Putting the Focus on Songs

Kris Kristofferson

Most performers would kill for one of Kris Kristofferson’s careers. But he has three of them: as a great country songwriter, a musical performer of no small repute, and a successful actor. This man has been in a musical group with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings, and as an actor has worked with Martin Scorsese, John Sayles, Sam Peckinpah, and Tim Burton.

But for all that, Kristofferson seems amazingly modest, and he sounds nearly unsure of himself when he talks about playing solo.

Kristofferson hasn’t performed much since triple-bypass surgery five years ago; he started doing solo shows earlier this year. Even though he’s been around for 68 years and been performing for well over four decades, these concerts have been an uncertain experience for him. “It’s easy to hide behind a band,” he said in an interview last week. Solo performances force him to make a direct connection to the audience, and “it’s been interesting to see how I could communicate as well” without musicians backing him up. These shows “put the focus on the songs,” he said.

And what songs they are. It is estimated that by the late 1980s, more than 450 artists had performed Kristofferson’s words and tunes.

The country songwriter first found success in the mid-1960s, but he felt he had made it when Johnny Cash brought him to the Newport Folk Festival to perform in 1969. That kind of peer recognition bolstered his confidence. “I felt like Bob Dylan,” he said.

Some people have compared Kristofferson to Dylan. The All Music Guide notes that he “helped re-define country songwriting, making it more personal and serious, much in the way that Bob Dylan’s songs had transformed pop-music songwriting in the mid-’60s.”

Although he never reached the heights as a performer that he did as a songwriter, The Highwaymen paired Kristofferson with Nelson, Cash, and Jennings in the mid-1980s. Kristofferson didn’t feel worthy. “People who were my heroes became my friends,” he said. “It was like all the people on Mount Rushmore, then my face — the janitor,” he said.

Among The Highwaymen, it’s clear that Kristofferson has the most affection for Cash. His passing last year “left a tremendous hole,” Kristofferson said. “He was everything he was supposed to be. He was bigger than life. I don’t see anybody taking his place.”

Kristofferson is self-effacing about his own contribution to the songwriting craft, saying that his best songs are merely “well-written and good examples.” Yet he takes pleasure in other people covering his material well. “They transform it,” he said. “You can see people do your art, your craft, and do something better. ... They make it their own.” His proudest accomplishments as a songwriter include Janis Joplin doing “Me & Bobby McGee” and Cash taking on “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” he said.

And he claims that the songs cease to be his after he’s written them. “Once it’s out there, it’s out there,” he said. “It’s everybody’s. You can carry it in your head.”

His successful singer-songwriter career led him to acting. He had the good fortune of playing a Los Angeles club at a time — the early 1970s — that a lot of people in Hollywood were “looking for new blood,” he said.

He got a call from writer/director-actor Paul Mazursky one day in the early 1970s, saying “they had a new director they were feeling pretty strong about.” That director was Martin Scorsese, who had made a splash with Mean Streets. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Kristofferson co-starred with Ellen Burstyn in what in retrospect was Scorsese’s least characteristic work until The Age of Innocence in 1993.

“He helped me a lot as an actor,” Kristofferson said of Scorsese. “I was new to the trade. I thought my character should have been more like Clark Gable in [John Huston’s 1961] The Misfits.” But the fledgling director suggested that Kristofferson strip away his preconceptions about the role and find the character on his own.

Kristofferson has since been in dozens of movies, and has found regular work with the noted indie director John Sayles, starting with Lone Star in 1996. “We kind of hit it off,” Kristofferson said. “I told him, “I’ll work for you anytime for scale.’ He said, ‘If you’re working for me, you’re working for scale.’” He’ll next appear in Sayles’ Silver City (due to be released next month), and in December will show up for the third time in the Blade series.

Kristofferson is popping up all over the place these days. He’s on the road again, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore just debuted on DVD, a pair of neglected political albums from the 1980s — Repossessed and Third World Warrior — were re-released as a package in April, and the new Sayles movie comes out next month.

Yet the strange thing is that Kristofferson hasn’t released an album of original material since A Moment of Forever in 1995. “I’m not as compelled to put my stuff out there as I was at one point in my life,” he said. He and producer Don Was recorded new solo songs over the past few months, but no release is imminent.

Kristofferson has never stopped penning songs, though. “I will always live the music,” he said. “I’ll probably be writing songs until they throw dirt on me, just not as fast as I used to.”

This article originally appeared in the River Cities’ Reader.

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