Kris Kristofferson: The Devil And The Details

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Fred Foster, who owned Kristofferson’s publishing company, Combine Music, was starting a record label called Monument Records, and he invited his star writer to become a recording artist. Kristofferson protested that he wasn’t much of a singer. Foster didn’t disagree but replied that Dylan had proven that a gifted writer could become a star without a conventional voice. If Kristofferson’s singing was more like Leonard Cohen’s than like Dylan’s, so was his success. But that was enough to build an enduring career.

His ability to translate the felt experience of drinking, lovemaking, law-breaking and loneliness into song made him a magnetic figure for many folks. Filmmaker Dennis Hopper sought him out to star in The Last Movie. An obscure songwriter named John Prine sought him out as a mentor, and Kristofferson got Prine a record deal and wrote the liner notes for his debut.

At a later Big Sur Folk Festival, Joan Baez sang a duet with Kristofferson on Prine’s “Hello In There,” also included in The Complete Collection. Superstar Barbra Streisand invited him to co-star in her remake of A Star Is Born. Directors such as Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton, Todd Haynes, Sam Peckinpah and John Sayles cast him in movies.

An adventurer such as Kristofferson couldn’t resist such opportunities, but the combination of touring (often with singer Rita Coolidge during their 1973-1980 marriage) and making movies prevented the single-minded devotion to songwriting he had enjoyed between 1965 and 1971. His third album,1972’s Border Lord, marked a definite drop-off, but later that same year he rebounded with Jesus Was A Capricorn, which included terrific songs such as “Nobody Wins,” “Sugar Man” and “Why Me.” The latter the only top-40 country single Kristofferson would ever enjoy as a solo artist.

He never stopped writing songs, though, and there were always a couple of good ones on every record. After his last album with Monument/Columbia in 1984, the wonderful duo/soundtrack album, Music From Songwriter, he released albums for the Mercury, Justice, Oh Boy and New West labels. In this century, he has revealed different facets of his old songs, presenting them in new arrangements in concert and releasing his original songwriting demos.

In that vein is his new album, The Cedar Creek Sessions. Kristofferson had a few days off in Austin just before his 78th birthday in 2014, and he impulsively decided to re-record some of his old songs at the Cedar Creek studio there. He asked his longtime publicist/manager Tamara Saviano to produce the session, and she called in Nashville stalwart Shawn Camp (who had co-written with Saviano’s other client Guy Clark and who now plays the Lester Flatt role in the Earls of Leicester) to co-produce. Camp assembled a lean, skillful quartet to give the arrangements lots of breathing room and led the band through 25 older songs that Kristofferson called out from the vocal booth.

“Bands have a way of overplaying and steering the ship into waters the artist might not want to go,” Camp says. “So the band was sparse, and we let him do his thing. The arrangements on his original recordings were a lot bigger; they’re great arrangements, but they covered up the real Kris. At the time, Nashville had never had any singer with a raspy voice like Kris, and they tried to sweeten it up with string sections and all kinds of harmony singers. I’m not knocking them; those early recordings evidently worked or we wouldn’t be talking about him. But these new recordings are pure Kris.”

“The songs have the tone of an old man looking back on his life rather than being a young man with many years ahead of him,” says Saviano. “To me, they sound more reflective. A song like ‘To Beat The Devil’ takes on new meaning when sung by an older but wiser man than a cocky young kid.”  

“I’d heard some of these songs all my life and had always loved them,” Camp continues, “but waking up in the middle of a recording session, actually recording them with Kris, was pretty wild. I was struck by the years that he had lived in these songs, and the way the age in his voice brought more potency, more depth. He blew me away with his stamina and professionalism. He stood there in his old, rough-cut cowboy boots in front of his microphone and sang several takes of each of these songs all day and into the night. He never sat down once, and he never missed a word.”

In many of these re-recorded songs, you can hear Kristofferson wrestling with a familiar theme: the paradoxical character of freedom. What was more important: freedom from or freedom to? The freedom from restriction or the freedom to gain the love and work you wanted? He had dealt with this explicitly in songs such as “Me And Bobby McGee,” “The Broken Freedom Song” and “The Burden Of Freedom” and implicitly in a dozen more.

In the end, he leaned in the direction of the freedom to forge commitments over the freedom to cast them aside. He has been married to his third wife, Lisa Meyers, since 1983, and they’ve raised five children together. He has made dozens of albums and appeared in dozens of movies. Again and again he has chosen the freedom to connect over the freedom to disconnect.

“I recommend following your heart,” Kristofferson told American Songwriter in 2013. “If the whole world thinks you shouldn’t be doing something that you truly believe you’re supposed to be doing, you’ve got to 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.”

Measure For Measure: Write A Road Song

St. Paul And The Broken Bones: To The Lighthouse