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Kris Kristofferson: old faves come alive again

By Holly Gleason, September 1999

"My brain feels like it's turned to cottage cheese," Kris Kristofferson says with an apologetic laugh. It's been a full day of interviews, and this is his last one until 7 p.m. Though he's too chivalrous to name numbers, one need only figure a 7 a.m. car call for "Live With Regis & Kathie Lee," factor in the 20 late minutes for an interview and realize it's 3:30ish to know...

But Kris Kristofferson, 63, has always been a rugged individualist: a Rhodes Scholar and longshoreman who spent his creative apprenticeship emptying ashtrays at CBS Recording Studios in Nashville. He once landed a helicopter on Johnny Cash's lawn to pitch him a song - the picture perfect hangover overhang "Sunday Morning Coming Down" - that became a classic.

So, the poet laureate of smart country isn't afraid of the work.

Indeed, he's anything but complaining. He's got "The Austin Sessions" out, and he's in full promotional tilt, because as he puts it so plainly, "It's been 20 or 30 years since a label's been excited about a record of mine."

Re-recordings of many of Kristofferson's best loved songs, the new disc serves as a survey course in the pop/country musings of a man who's read and loved William Blake. With a grittiness that keeps his deeply poetic lyrics from becoming prissy, Kristofferson has served as the intellectual Marlboro man since bursting onto the scene with his 1970 debut.

"I'm really glad to be able to do these songs the way I do 'em now," Kristofferson offers, veering dangerously close to p.c. record company project propping. "This is the way I do them on the road...and it's how they are now."

"And, truthfully," he continues upping the candor quotient, "these are some of my favorite songs, but they're very hard to listen to on those early records. I hear all my mistakes, all the things I didn't know back then. Plus, those records were made the way records were back then - with all that production, the strings, there's so much all over them.

"My songs live or die on their own."

Or with a little help from his friends.

For "The Austin Sessions," not only was a world class studio band fielded, but many of today's most interesting artists were enlisted for support vocals. Whether it's an old friend like Jackson Browne, a fellow literati like Steve Earle, a woman who's name he can't quite pronounce like Matraca Berg or a solid hunk of hillbilly heavy metal like Vince Gill, Kristofferson's leathery voice is aged and cracked and the tiniest bit faded.

He is the perfect foil for the voices that surround him. And after countless years in front of movie cameras - most recently "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries" - he's able to be comfortable in any environment.

It's a good thing. While most records are the result of arduous analysis, details, labor and angst, "The Austin Sessions" took Kristofferson a mere three days stolen from shooting a made-for-cable movie in the Lone Star capitol.

Though the pairings seemed custom cast, the multi-threat talent wasn't around for their parts. "I didn't pick 'em," he confesses of the process that went into selecting the guests. "I didn't pick 'em, but I would have. It seemed like they were either close friends or people I'd really like to know and sing with...people whose music I really like."

He can't help but recognize how strange that must sound. Not only revisiting one's best-loved songs, but doing it with strangers. Still Kristofferson has that go with the flow, Zen thing about him. Living in Hawaii with his wife and 5 of his children ranging from 5 to 15, he's found a way to make peace with the world.

And when it comes to the music, he balances two very disparate realities within this project. "I've had people produce things of mine in weird ways, so that I might not even want to listen to it anymore. This time, I was so pleased with the way it came out."

"I've been away from music for a couple of years. I went to Europe for a tour, came back to see my daughter Casey have her baby - and it seemed like I just never went back."

"Then I got a call from these people at Angel Records, which is a classical label, about making a record as part of a songwriters' series. They'd already done Jim Webb, and I thought it'd be cool. We made the record, and something happened, and they weren't gonna put it out, but they liked the sessions enough to shop it."

Atlantic, always a songwriter sensitive label that's been home to Willie Nelson's breakout records and early John Prine, snapped up the Kristofferson project.

Though he continues to write and has done his share with The Highwaymen alongside fellow legends Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, right now re-inventing his favorites is plenty of creative stimulation.

After all, one can only imagine what kind of a treat it is to sing songs as meaty "For The Good Times," "Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)," "The Silver Tongue Devil and I" and "Me and Bobby McGee" consistently for three decades.

"My kids think of me as a person, as Dad," he admits with a low rumbling laugh. "I'm around the house more than I'm gone, so even though they see the videotape boxes, this is who I am to them."

"And to me, I'm a writer first...a songwriter."

Matter of fact, Kristofferson gave up a teaching post in English literature at West Point two weeks before slated to begin to head to Nashville to write songs back in 1965.

He paid his dues for a few years before Roger Miller recorded "Me and Bobby McGee," hitting the charts in 1969. Ray Price went to number one and earned a Grammy with Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" in 1970. More hits followed.

His own recording career has been checkered, having his ups and downs. His lone chart topper was "Why Me" in 1973. He's continued to record solo and with The Highwaymen.

Acting has taken up a good chunk of his time with movies including "A Star is Born" and "Lone Star."

As for songwriting, "I'll be doing that until they throw dirt on top of me. To be honest, I wouldn't be doing any of it if it weren't for writing. I never would've gotten to make records if I didn't write. I wouldn't have gotten to tour without it. And I never would've been asked to act in a movie if I hadn't have been known as a writer."

"I mean, I hope I'll be writing some fiction before it's all over. I've had the longest writer's block of any writer I know. In 1969, it started...and I'm not setting any kind of deadline to get something written because I don't want to panic myself."