The Pilgrim's Progress
Kris Kristofferson has been many things over the course of his 73 years so far: Rhodes Scholar, soldier, janitor, actor, activist, outlaw. But above all he has been a songwriter. Like countless others before him, Kristofferson came to Nashville in the mid-'60s toting a notebook full of original compositions with hopes of hitting the big time. Yet, these were far from the sentimental ballads that Music City was used to. Songs like "Help Me Make It Through The Night" and "Sunday Morning Coming Down" were brutally honest snapshots of the life Kristofferson had chosen in pursuit of his art. Moreover, "Me And Bobby McGee" reflected the social change sweeping through America, as a generation grappled with what for many had become a rootless existence. Despite the fame and prosperity that these songs brought, Kristofferson's own quest has never ended. His undeniable magnetism led to acting, and he has made movies ― some good, some bad, some misunderstood ― when he's had to. But he's never abandoned music, the only avenue that has allowed him the freedom to express the full range of emotions he feels for a country and culture he loves dearly, but often openly challenges. Kristofferson's latest album, Closer To The Bone, is another moving testament to that pursuit of freedom at the heart of his best work. While the performances may sound fragile at this point in his life, they're as honest and inspiring as any he's ever recorded. Like the central figure in another early triumph, "The Pilgrim," Kristofferson remains "a walkin' contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction, takin' every wrong direction on his lonely way back home."
1936 to 1958
Kris Kristofferson is born June 22, 1936 in Brownsville, Texas. His father, Lars, is a U.S. Air Force major general and his grandfather served as an officer in the Swedish army. Kris is groomed for a military career as well, a process that begins with getting accustomed to frequent relocations throughout his formative years. He composes his first ditty at age 11, although it won't be heard until over 60 years later as a hidden track on Closer To The Bone. "I was still living down in Brownsville," he says today. "I think I made it up while I was raking manure. It was just an attempt to write the opposite of a love song." The family settles in San Mateo, California by the time Kris enters high school. An overachiever, he excels at both English and sports. In 1954 he attends Pomona College, a prestigious California liberal arts institution, where word of his athletic prowess reaches the pages of Sports Illustrated. He graduates in 1958 with a BA in Literature, and earns a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University.
1959 to 1965
Kristofferson continues to distinguish himself at Oxford, joining the boxing team and concentrating his studies on the poet William Blake. Blake's complete dedication to his art has a profound effect on Kristofferson. He contemplates writing a novel, but is also caught up in the excitement of rock'n'roll's arrival in Britain, which prompts him to write songs and fashion himself as a performer. He encounters impresario Larry Parnes, manager of first-wave British rockers Marty Wilde and Billy Fury, who immediately sees the potential in exploiting Kristofferson's background. Parnes signs him to Top Rank Records and persuades him to record under the name Kris Carson. However, legal issues arise and none of the recordings are ever released. "They wanted to package me as 'A Yank at Oxford,' and I was willing to take it," Kristofferson tells journalist Bill Flanagan. "I thought, 'I want to make a lot of money and be a novelist.' God, if I'd made it then there's no telling how many dumb things I would have done." Kristofferson completes his degree in 1960 and marries his girlfriend Fran Beer upon returning to California. Over the next few years they have two children, Kris Jr. and Tracy. Kristofferson ultimately fulfils his father's wishes by joining the U.S. Army where he is put through Ranger School in Fort Benning, Georgia, and, by his own choice, helicopter flight training at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Achieving the rank of Captain, he is deployed with the 8th Infantry Division to West Germany. When not on duty, Kristofferson rekindles his passion for music, mostly through his admiration of Hank Williams, and forms a band with fellow soldiers. His desire to become a songwriter is sufficiently stoked by the time of his honourable discharge in 1965 that Kristofferson turns down a teaching position at West Point in favour of testing his abilities in Nashville. His connection is friend John Buck Wilkin's relative, Marijohn Wilkin, best known for co-writing "Long Black Veil," originally a hit for Lefty Frizzell. However, Kristofferson is forced to take a lucrative job flying helicopters for oil companies in the Gulf of Mexico to pay for his son's medical bills resulting from a defective oesophagus. The repetitive work spurs Kristofferson to write even more prodigiously, and most of his time back in Nashville is spent pitching his songs. "I didn't think songwriting was something worthy of devoting your life to until I went to Nashville after I'd been in the army," he says. "It was so exciting and creatively stimulating to me being around all of the serious songwriters there. Everybody was hanging out every night listening to each other's stuff. It was like a rebirth."
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