Artist-in-Residence: Kris Kristofferson

August 14, 2007 performance-

Kris Kristofferson, standing alone on the Ford Theater stage, didn’t really introduce the rarely performed “New Mister Me.” Instead, he offered a warning. “I haven’t done this one in a while,” he said with a sly grin, “so I don’t know if I know it.”

The warning wasn’t needed. Kristofferson whispered and growled the tune, about ambition and celebrity, without a hitch.

An album cut from his 1995 release, A Moment of Forever, the song isn’t usually a part of the legendary songwriter’s set. That was the point. For the first of two performances, August 14 and 15, as the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s 2007 artist-in-residence, Kristofferson reached deep into his monumental song bag and featured several rare performances alongside well-known classics.

Over two-and-a-half hours, and in front of a rapt and reverent sold-out crowd, Kristofferson performed thirty-four songs—without a throwaway line among them. He sang of desperation and courage, of dissipation and dreams, of rambling and freedom, and of aging and believing in yourself. And he sang of love—for his father and for his children (“and their mamas,” he added), for his lovers and his friends, and as an ideal and a powerful spiritual force. He even sang of love as the last thing to go in a life well-lived.

“It’s just one of those nights where you want to be so good so bad,” said the seventy-one-year-old Country Music Hall of Fame member shortly into the set, indicating how he viewed the two nights of performances. The intimate crowd included many old friends, among them Cowboy Jack Clement, the first of the Museum’s artists-in-residence in 2003. Kristofferson is the museum’s fifth artist-in-residence, following Clement, Earl Scruggs, Tom T. Hall, and Guy Clark.

His set did include a healthy representation of his classic tunes, including “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33,” “To Beat the Devil,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “For the Good Times,” and a particularly powerful “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again).”

Other deep-catalog songs featured in the show included “In the News,” “Johnny Lobo,” “The Heart,” “From Here to Forever,” “Shandy,” “The Promise,” “Just the Other Side of Nowhere,” “Jody and the Kid,” “Pilgrim’s Progress,” and “Moment of Forever.”

Kristofferson introduced another rare song, “Sky King,” as one he’d written in Germany while a captain and fighter pilot in the U.S. Army. “A couple of years after I’d gotten out of the army, and a couple before I made my mark as a songwriter, I found out I was going to be a father again, so I briefly joined the Tennessee National Guard,” he explained.

Sitting around a campfire at Fort Stewart in Georgia during a training session, he and a few other helicopter pilots passed a guitar around and traded songs. After Kristofferson performed one of his original tunes, another pilot chimed in, “I heard that song in Vietnam. There’s a group over there singing that song.” Kristofferson’s reaction: “I just looked up at the sky and said, ‘I told you I was a songwriter!’”

He told other stories, too: of meeting Jack Clement his first week in Nashville; of dropping a vodka bottle on Mel Tillis’s porch and how it may have saved both their lives; and of reading his friend Johnny Cash’s autobiography and finding out that his “Here Comes that Rainbow” was Cash’s favorite song.  He also referred to other Nashville compatriots—Roger Miller, Bobby Bare, John Prine, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson—through the course of the evening.

Dressed in black button-up shirt with its tails out over black jeans and brown, dusty cowboy boots, Kristofferson looked as lean as he did during his hungry years on Music Row, in the mid-to-late ’60s, before Cash, Bare, Miller, Ray Price, Sammi Smith, Janis Joplin, and others started recording his songs. But from 1969 to 1971, his first string of hits—“Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “For the Good Times,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” and “Me and Bobby McGee”—revolutionized songwriting in Nashville.

Kristofferson left Music City shortly before marrying Rita Coolidge in 1973, about the time his movie career took off with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, A Star Is Born, and others. But by then, he’d brought a new consciousness to country music songwriting. By expanding what a country song could say, he influenced scores of songwriters in his wake.

During “Don’t Let the Bastards (Get You Down),” the second of three encore songs, Kristofferson returned to several of the recurring themes in his work: family, social justice, and fighting for what one believes. The song refers to his late father, who had been a U.S. Air Force major general, and wonders what he would have thought of what had become of America “and the way they turned his dream around.”

In the song’s chorus, he sings, “I’ve got to go by what he told me / Try to tell the truth and stand your ground.” The long list of songs he performed Tuesday night repeatedly proved that Kristofferson has always told his own truth and stood his own ground—and it’s why he has joined his heroes Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan in the top ranks among the most influential of American songwriters.

—Michael McCall


August 15, 2007 performance-

Kris Kristofferson made his plans clear as he began the second consecutive night of solo performances as the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s 2007 artist-in-residence.

He opened the August 15 show with two songs he hadn’t performed in nearly three decades. The first, “Stranger,” came from Kristofferson’s 1975 Monument album, Who’s to Bless and Who’s to Blame, and became a #4 country hit for Johnny Duncan the following year. The second, “You Show Me Yours (and I’ll Show You Mine),” opened his 1976 album, Surreal Thing, and was later sung by Willie Nelson in the movie Honeysuckle Rose.

“I’m a little scared,” the man who epitomizes the word “songwriter” said when taking a break after the second song. “I’m trying to do songs I didn’t do last night. But I might end up chickening out.”

Two-and-a-half hours later, he had held closer to his promise than anyone, including the singer himself, might have expected. Of the thirty-five songs he performed in front of a quietly transfixed crowd, only two were repeated from the previous night. He brought back “Me and Bobby McGee” at the end of his first set, before a brief intermission. To end the second set, he honored a request and sang “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” 

In all, the seventy-one-year-old Country Music Hall of Fame member presented sixty-nine songs over two nights, with sixty-seven of them heard only once, and every one of them written by Kristofferson. That’s an Olympian feat by any measure, made all the more remarkable by the number of songs Kristofferson culled from his catalog that he hadn’t included in one of his concerts in half of his lifetime.

Or, as he told a press gathering prior to the show, “Some of these songs I haven’t performed in a long, long … well, ever.” It was like hearing a compilation box-set packed with non-hits and rarities, performed live, in person.

The legendary songwriter, who resides in Hawaii with his wife, Lisa Kristofferson, also seemed looser and more talkative on the second night of artist-in-residence concerts. While he occasionally flubbed a guitar chord or forgot a word or line, he proved stunningly adept at recalling a monumental number of tunes and lyrics.

Still, he would occasionally apologize, in his characteristic humble and self-effacing manner. He cited how difficult it was to do this kind of show in front of so many of his friends, including artists and industry insiders Kix Brooks, Guy Clark, Ralph Emery, Donnie Fritts, John Prine, and Todd Snider.

He told several stories about his days in Nashville, where he resided from 1965 to 1973—long enough to change the course of country music while on his way to becoming one of the most revered songwriters of his generation.

In one of the tales, he recalled a night in Nashville shortly after what he called a “painful and public” divorce from his second wife, pop singer Rita Coolidge. He was participating in a tribute to Hank Williams that was hosted by Hank Williams Jr. As the night progressed, fellow artists and other Nashville friends kept coming up to him backstage to offer their condolences.

At some point, I looked over, and Little Jimmy Dickens was just standing there looking at me,” Kristofferson told the crowd. “He said, ‘Give me a D chord,’ which I did, and he preceded to sing this song of mine that I had no idea of how he knew it.”

Kristofferson then performed the song, “I’d  Rather Be Sorry,” about an emotional end to a relationship. He added, “Little Jimmy is known for all these novelty songs, but he used to always show up at the end of some long  night we’d had, just a bunch of us songwriters, and he’d come off the road and sing us a song that would just break our hearts.”

The rare songs Kristofferson performed spanned his career. The selections included his first Nashville recording, “The Golden Idol,” which Epic Records released as a single in 1967 to no success. Others brought out of mothballs were “Star-Crossed,” “How Do You Feel (About Fooling Around),” “Daddy’s Song,” “Sugar Man,” “Billy Dee,” “Sabre and the Rose,” and “When I Loved Her,” among many others. When he finished “If It’s All the Same to You”—another album cut from Who’s to Bless and Who’s to Blame—he said, “I bet you’ve never heard that, have you?”

Many songs focused on restless, rambling searchers living by their wits outside of society, a common theme early in Kristofferson’s career. Later in his second set, he performed several of his political songs from the ’80s and ’90s, including “What About Me,” “Sandinista,” “Anthem ’84,” and “The Burden of Freedom.”

Indeed, freedom was a recurring theme throughout the night. Early in the evening, in songs drawn largely from the ’60s and ’70s, Kristofferson spoke of freedom in personal terms, as a means for people to find themselves and to express themselves as individuals. In his latter songs, freedom came to signify a larger, universal sense of justice and humanity.

In the end, these two nights of music made one point clear: More than any other songwriter, Kris Kristofferson illuminates the human spirit’s desire to be free.

—Michael McCall