Few singer-songwriters have had greater influence on country music, or have been as successful within and beyond Music Row, as Kris Kristofferson. In a career that began in the 1960s, Kristofferson, 76, has excelled as a recording artist and Hollywood actor, and has helped set standards for country songwriting that only a few tunesmiths have equaled.
One of those, of course, is Merle Haggard, his fellow Hall-of-Famer, with whom Kristofferson will share the stage at Koka Booth Amphitheatre on Tuesday.
Kristofferson’s career is the stuff of legends. An English literature major and Rhodes Scholar, Kristofferson followed his father and grandfather into the military, achieving the rank of U.S. Army captain as a helicopter pilot. Assigned to teach literature at West Point in 1965, he stopped first in Nashville,where he had made connections with Marijohn Wilkin, a music publisher and composer of the classic Lefty Frizzell hit, “Long Black Veil.”
Encouraged to try his hand at songwriting, Kristofferson resigned his commission and took whatever jobs he could find, including janitor at the Columbia Records studio. While Bob Dylan was recording his “Blond on Blond” LP, Kristofferson was emptying the musicians’ ashtrays.
Like most aspiring songwriters, Kristofferson struggled to get his music noticed. But in a city that’s seen about every trick in the book, Kristofferson pulled one for the ages: He rented a helicopter and landed, unannounced, in Johnny Cash’s yard, where he handed the Man in Black a tape of his songs.
By the end of the 1960s, Kristofferson’s songs were finding their niche on Music Row. Ray Price scored a No. 1 hit in 1970 with “For the Good Times.” The same year, Cash hit the top of the chart with Kristofferson’s moody hangover anthem, “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Sammi Smith’s recording of “Help Me Make it Through the Night” held the top spot for three weeks in 1971 and earned a Grammy Award. Janis Joplin, with whom Kristofferson was romantically involved, had a No. 1 hit with “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Throughout the 1970s, Kristofferson enjoyed success recording his own songs, then shifted his focus to film. He continues writing, touring, and recording, and his latest CD, “Closer to the Bone,” has received critical acclaim for its personal reflections and Kristofferson’s straightforward delivery, stripped of all but acoustic guitar and his weathered voice.
We caught up with Kristofferson in Rockford, Ill., where he took a few minutes before sound check to talk about his songs, his tour and his career.
Q: The first single and title track from your new album begins with you singing, “Ain’t it kinda funny/ Ain’t it just the way it goes/ Ain’t you gettin’ better/ Runnin’ out of time.” Do you feel that you are getting better as an artist, as a person, as you are running out of time?
I think it’s ironic, getting better as you’re running out of time (laughter). I’ve never had any false pride in my singing. But I think I can interpret the songs that I write. I feel like I’ve been pretty blessed with making the choices that I’ve made in my life. I’ve been able to do things I’ve wanted to do, since I was able to make my own choices, whether it was boxing and playing football, or flying helicopters or being a songwriter.
Q: Or resigning your commission?
Looking back on it, it’s pretty amazing that it worked out so well because for a long time I was just a janitor … and working for a living.
Q: How does your writing differ now from when you were writing hits in the 1960s and ’70s?
I write a lot slower now. I don’t write as many songs. I guess it’s just being an older person. I hope that I’m still writing songs when they throw dirt on me, but I can’t guarantee it. I never know when or whether the next one’s gonna come. But I’ve never known.
Q: How has your perspective changed through the years?
I think the same things are still important to me. Freedom is still the most important thing. Being free to create. I’ll probably be writing for as long as I’m alive. It’s a way of figuring out your experience, and wondering what it all means. I hope that I’ve still got a brain enough to try to figure that out.
Q: Do you listen to much music coming out of Nashville these days?
No. To be honest, I haven’t really listened to the radio since I went on the road in 1970. I’m embarrassed to say I’m not as current as I used to be. Once I got on the road, I was pretty much worrying about putting together the best material I could for the shows.
Q: If you did listen, it probably wouldn’t make you smile.
That’s what I hear from people, so I don’t feel bad about not listening to it. I know when I came into this business, there were some great country writers like Roger Miller and Willie Nelson. At the same time, the audience for country music was just beginning to spread. When I was in high school (in the 1950s), Hank Williams was my hero. Nobody else in my high school in California admitted to listening to country music. I think there will always be good writers that will probably try to write like Willie and Roger. Maybe they’re just not the ones who are on the air today.
Q: The times are very different now. When you came into Nashville, Bob Dylan brought his huge influence into everyone’s life.
That was probably one of the best things that happened to country music. It was because of his relationship to Johnny Cash. He endorsed country music in a way nobody else had. I think that was probably the biggest reason for the rest of us getting to be serious songwriters.