Kris Kristofferson

The Pilgrim's Progress

BY Jason SchneiderPublished Sep 26, 2009

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."

1966 to 1968
Now firmly committed to establishing himself in Nashville, Kristofferson even works as a janitor at Columbia Studios to stay close to the action. He is present at the sessions for Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde but is too intimidated to do anything other than observe. He also watches Johnny Cash record, and despite strict orders not to engage the artists, Kristofferson gives demos to June Carter in hopes that she'll pass them on to Cash. These tapes ― along with many other items ― are soon thrown into the lake on Cash's property during one of his drug-induced tirades. Kristofferson instead receives his first legitimate credit when Dave Dudley releases "Viet Nam Blues," leading to Kristofferson recording "The Golden Idol/Killing Time" under his own name for Epic Records in 1967. Although the single flops, Kristofferson remains undeterred. "I think I would have probably drunk myself to death if I hadn't got into something creative," he says. "I always felt like Nashville saved my life. It seemed at the time to my parents and my peers that I'd lost my mind. It was a long way from Oxford. But it was so exciting to me even though it was hard on my family." Kristofferson's songs start catching on in 1968 after Roy Drusky has a Top 30 hit with "Jody and the Kid." Over the next year, many others including Jerry Lee Lewis, Faron Young, and Roger Miller reach the country charts with Kristofferson compositions.

Still bent on having Cash record one of his songs, Kristofferson flies a helicopter to Cash's homestead to deliver more demos. Seeing the chopper, June panics, thinking it is the FBI coming to arrest her husband. However, Cash is suitably impressed by the gesture to invite Kristofferson to regular jam sessions at the home. Cash settles on recording "Sunday Morning Coming Down," although he encourages Kristofferson to sing it himself, along with "Me and Bobby McGee," for a guest appearance during Cash's set at the 1969 Newport Folk Festival. It is Kristofferson's first high-profile live performance and he is so nervous that June Carter has to kick him in the ass to get him on stage. "I started performing around the same time as the songs started getting cut," he says. "After Johnny put me on his show at Newport, I got offers to play at some other folk festivals and I never looked back. After about a year and a half, Ray Price and some others tried to convince me to stop going out on the road and just go back to writing songs. They said, 'You were writing a lot more when you were working down in the Gulf of Mexico.' I guess I was doing better than they thought I was. I never did have to work for a living after that." The success finally ends Kristofferson's already strained marriage, and he begins dating Janis Joplin.

Kristofferson teams with Nashville veteran Fred Foster, who signs him to his label, Monument Records. The first album, Kristofferson, contains all of his best-known songs to that point, but sales are disappointing. Other artists still have more success with their interpretations; Ray Price's version of "For The Good Times" wins the Academy of Country Music's Song of the Year award, while Johnny Cash's version of "Sunday Morning Coming Down" receives the same honour from the Country Music Association. Outside of the country scene, Gordon Lightfoot's career is rejuvenated through his cover of "Me and Bobby McGee," and Joplin's recording of the song becomes her unintended farewell statement when it is released shortly after her death in October 1970. Kristofferson himself seems caught between the country and rock worlds; he performs at the massive Isle of Wight festival in August 1970, alongside Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, two artists with whom he feels a kinship. "I didn't think I had great songs at the time, but for some reason I was immediately taken in as a serious songwriter by these guys who hung out all night at the jam sessions," he says. "Guys like Gordon Lightfoot and Leonard Cohen were already heroes to us. I had a feeling at the time I started performing that Canada was the best audience I had. I think it was probably because of how much I looked up to Gordon and Leonard Cohen."

Kristofferson records The Silver-Tongued Devil and I, which includes "Jody and the Kid," "The Taker" (already covered by Waylon Jennings), "Epitaph" (his tribute to Joplin), and "The Pilgrim, Chapter 33" (his tribute to Cash). Sales are much stronger, aided by the re-release of his first album under the title Me and Bobby McGee. Immediately after Kristofferson's L.A. debut at the Troubadour, he starts receiving acting offers, even though he has no experience in that field. "Everything was happening so fast that I'm surprised that it didn't completely knock me off," he says. "I think I was lucky that I was ten years older than my peers in Nashville. And I think that time in the army and my education saved me from some of the pitfalls that such sudden fame could have posed for me. Suddenly all of these people that I'd idolized from afar were now mates." Dennis Hopper persuades him to join the cast of The Last Movie, the director's long-gestating follow-up to Easy Rider, being shot in Peru. Unfortunately, the film's challenging nature does not earn it a wide release, and it is quickly relegated to cult status. Kristofferson has a bit more luck with Cisco Pike, in which he stars as a down-and-out musician forced to sell marijuana by a crooked cop (Gene Hackman) in order to avoid jail time for prior offences. Although not a critical or box office success, Kristofferson's performance draws the attention of other directors.

His third album, Border Lord, is released, featuring members of his road band along with Nashville session stars. Sales dip, but he wins several Grammy awards, including Country Song of the Year for "Help Me Make It Through The Night," a huge crossover hit for Sammi Smith the previous year. "It was pretty amazing because maybe five years before that I couldn't even sing my own demos," he says. "They weren't used to hearing a voice like mine. I think Bob Dylan helped a lot of us in that way. They couldn't understand Dylan, but he was doing so great that I guess that gave us a chance to try to make a living at it." Kristofferson starts using his growing influence to help fellow singer/songwriters John Prine and Steve Goodman get more exposure. He recalls, "Paul Anka was in town to see my show. Afterward, Steve took us to a club to see Prine, and Paul offered to fly them both to New York where I was going to be playing at the Bitter End. He got the owner to let them play however long they wanted to. Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records came to see one of the shows and signed Prine on the spot. We made some demos with Steve there and he got a record deal too." Kristofferson also enters into a new relationship with singer Rita Coolidge, and the two are photographed together for the cover of his next album, Jesus Was A Capricorn. Its most popular song is "Why Me," which quickly becomes a gospel standard.

1973 to 1974
Kristofferson's music and acting careers continue to flourish. He appears in Paul Mazursky's Blume In Love, and Sam Peckinpah casts him as Billy in Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. The latter is Bob Dylan's big-screen debut ― he also composes the soundtrack ― which inevitably overshadows the rest of the production. Kristofferson and Coolidge marry ― they soon have a daughter named Casey ― and record an album of duets, Full Moon, released on A&M Records to widespread acclaim. Kristofferson's next album, Spooky Lady's Sideshow, does not fare as well, in part due to the amount of songs that dwell on drinking and other self-destructive behaviour. "Things did get a little blurry," he says. "You can't drink as much as I drank and not have things get blurry. Fortunately, I think I had enough survival skills by that time to not fall under the train." He teams up again with Peckinpah for Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, and Martin Scorsese casts him in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Scorsese will later tip his cap to Kristofferson in Taxi Driver, when Travis (Robert DeNiro) purchases a copy of The Silver-Tongued Devil and I for Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) after she quotes lyrics from "The Pilgrim." A second Kris & Rita album, Breakaway, is released at the end of 1974.

1975 to 1976
Kristofferson releases Who's To Bless... And Who's To Blame, his lowest-charting album to date. Conversely, his acting career begins to reach its peak. He receives good reviews for the otherwise forgettable action flick Vigilante Force, before heading in an entirely different direction with his role in the drama The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, based on the Japanese novel of the same name. A whole new level of fame beckons next though, when he is cast alongside one-time flame Barbra Streisand in her remake of A Star Is Born, a role she originally wanted Elvis Presley to play. The film is an international smash, and Kristofferson takes home a Golden Globe Award as Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. His next album, Surreal Thing, vanishes in the midst of all of this, and is noteworthy primarily for new versions of "The Golden Idol" and "Killing Time," his 1967 single.

1977 to 1979
After co-starring with Burt Reynolds in Semi-Tough, the compilation Songs of Kristofferson briefly gets him back on the charts. Both of its successors, Easter Island, and his final album with Coolidge, Natural Act, cannot build upon that momentum. He teams up with Peckinpah one last time as well, starring as a hell-bent trucker named Rubber Duck in Convoy, before sharing top billing with Muhammad Ali in the made-for-TV slave drama Freedom Road. Willie Nelson enjoys strong sales of his album of Kristofferson material, yet Kris's next album, Shake Hands With The Devil, fails to make it onto either the country or pop charts, an ominous sign.

Kristofferson is cast in the lead role for Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate. The director is the current darling of Hollywood after his first feature, The Deer Hunter. Based on this, his studio, United Artists, bows to all of his demands until the film's budget reaches a then-unprecedented $42 million. With constant negative publicity leading up to the film's release ― and scathing reviews afterward ― it can only manage to earn $3 million at the box office, effectively bankrupting the studio. Kristofferson, who gave a fine performance, still feels the criticism is unjustified. "I'm sure to this day that it was political assassination," he says. "The Attorney General at the time [William French Smith], who was an ex-Navy guy, had a meeting in Hollywood where he said there would be no more pictures that gave a negative portrayal of American history, which is what Heaven's Gate is about. That just did it in. There wasn't one favourable review, and I used to read them all. I'd never heard of any film that was treated like that." Compounding this, Kristofferson and Coolidge divorce. He goes on to explain, "My music wasn't getting as much attention because the record company I was with was sort of sinking in the west. I made several albums that nobody heard. It was getting tough to balance everything, but so much was happening that I wasn't too worried. Then life crashed in at the end. Rita and I got divorced, and at the same time Heaven's Gate was the biggest bomb of all time. It put me out of work for a while, but poor Cimino hasn't done anything since then."

1981 to 1984
Kristofferson attempts to bounce back with To The Bone, a collection of songs stemming from his divorce. It again fails to chart. In 1982, Monument releases The Winning Hand, a double album of obscure material that Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Brenda Lee had all each recorded for the label over the years. It cracks the Top 5 on the U.S. country chart, bringing Kristofferson some much-needed attention. As a follow-up, the four artists participate in a two-hour TV variety show hosted by Johnny Cash. It is the first chance that Kristofferson and Nelson have to get to know each other and they form an instant friendship. Their bond is immediately exploited as the two are cast as the leads in Alan Rudolph's film Songwriter, loosely based on some of Nelson's personal experiences. The soundtrack album enjoys healthy sales, and is nominated for an Academy Award, ultimately losing to Prince's Purple Rain. Kristofferson marries for the third time, to Lisa Meyers, and they go on to have five children over the next ten years.

1985 to 1987
Kristofferson, Cash, Nelson, and Jennings band together, in part to bolster their careers amid the onset of "new country." They release the album Highwayman ― with the title track contributed by Jimmy Webb ― and from then on are known as the Highwaymen. The album is a huge hit, and they are able to sell out large venues around the world. Kristofferson's next film, Alan Rudolph's Trouble In Mind, is a surreal detective story that few see, and following its release he records his first solo album since 1981. Repossessed is infused with Kristofferson's anger over U.S. military action in Central America, while "They Killed Him" is an anti-war meditation that cites Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. Bob Dylan records the song not long after for Knocked Out Loaded. Kristofferson's political leanings are further questioned when he next appears in the TV mini-series Amerika, which hypothesizes life in the United States after a takeover by the Soviet Union.

1988 to 1991
Apart from touring with the Highwaymen, Kristofferson continues to appear in several uninspired film and television productions. He remains a vocal supporter of the Sandinistas, and joins the growing choruses demanding the release of Nelson Mandela and Native American protester Leonard Peltier. It's no surprise then that his next album, Third World Warrior, takes an even stronger militant stance, although unfortunately it is released at the same time as Highwaymen 2. In spite of some great songs like "Don't Let The Bastards Get You Down," sales of his solo effort are a fraction of what the group generates. "That was a time when that information wasn't generally known everywhere," he says now. "We were undermining these countries in Central America, blowing up schools, and training the Contras to mine roads and overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and kill people in El Salvador. It used to piss people off when I would sing those songs, and it doesn't anymore because they've been exposed to the same information."

1992 to 1995
Kristofferson acts as MC at the Bob Dylan tribute concert at Madison Square Garden. He introduces Sinead O'Connor, who is promptly booed offstage, having torn up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live the week before. In a dramatic scene, she runs into Kristofferson's arms and he is clearly heard telling her, "Don't let the bastards get you down." He revisits this moment in the song "Sister Sinead" on Closer To The Bone. Also at that concert he meets producer Don Was, who is eventually enlisted to produce what will be the final Highwaymen album, The Road Goes On Forever. Sales don't match those of its predecessors, and all four artists go back to their solo careers. Kristofferson works with Was again on A Moment Of Forever, released independently on Justice Records. The album features a stellar line-up of musicians, and includes remakes of several songs, along with "Johnny Lobo," a new piece inspired by Native American activist John Trudell.

1996 to 1999
A standout performance in John Sayles' Lone Star revives Kristofferson's acting career, leading to a recurring supporting role in the Blade trilogy. He earns further acclaim for a star turn in A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, and reconnects with his core audience through the album The Austin Sessions, a selection of classic material performed with guests that include Steve Earle, Mark Knopfler, Allison Krauss, and Jackson Browne.

2000 to 2005
Kristofferson remains busy with several films and documentaries, the most high profile being a role in Tim Burton's Planet Of The Apes. In 2003, the live album Broken Freedom Song is released on John Prine's Oh Boy label. Recorded in San Francisco, it largely draws from his latter-day political work. Waylon Jennings dies in 2002, and Johnny Cash dies the following year. Kristofferson writes of Cash in Rolling Stone, "[He] was a biblical character... I don't think we'll see anyone like him again."

2006 to 2008
Kristofferson signs with New West Records and records This Old Road with Don Was, his first album of new material in 11 years. The album's stripped-down sound reflects the more philosophical tone in most of the songs. One he retools is "The Burden of Freedom," first heard on Border Lord. Explaining this decision, Kristofferson says, "When I wrote it back in the late '60s, it was about leaving the path I had been prepared for ― West Point and all that ― but it's mostly about doing what you believe is right, whether that makes you enemies or not." The album is warmly embraced by critics, and reaches the Top 40 on the country chart. Unlike most names associated with Nashville, Kristofferson formally endorses Barack Obama for president.

Closer To The Bone picks up where This Old Road leaves off, and is the last recording with Kristofferson's long-time guitarist Stephen Bruton, who dies in May. The stark qualities of the performances bear similarities to Johnny Cash's American series, to which Kristofferson responds, "I was glad to see [John] make those last few records, and glad that Rick Rubin was so behind it. But Don Was was the guy who really suggested that I be recording like this." Yet, Cash's presence is there in the song "Good Morning John." "I wrote that at June's request after John had just gotten out of a rehab ― I think it was the last one he was in. After that he straightened up for the rest of his life. There were a lot of songs like 'Good Morning John' that I hadn't recorded that really meant something to me. I wanted to get as many of them on this record as I could." Kristofferson has made it known that he wants the opening lines of Leonard Cohen's "Bird On The Wire" ― "Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free" ― engraved on his tombstone, but until then he plans on maintaining a full schedule. "I can make an occasional film and go out on the road any time I want," he says. "I feel very fortunate with how my life has turned out."

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