Though Kris Kristofferson just released an album titled Feeling Mortal and turns 77 in June, the man who penned some of the most beloved songs of the past half-century (including “Me And Bobby McGee” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night”) is hardly ready to put a coda on his celebrated career. He admits concussions suffered during his boxing and football days are now catching up to him, but says getting old ain’t so bad. “In fact, it’s kind of nice,” he reveals. “I’m surrounded by people that I love [including his wife and eight children] and I’m respected for doin’ what I love to do. It’s been a good life.”
You’re calling this album the third of a “twilight-years trilogy.” Does that mean it’s your final recording?
No, no. Unless they throw a curve on me. I think I’ll be recording for the rest of my days, as long as I can still come up with some songs I can believe in. I enjoy working with [producer] Don Was.
In the title song, you thank your lucky stars “for the artist that you are/and the man you made of me.” Who does that refer to?
Me. And God. [Laughs.] I’m grateful for this trip. When I look at all the things that I’ve been blessed to do – everything that I’ve always loved; even though I’m not big, I got to play football and box [and fly military helicopters], and when I decided to follow my heart and go into songwriting, it all turned out for the best.
It’s surprising to hear your admission of “shaky self-esteem,” especially because you’re regarded as one of the most accomplished people in the entertainment realm and beyond. Have you always been driven by shaky self-esteem?
Well, I don’t know if I’ve been driven by it. But it’s been part of me all my life. I’m not really concerned with it. But I’ve always been aware of my limitations.
Regarding “You Don’t Tell Me What To Do,” this is not an issue for you at this point, is it?
It sounds a little grumpy [laughs], but that’s how I’ve lived my whole life, doin’ what I wanted to do as opposed to what other people thought was the right thing for me to do.
That’s part of the outlaw country ethos you helped create. Clearly, it’s had some success.
Well, I had some good examples. Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and Roger Miller, all these guys who went their own way and did good stuff.
“Stairway to the Bottom” … who’s that about?
Oh, that was one of the early songs that I wrote in Nashville. It was sort of autobiographical and [pauses] … I was pretty critical of myself and others at the time.
A lot of people have a tendency to be that way. It sounds like you’ve found a different way of regarding whatever makes you critical. What do you recommend?
I recommend following your heart. If the whole world thinks you shouldn’t be doing something that you truly believe you’re supposed to be doin,’ you gotta do that. And that can alienate some people, but you just have to do what you feel like you were set down here to do. My mother had said, ‘Even if you get successful at this, it’s never gonna mean anything to us, songwriting, because nobody over the age of 16 listens to that kind of stuff [laughs], and if they did, it wouldn’t be somebody we wanted to know.’ So that’s what you deal with.
So your parents never thought of it as something you could do successfully? Or they never respected it?
She didn’t respect it. My father did. My father told me nobody wanted him to be an airline pilot, and he followed his heart and was always happy about it. He could understand me doin’ it. He loved flying; he was the first guy to fly solo over the Himalayas in the Second World War.
You spoke at Willie Nelson’s statue dedication before a Johnny Cash tribute in Austin last year. Was it strange to dedicate a statue to a friend who’s still around and standing right there?
Back when I first went to Nashville, years before I ever met Willie, he was idolized by those of us who considered songwriting a serious business. He’s always been my hero and he was always a hero to the singer-songwriters, and he’s never changed a bit. He’s always the same person — one of the funniest human beings in the world.
You cracked some good jokes about him, too. Then you did a Highwaymen reunion of sorts, even though two of them are gone.
Imagine if you’re me, standing up on the stage with Willie Nelson, this guy who was the serious songwriters’ hero; Johnny Cash, who still is larger than life to me; and Waylon Jennings, who is one of the greatest people I’ve ever known. It was like a dream that I was afraid I’d wake up from and find out that I was still the ashtray emptier. [Laughs]. That’s what I mean about looking at my life and being so grateful.