From The Archives: Kris Kristofferson, Setting High Standards

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This article originally appeared in the November/December 1994 issue. 

Kris Kristofferson is inarguably one of contemporary music’s most successful and highly respected songwriters. Kristofferson tunes such as “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “For The Good Times,” and “Why Me Lord” have become classics that have set standards for great writing other songwriters continually aspire to attain.

Sitting in his bus waiting to tape a television show for The Nashville Network, Kristofferson seems uncomfortable with the pedestal some have tried to place him on as a songwriting legend and more willing to be viewed as just another songwriter in the trenches giving it his best shot each time he picks up a pen. “When I came to Nashville, the one thing I learned – starting at the bottom and trying harder [to be a songwriter] than anything I’d ever tried in my whole life – was that you set your own standards. Immediately, the stuff I was doing wasn’t even considered worth demoing for a while. But I finally sort of gravitated toward a group of people I idolized, people like Willie Nelson, and they liked my stuff. And that was enough for about three or four years to keep me coming back.

“As I finally got into a rhythm of writing good songs – by the time I was writing Bobby McGee and those songs – I started performing and that really cuts into your creative time for some reason. I’ve noticed it with Willie, Merle, everybody. As they perform, it’s more fun than writing. Writing’s lonesome. But I found that as I write, I think my standards are the ones I try to meet.”

Kristofferson is a complex individual who has always set high standards for himself, no matter what the pursuit, and has excelled in a variety of endeavors. A native of Brownsville, Texas, Kris was the son of an Air Force major-general and spent his youth moving from air base to air base before finishing high school in San Mateo, California. He majored in creative literature at Pamona College and was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University.

After graduation, he entered the military and served as an Army pilot. He was offered a teaching post at West Point and much to his family’s dismay, declined the position to move to Nashville and take a series of odd jobs (janitor, bartender, helicopter pilot) while trying to get his songwriting career off the ground. He hung out with other aspiring tunesmiths, learning the craft and making connections. His career steadily gained momentum and in 1970 he won the Country Music Association’s Songwriter of the Year accolade and Song of the Year for “Sunday Morning Coming Down” which was recorded by Johnny Cash.

Music Row legend has it that Kristofferson landed a helicopter in Cash’s front yard to pitch him the tune. “It wasn’t “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” Kristofferson says, setting the story straight. “John believes to this day it was and I’ll let John tell his story. I did land a helicopter there and it was a National Guard helicopter. I was trying to make an impression, but I already knew him for a year and a half. I was his janitor and I had pitched him every song I had ever wrote through June Carter or Luther Perkins and he never cut any of them. When I landed, I almost landed on his roof cause the lawn used to go out over his house. It’s on a cliff. He remembered me getting out of the helicopter with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Never. I could no more drink a beer while I was flying a helicopter, especially in those old helicopters that they had in the National Guard. I practically had to fly my own wings. They were just falling apart and a helicopter takes both feet and two hands. No way could I have been drinking a beer. It’s very risky saying it happened one way and John’s way is wrong cause John probably knows as well as I what was going on those days. Neither one of us had a clue. Maybe that happened, but I have a hard time thinking that I’d have the gall to drink a beer in a helicopter.

Kristofferson says the song he pitched Cash that day was never cut. “It wasn’t that good a song,” he says. “It was a song I wrong back when I was writing for Marijohn Wilkins. It was a stupid song.”

Kristofferson admits that in setting his standards he’s discovered that a songwriter never quits learning about how to improve his craft. He recently finished working on a new album with producer Don Was’ label, Karambolage Records, that taught him some interesting lessons. “When I did this album, he did something to me that I’d never ran into,” Kristofferson says. “On five of the songs he said ‘You should write another verse.’ I don’t know what other songwriters are like, but for me, that was like saying your kid needs another arm. I just couldn’t conceive of writing another one with the same inspiration. But he was right on every one of them. The good thing about it was that once he got me to doing that, I got good at it and wrote five new verses on five days and it made the songs.”

Though he admits he was a little resistant at first to writing the additional verses, Kristofferson says he tries to be open to suggestions. “God knows I haven’t been setting the world on fire. If somebody you respect tells you something, you might ought to take a shot at it,” he says. “In every one of the cases he was right. And what pleased me is that it was the first time I was able to do that on command. Songwriting, for me, was always kind of like sex or something – you know, if it wasn’t spontaneous, forget it. When people would say ‘Oh so and so is coming to town and you’ve got to write a song for Leroy Van Dyke or somebody,’ I never could do it. I was never able to write like that, but I was able to on my own songs. I feel real good about these songs. I feel like “The Promise,” “Good Love,” and “Johnny Lobo” are complete songs now. And I thank Don Was for that.”

Kristofferson says one of the most gratifying things about his songwriting career is that he’s always chosen to write what he feels. His passion for politics and his desire to speak about what he believes in is as legendary as his songwriting prowess. However, he admits those topics haven’t always yielded radio hits. “Since I’ve started making records, I’ve always done just what I wanted to do,” he says. “I just wrote about what I wanted to and that’s what I’ve done again this time.

“Unfortunately for me and the record [company] when I did The Third World Warrior I was so full of passion about a subject that not too many people are passionate about and that was particularly hard for the record company to market.” He says the new record will have a variety of material. “There are a couple songs on there that are commentary songs,” he says. “And I try to make it entertaining. “Slouching Toward the Millennium” is pretty funny I think. And there’s one, “Johnny Lobo,” that is pretty serious. It’s a true story about a friend of mine, singer/actor John Trudell, whose family was burned down. He was one of the AIM leaders, back when the FBI was targeting the leaders of the organization that were supposed to be dangerous. This guy burned a flag on the steps of the FBI building. Before he got back to the reservation, somebody locked his house and burned it down with his wife and two children and her mother in it.”

Kristofferson has also been very vocal about his support for imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who has been accused of killing FBI agents. Kris sys both he and Willie have been banned for life from two Southern California radio stations because they performed a benefit for Peltier. “I said in Willie’s case it might amount to something, but it’s not gonna cause a stock market crash if you quit playing mine. They hadn’t played mine in forever. But I hope there are alternative markets where you can still listen to an intelligent song.”

Regardless of when and where they may be played, Kristofferson has always written songs from the heart that expressed what he’s wanted to say. Early in his career songs like “Help Me Make It Through The Night” were heralded as ground breaking because the lyrical content was considered a little more explicit than much of what was being written at the time. Kristofferson didn’t see it that way. “I felt I was writing in the tradition of country music,” he says. “The reason I came to Nashville was that the lyrics here were the best that I could identify from my experience. The people that were writing the closest thing to white man’s soul music were country writers. They were writing about real life – about sex and cheating and drinking and losing and stuff like that. I figured the most honest you could be would be the most successful.” Though he’s been successful as a touring performer and as a actor in numerous films, on his passport Kris Kristofferson lists writer as his occupation. “To me writing songs, I feel, saved my life,” he says. “If you want to be a songwriter and you don’t care if you ever make an y money at it, and you can’t do anything else – I mean, you just can’t not write songs, then do it,” he advises. “But be prepared to never be a commercial success.”

Kristofferson has written songs that have moved many people and songs that have only spoken to a certain few, but over the years it’s been that desire to inform and entertain on all levels that has continually fueled his creativity. “I feel good about my writing now,” he says. “I’m not writing a lot, but when I’m writing, I’m satisfied with it. I’ve already got four songs written toward the next album. So we’ll see how that goes.”

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