5 Songs You Didn’t Know Kris Kristofferson Wrote for Other Artists, First

Kris Kristofferson’s lyrics have permeated the American songbook for more than 50 years, from Janis Joplin’s pensive croon Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose on “Me and Bobby McGhee” to Waylon Jennings’s woeful retelling of a one-sided love on “The Taker,” but the road toward songwriting was a somewhat unconventional one for the artist at first.

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Born on June 22, 1936, in Brownsville, Texas, by the late 1950s Kristofferson began writing and performing his own songs as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in England—where he graduated with a degree in English Literature. Years before releasing his 1970 debut Kristofferson, he recorded his first album under the name Kris Carson before enlisting in the U.S. Army where he later taught English literature at West Point in New York State. A military child, his paternal grandfather was an officer in the Swedish Army and he often moved around as a child due to his father’s own military service. In 1965, Kristofferson decided to leave the army life and move to Nashville to pursue songwriting, much to the dismay of his family, who disowned him.

By 1966, Kristofferson had an early hit with his song “Viet Nam Blue,” which was recorded by Dave Dudley and peaked in the Top 20 of the country chart. In the following years, Kristofferson found more success hitting the charts with songs like “Jody and the Kid,” recorded by Roy Drusky, “From the Bottle to the Bottom” by Billy Walker and the Tennessee Walkers in 1969, Ray Stevens hitting the country and pop charts with Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”—later becoming a No. 1 hit for Johnny Cash in 1970—and Faron Young’s “Your Time’s Comin’” peaking in the top five on the country chart.

Throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, Kristofferson continued writing more hits, including “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” and “I Won’t Mention It Again,” while also venturing into acting, starring in more than 50 films, including the 1975 musical classic A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand.

Releasing more than two dozen albums over more than five decades, including collaborative albums with Willie Nelson, Rita Coolidge, and others, Kristofferson also toured with and wrote and recorded three albums (from 1985 through 1995) with the country supergroup The Highwaymen, which featured Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash.

Rewarded for his contribution to songwriting, Kristofferson was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977, the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985, and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2004.

Dozens of artists were the first to record Kristofferson’s songs, while others have continued to cover his stories over the decades. In 2021, Willie Nelson shared a new rendition of Kristofferson’s 1973 song “Why Me,” which Nelson originally covered in 1979 on his album Sings Kristofferson.

Here’s a look behind a small sampling of standout songs from the late ’60s and 1970s written by Kris Kristofferson and first recorded by other artists.

1. “Me and Bobby McGee,” Roger Miller (1968)
Written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster

Before Kris Kristofferson recorded “Me and Bobby McGee” on his 1970 debut, Kristofferson, the song was originally recorded by the late honky tonk singer Roger Miller (1936-1992) in 1968. “Me and Bobby McGee” follows a pair of lovers who are traveling together and eventually drift apart with “Bobby” initially written into the song by Kristofferson as a woman.

Miller’s version peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart and got a bigger boost when it hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 three years later with the release of Janis Joplin’s posthumous version. Joplin also switched “Bobby” to a man, and the song was released as a single in 1971, off her second and final album, Pearl.

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free
Feelin’ good was easy Lord when Bobby sang the blues
Feelin’ good was good enough for me
Good enough for me, Bobby McGee

From the coal mines of Kentucky to the California sun
Bobby shared the secrets of my soul
Standin’ right beside me Lord through every thing I done
Every night she kept me from the cold
Then somewhere near Salinas lord I let her slip away
Lookin’ for the home I hope she’ll find
And I’ve trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday
Holdin’ Bobby’s body next to mine

Throughout the decades, “Me and Bobby McGee” has also been covered by everyone from Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Olivia Newton-John, the Grateful Dead, Melissa Etheridge, Dottie West, and the Statler Brothers, among others.

2. “Once More with Feeling,” Jerry Lee Lewis (1970)
Written by Kris Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein

It would take Kristofferson nearly a decade to record “Once More with Feeling” for his ninth album Shake Hands with the Devil in 1979, but he first shared the ballad with Jerry Lee Lewis, who recorded the song for his 13th album, She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.

Lewis’ recording reached No. 1 on the Cash Box Country Singles chart and No. 2 on the Billboard country chart.

We’re just goin’ through the motions
Of the parts we’ve learned to play
Never quite together like before
‘Cause somehow darlin’ something good
Got lost along the way
And our song ain’t nothing
Special anymore

3. “I’ve Got to Have You,” Carly Simon (1971)
Written by Kris Kristofferson

Kristofferson’s “I’ve Got to Have You,” which he recorded himself in 1974, was first released by Carly Simon as the closing acoustic ballad on her second album, Anticipation. Her title track hit No. 3 on the Adult Contemporary chart hit in the U.S., while “I’ve Got to Have You” was released as a single in Australia, where it reached the Top 10 on the charts in 1972.

Holding onto talking, saying nothing.
Knowing in a moment I could lose you.
Then without a warning I remembered that
You trembled at the touch of my hand.
Knowing when you came to me that no one else
Would ever feel the same in my arms
It’s all over… I’ve got to h
ave you.

Wakin’ in the morning to the tenderness
Of holding you asleep in my arms.
Dreaming while my hair was blowing
Softer than a whisper on my cheek.
I don’t know the feeling so I don’t know if it’s love
But it’s enough… It’s enough
I can’t help it… I’ve got to have you.
It’s all over… I’ve got to have you.

4. “The Taker,” Waylon Jennings (1971)
Written by Kris Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein

Following the story of a man who takes a woman for granted and then leaves her, Waylon Jennings recorded “The Taker” as the title track of his 1971 album The Taker/Tulsa. Kristofferson would later record the song on his second album, The Silver Tongued Devil and I, in 1972, which was produced by his “Me and Bobby McGee” co-writer, longtime producer and Monument Records founder Fred Foster, who also worked closely with Roy Orbison—who would later record Kristofferson’s “Something They Can’t Take Away” (see below)—and worked with Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton early on in their careers.

He’s a charmer, he’ll charm her with money
And manners that I never learned
He’s a leader, he’ll lead her across
Pretty bridges he’s plannin’ to

He’s a talker, he’ll talk her right off of her feet
But he won’t talk for long
‘Cause he’s a doer, and he’ll do her the way
That I’d never, damned if he won’t do her wrong

5. “Something They Can’t Take Away,” Roy Orbison (1976)
Written by Kris Kristofferson

First recorded and released by Roy Orbison in 1976 on his 20th album Regeneration, the album—including “Something They Can’t Take Away”—marked Orbison’s return to Monument Records after leaving in 1964 with Fred Foster producing the album.

Orbison lilts through a heartbreaking tale of a long-lost love that never really left.

All too soon we were blown upon
Our separate ways again
And our warm summer dreams
Joined the fallen leaves
That tumbled in the wind with the echoes
And traces of voices and faces
And places that I’ve left behind
But there’s times in the morning
And there’s times at the close of day
When your memory comes easy as smiling
And that’s something they can’t take away
I may die without ever
Knowing happiness again

Photo: Courtesy New West Records

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