature degree, he honed his songwriting craft through Hank Williams records and William Blake poetry. He excelled in the military, making the rank of Captain, learning how to fly helicopters and even putting a band together. By the time his tour was over in 1965, he had two choices: he could become an English professor at West Point Military Academy, where he had a position waiting, or he could pack up his songs and fly them to Nashville. All but one person told him to avoid Nashville; when he told a general he knew about his dreams of writing, he simply told him “follow your heart”. Much to the chagrin of his friends and family, he packed his pens and paper, clothes and memories, one step behind his heart all the way.
In between college and the military, Kris married his high school sweetheart, Fran Beir, with whom he had two children. They were together through the move to Nashville, but the burden of living hand-to-mouth, coupled with the resulting medical bills from a birth defect in their son was too much for them. They divorced soon after.
Like all other starving artists, Kris picked up a handful of jobs to pay the bills. Bartender, janitor, helicopter pilot were just a few, but eventually even these would pay off in interesting ways. He got a job at Columbia Studios sweeping the floors, leading to a meeting with Johnny Cash, himself. He was a fan of Cash’s before meeting, and a close friend from then on. Cash mentored him in the business and gave him his first few major breaks, encouraging him to keep writing and pushing. He was there while Bob Dylan was recording Blonde On Blonde, in 1966, but kept his distance for fear of pissing Bob off. He was also flying helicopters to and from oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Many of his songs were written while sitting on top of an oil rig, or driving back to Nashville. In between jobs he was shopping his songs, hanging out in the bars listening to other songwriters. Just in case anyone is wondering, it is not a glamorous life. It’s comparable to living like a peasant in the feudal days, except in this case, you’re slave to your craft. It’s the most freeing and entrapping feeling, lived simultaneously. Kris lived it well.
1966 continued on with glimmers of promise. Dave Dudley cut on of his songs, “Vietnam Blues” , which brought mild recognition. At long last, he put his own voice on tape, cutting “The Golden Idol”/”Killing Time” in 1967 on Epic Records. If you’ve never heard of it, don’t feel bad; it went straight to the bottom of the toilet. Kris’ resolve was strengthened and his writing became ferocious. He broke out in 1968, getting a cut with Roy Drusky (“Jody and The Kid”). This was followed by a slew of cuts from Roger Miller, Jerry Lee Lewis and Faron Young.
After years of demo pushing and miserable failing, he convinced Cash to record one of his songs. In a particularly brazen move, he dropped a helicopter into Johnny’s front yard, hand delivering an acetate demo to his front door. June thought it was the IRS, finally catching up with them, but when Johnny saw it was Kris, he was impressed. “Sunday Morning Coming Down” was recorded and Kris was asked to perform a couple of songs during Cash’s Newport Folk Festival appearance. The deal was sealed at that moment. It encapsulated both writer and performer in a few deft lines. Johnny Cash is as known for his tumultuous lifestyle as for his music, having been to the bottom of the barrel and scraping what he could before rising back up to the top. Kris also was no stranger to hardship, having looked the devil straight in the eyes. “Sunday Morning Coming Down” is redemptive, having nowhere to turn but towards the light, knowing it’s the last thing deserved but the only thing needed.
A self-titled album, Kristofferson, followed in 1970. It did fairly well, with songs such as “Me and Bobby McGee” found between the grooves. It was re-released and retitled in 1971 after the passing of Janis Joplin. Before her death on October 4, 1970, she secretly cut a version of “Me and Bobby McGee” on her album, Pearl. Released posthumously, it skyrocketed to the top of the charts, becoming her only #1 hit, and only the second posthumous #1 issued, after Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ (On The Dock Of The Bay). Her version became the song of a generation, the battle cry of every homeless, rootless soul riding the salty wind. His words painted the picture of love that everyone had felt without being able to describe it. Having dated on and off before her death, she hadn’t even let him know what she was doing; he found out on October 5, when it came on the radio. Subsequent albums followed throughout the 70s and 80s, some doing fairly well, others failing miserably. Notable releases include The Silver Tongued Devil and I (1971), Jesus Was A Capricorn (1972) Border Lord (1973).
The thing about Kris is that while none of his albums did that well commercially, his songs have been winning awards all along. He himself is not very commercial, but when another artist who is gets a hold on one of his compositions, it’s earth shattering. You might be able to deny his performance style, his simple guitar playing, his gravel-eating voice. On the other hand, his songs are of another world. I try to keep myself out of the articles I write, but in this instance, I am too much of a fan to keep quiet. I can’t deny the presence of a living, breathing, loving, hurting God when I listen to a Kristofferson song. To be able to paint such vivid pictures, calling on images that most people would rather stuff into the furthest recesses of their minds, and touching a part of the soul that is best left alone…that is a gift that comes from a place no human can access on their own. He is as honest about a one-night stand as he is about falling at the feet of Christ, things most of us would try to separate, but should possibly be considered in the same breath. Now that I have properly fallen through the soap box I was standing on, I will continue with the article.
While writing songs, recording albums, pursuing an acting career and winning awards, Kris met and married fellow musician Rita Coolidge. They had one daughter, Casey, two duet albums, Full Moon (1973) and Breakaway (1974), and a handful of happy years. They divorced in 1980, amidst a tidal wave of increasingly unpopular albums for Kris and plummeting movie reviews. Up to this point, his movie career had been climbing, peaking with his 1976 performance with Barbara Streisand in A Star Is Born, while his album sales were flagging. His performance in Pat Garret and Billy The Kid was among his best, but the music he composed for the film out-shined his onscreen appearance. Other films have followed over the past 30 years that have rounded out his acting career.
In 1982, Kris was part of a combo release with Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Brenda Lee of material they had recorded for Monument Records over the years. They performed together on a variety show hosted by Johnny Cash later that year, where Kris and Willie got to know each other. Becoming fast friends, they were cast in the movie, Songwriter. Both the combo release and the Songwriter soundtrack did well on the charts, putting Kris back out in the spotlight. 1985 saw the formation of The Highwaymen, Kris, Willie, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. The country super group was a traditional answer to the new wave of contemporary country sweeping the nation. They go on to tour major venues around the world, their self-titled album becoming a huge hit.
The late 80s and 90s saw Kris continuing with The Highwaymen, but also becoming a social activist. Through his music, he has championed for the release of Nelson Mandela, and for political awareness around the world. Having served in the military himself, he has broadened his line of sight to explore the underbelly of America’s foreign relations. It’s a fine line that we have drawn in the sand, between fighting for freedom and pushing our cause to the brink of destruction. Kris has taken up the duty of talking about it frankly. It’s not done to bolster political opinion; it’s something he sees as a matter of right and wrong. Writers pen what they know, what they believe. Sometimes it’s a hard pill for others to swallow, and it doesn’t always win friends, but it’s the mark of integrity. This awareness continues to ring out of his current material, along with the same vivid images of life’s soaring highs and shameful lows.
If you were to look at a stack of records, you would find Kris Kristofferson somewhere between Hank Williams and a copy of Jean Shepherd Reads The Poetry of Robert Service. He is equal parts reckless and reserved, witty and world-weary, brazen and observant. In an age where most would rather give lip-service, he chose to speak his mind. Despite falling from grace more than once, he continues to seek out the narrow gate spoken of in the Gospel of Matthew; the narrow gate that leads to promise. The narrow gate few will bother to find. And as swiftly as a tumbleweed will careen through the open desert, his music will continue to cut a path through the gritty winds of life.