Kristofferson: Smiling at 77
Kris Kristofferson, the man who lived a dozen different lives before the age that most men are settling into one, isn’t done. He’s got at least one more role to play on this earthly stage. At 77, Kristofferson has become the thankful one.
I got lucky, I got everything I wanted
I got happy, there was nothing else to do
And I'd be crazy not to wonder if I'm worthy
Of the part I play in this dream that's coming true
- Kris Kristofferson, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” 2006
The songwriter whose “Me and Bobby McGee” articulated the heart of the wistful drifter has found love and stability at his secluded home in Hawaii. Sharing daily pleasures with his wife, Lisa, and any number of his eight children, Kristofferson lets his days fill up with peace. His songs now tell of gratitude, humility before the blessings of life and wonder at how he made it so far after traveling the same path with others who didn’t.
When not at home, Kristofferson is still recording – and touring. Last year’s “Feeling Mortal” is the latest in a trio of recent releases presenting Kristofferson’s latest work. And Saturday evening, Kristofferson will perform in Greenville. A special, $500-ticket show at the Dairy Manor will benefit efforts to restore Greenville’s historic Texan Theater.
The performance is part of a weekend of benefit concerts scheduled amidst Kristofferson’s current tour. Sunday night, Kristofferson will play a show in Tulsa to support efforts to rebuild Woody Guthrie’s boyhood home in Okemah, Okla.
Kristofferson granted KETR an interview by phone from Southern California and discussed his career, including songs from the “Feeling Mortal” album.
Kristofferson: The title just about describes it.
Do you ever wake up in the morning surprised by the life that you have?
Well, I never dreamed that mine would be this long, since my heroes all died young. But God, I love it. And to wake up one day to find out I’m 77. I said my God, that’s seven and 11 and all these magic numbers. And I feel nothing but gratitude.
When did you realize what Lisa meant to your life? When did you first see the way things could be for y’all if you did everything right?
Well over 30 years ago. I finally faced up to some of the problems that I was having that would get in the way of a good relationship – with a person for your life, you know? And we turned out to be real good for each other. Way back in 1980, I think – I was at the complete bottom. I’d just – my record company I’d recorded for had gone under and my marriage had fallen apart. And I was a bachelor father – I got to take a little kid, a little girl to school, you know, to kindergarten and picking her up and that was my life for about a year. Then I ran into Lisa. And we fought our way through our old mistakes and crafted a wonderful life. We’ve got five beautiful children, a lot of grandchildren.
Another song on Kristofferson’s new album is called Ramblin’ Jack, a reference to longtime friend Jack Elliott, a performer who, like Kristofferson, defies easy classification and has endured through the decades. Born Elliott Charles Adnopoz in Brooklyn, Ramblin’ Jack defied his parents’ expectations that he become a doctor, and instead ran away to join the rodeo. Eliot eventually gained notoriety in the folk music scene of the 1950s, where he befriended Woody Guthrie, then the young Bob Dylan. In the 60s, Ramblin’ Jack was beloved in folk and country circles as the beatnik cowboy. That was before the 1970s outlaw country movement, which included Kristofferson, found common ground between good old boys and hippies.
Over the years, there have been some people who didn’t get Jack. They saw the story of the East Coast who made himself into a cowboy and maybe they got a little suspicious. What’s he really like? Why do you hold him in such esteem?
Listen, Ramblin’ Jack is totally, probably the most honest person that you would ever know. He has totally become this person that is he is, and it’s Ramblin’ Jack, it isn’t Elliott Adnopoz. There’s not an ounce of phony things about him. And he’s very funny. And he’s not always aware of how funny he is. And he’ll play anywhere for anybody.
So he’s the real deal.
He’s the real thing. I mean, otherwise, Bobby Dylan wouldn’t have tolerated him. He had great respect for Jack.
Kristofferson’s story is also one of rebelling against parental expectations. As a young man, Kristofferson was a Rhodes scholar, a college football and rugby player, a golden gloves boxer and eventually an Army Ranger and helicopter pilot. But Kristofferson refused an assignment to teach literature at West Point and instead moved to Nashville to become a songwriter. He got a job sweeping floors at Columbia Studios, where he began to make a few tentative connections. He later put his piloting skills to use by flying helicopters for an oil company in the Gulf of Mexico, splitting his time between the Gulf and Nashville. Kristofferson recorded his songs as well. His composition “Sunday Morning Coming Down” had been recorded by Ray Stevens, but when Johnny Cash scored a hit with the tune, Kristofferson was soon able to quit his odd jobs and become a full-time singer-songwriter.
The songs in his catalog read like a list of all-time country classics. “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “For the Good Times,” “Why Me,” “Loving Her Was Easier Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again,” and a favorite at Willie Nelson shows,” The Pilgrim.”
The stars of what people called the outlaw country music movement in the 1970s hit a few bumps in the 80s, but Kristofferson enjoyed a special time when, during that decade, he, Willie, Cash and Waylon Jennings formed a group called the Highwaymen.
Lord – when I look at it now, I look at with disbelief. Because, it’s like looking at Hank Williams, you know. And people like that, down to me. Waylon and Willie and Johnny Cash were my biggest heroes anywhere and I got to be up there and travel all around the world with them. And when I think about it now, it’s almost an inconceivable blessing, to think that the janitor got to get up there with all these superheroes, the people that were so respected.
Kristofferson has had to deal with the passing of many friends in the business – Waylon, Cash and just this past year, legendary Nashville producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement.
Well, he was unlike anybody I’ve met, and I’ve been around here 77 years. I’ve never seen another person like Jack Clement that was totally - he loved life, he loved creative people. He loved the business he was in, the songwriters, just the whole life. I never saw him do a negative thing in his life. I saw him make some mistakes, when he poked his nose maybe where he shouldn’t have. But he was - “Cowboy” Jack was unlike any human I’ve ever known. He was able to be a creative person and not have a piece of jealousy in him. And to really be turned on by the creative part of it and the creative people, you know. He really helped me.
How did he help you?
Well, he introduced me to Johnny Cash, for one thing. And told everybody I was a good songwriter, and he had a reputation.
Kristofferson’s reputation as a songwriter, musician, actor and political activist is missing one thing – a definitive biography. He hasn’t authorized one since, as a man of words, he’d rather write it himself. Kristofferson says that project could happen after this current tour ends – with some help from his wife.
Lisa keeps wanting me to start that and I think that’s what I’m going to do, because I’m not booked to do any performances for a while. She’s got some stuff she says, that’s organized. I haven’t gotten to it yet. I always felt like it was something I was going to do, and then I thought, holy smoke, I’m probably not going to remember anything by the time I start this. But she’s been keeping track for quite a while so apparently she’s got stuff that I’ve written down that I intended to put in it.
That book would include the story of how, while studying at Oxford, Kristofferson read the English poet William Blake, whose ideas motivated him and challenged him. In particular, Kristofferson was struck by the nation that one must realize one’s creative potential – not as a matter of vanity, but as a matter of humility – out of respect for being given a blessing. One of Kristofferson’s sons is named Blake after the poet.
His influence on me then and since has been to follow my creative heart and do what I’m supposed to do, which is be a creative person. And I’ve done my best to live up to that.
Kris Kristofferson will peform a benefit concert at the Dairy Manor in Greenville tomorrow night, with proceeds benefitting the restoration of the Texan Theater. For KETR News, this is Mark Haslett.