The stage was empty, save two acoustic guitars and a black music stand. No lights, no backdrop; nothing. He walked out in black jeans and a black button-down shirt, almost blending into the wall. Kris Kristofferson has every right to walk out onstage in a crown of jewels, trailing a red velvet cape behind him, because he is American artistic royalty. Having penned such songs as “Me and Bobby McGee”, “Help Me Make It Through The Night”, “Why Me Lord” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, he has become the touchstone troubadour for many aspiring songwriters that have followed behind him.
Kristofferson was the first writer that hit me where I lived. There are precious few others that can turn a phrase like he can. The pictures he paints in language are as real to touch as the table you are sitting at right now. He doesn’t rest on the tried-and-true phrases found in many songs about love,lust and loss- he creates the new ones we all pull from, time and again. Odds are, the versions of his songs that we recognize aren’t the ones he recorded. His string of cuts reads like a roll call at the Country Music and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, with Janis, Johnny and Roger Miller to name just a few.
Within minutes, it was obvious how strong his impact has been on every generation of the last 50 years, as the Ryman quickly filled to capacity, with ages 18-80 proudly represented. There was not a square inch of seating left when the lights dimmed and the spotlight flicked on, and as Kris began to cross the stage, the audience erupted. For the next two hours, he had us in the palm of his hand, buttressing each song with colloquial quips and stories that kept us laughing between the tears.
It was my dream come true. I will never forget the sound of his voice, or the way he made us feel like we were sitting in his living room, while his whims were taking us across the pages of time. He’s that uncle we all wish we had; the one who raised hell and was intelligent enough to write it down. Because there’s no way we’d have believed him if he didn’t. For an evening, he was family. For an hour, we were friends. For a lifetime, I will keep unwrapping that gift and looking at it, still baffled that I got to receive it.