Kris Kristofferson made his first-ever stage performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1969 when Johnny Cash and June Carter brought him out during their set. Kristofferson hadn’t been back to Newport since, and he wasn’t scheduled this year either. But on Saturday afternoon in late July, the leader of the Texas Gentlemen, a sextet of crackerjack session musicians, was welcoming the songwriter to their set as a surprise guest.
He looked good, tall and trim in a black T-shirt and a silver goatee, but he sounded a bit shaky at first. He sang clearly on “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and an abbreviated “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” but his acoustic guitar picking was unsteady, and the band was hanging back tentatively.
But then he blew a strong harmonica intro to “Me and Bobby McGee,” and the band perked up as if they too were singing “every song that driver knew.” The young country singer Margo Price had come out to sing harmony, and after the final chorus, she started channeling Janis Joplin in a belt-it-out Texas blues soprano. Kristofferson broke into a huge grin, signaled for more solos from the now locked-in band and another “la-dee-la-dee-la” from Price. The crowd was on its feet shouting its approval.
Then he was gone.