On August 26, 1970, Kris Kristofferson was unknown to almost anyone not in the habit of studying the writers’ credits on country-music singles. Yet there he was on an island in the English Channel, on stage at the Isle of Wight Festival, facing down half a million European hippies who were loudly uninterested in what he was trying to do. With his dark brown bangs obscuring his right eye and his long hair curling over a brown suede jacket, he told the unruly crowd, “We’re going to do two more in spite of anything except rifle fire.” When that failed to get a reaction, he told his band, over his left shoulder, “I think they’re going to shoot us.”
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He wasn’t going to back down. He strummed his acoustic guitar and began “Me And Bobby McGee,” a track from his debut album, Kristofferson, released just four months earlier. The song had been a modest country hit for Roger Miller the year before, but few in this crowd had ever heard the soon-to-be-famous refrain, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” That aphorism took on an ominous edge as packs of young men restlessly roamed between unsanctioned bonfires, yelling as they went. Finally, the always cantankerous Kristofferson stalked off stage mid-song, giving the crowd the finger as he went.
The songwriter turned 80 this summer, and he’s now greeted by adulation nearly everywhere he goes. Sony Music has just released a 16-CD set, The Complete Monument & Columbia Albums Collection, as well as a three-CD/1 DVD set, The Highwaymen Live, early-‘90s concert recordings of the supergroup featuring Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. Kristofferson’s own label, KK Records, has released the two-CD set, The Cedar Creek Sessions, recent re-recordings of his older songs. The latter includes a duet with old pal Sheryl Crow on an obscure Cash tune, “The Loving Gift,” that Kristofferson had never recorded.
In March, Kristofferson was saluted in a big concert at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, featuring a version of the Highwaymen that included himself, Nelson, Shooter Jennings and Jamey Johnson. Just before Merle Haggard died in April, he asked Kristofferson to take his place on a tour with Nelson. In October, Kristofferson will be presented with the third annual Woody Guthrie Prize at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa.
Having constructed an imposing body of work over the past half century, Kristofferson deserves the hero treatment today. But we shouldn’t gloss over the controversies he sparked nor the obstacles he overcame. It’s useful to remember a time when he was still fighting to be heard, when “Me And Bobby McGee” wasn’t a campfire staple, when his landmark songs, deeply rooted in the country-music tradition while pushing the boundaries of that legacy, proved challenging to country and rock fans alike.
The story is usually told as one of Kristofferson defying Nashville’s taboos against writing about non-married sex and non-alcoholic drugs. But breaking through such barriers requires more courage than talent, and Kristofferson’s legacy lies not in the hundreds of mediocre songs about no-strings sex and marijuana on country radio today. His significance is based not on what he wrote about but on how he wrote about it. He became a role model for succeeding generations of country songwriters because he shrugged off decades of clichés to write about the real lives of country fans with startling detail. And from those details he drew maxims so full of irony that their meaning could never quite be pinned down.
“Yeah, they say he put the ‘skin’ in country music,” says Steve Earle, “but that’s missing the point. He was simply the first writer in Nashville with the literary chops to write about sex without it sounding stupid. Of course, a lot of other writers tried to follow in his footsteps and the results were predictable. They didn’t understand that it was all about the poetics, the detail in the imagery. Quite simply, Kris was the first post-Dylan songwriter to land in Nashville rather than New York or L.A. The songwriters my age and a little older who came to Nashville were following Kris.”
“In 1970 and ’71 I was making a living playing the hits of the day in East Texas Holiday Inn lounges,” recalls Rodney Crowell. “Kris’s songs were a godsend. ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ and ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ were a mammoth relief from the likes of ‘Scotch And Soda’ and ‘Joy To The World.’ I must have sung ‘Help Me Make It …’ 300 times. If I hadn’t, I doubt I’d have written ‘Till I Gain Control Again.’ At the time, a wannabe artist like myself could feel pretty good about singing the words ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’ to a bar full of traveling farm-supply salesmen. It was as close in that setting as you could get to ‘You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.’”