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The Boston Phoenix Past Perfect

Kris Kristofferson revisits his classics

By Grant Alden

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999:  Kris Kristofferson is an actor who wanted to be a writer, and once was: "Freedom's just another word for/Nothing left to lose." There's more, of course, but that'll do for an impromptu reminder.

So will this: broke, again, not long enough ago, and driving some four-lane highway to or from nowhere, I found myself thinking that Kristofferson and Janis Joplin -- mostly Janis -- had described the curse of "Me and Bobby McGee" and named mine as well: strangers knowing too much about each other. As with all great pop songs, it was merely a long moment, and later a quiet bottle reliving that moment, and it passed. Mostly.

"Men hate Kris Kristofferson because he can't sing," said one country producer, who will remain anonymous because nobody other than Steve Earle will say anything derogatory for attribution in Nashville. "But women love him, because he's handsome."

Not exactly. Jealousy, not hatred. Kristofferson's not pretty enough to hate, just physically closer to the tireless American ideal of the rugged individualist than the rest of us: award-winning short-story writer (late 1950s), Rhodes Scholar, Army pilot (1960s), songwriter, recording artist (1970s), movie star (present), boxer, honorary outlaw, well-married (including to "Delta Lady" Rita Coolidge), father, anything he wanted to be. Man enough, early on, to fly a helicopter into Johnny Cash's compound to pitch a song, and good enough not to get shot for trying.

Exotic, remote, rarely voiced dreams all, and Kristofferson has lived them.

So, yeah, the men don't understand, for it has all seemed effortless, and unfair. But all that glitz and macho concealed a Blake scholar and a songwriter of the first order, if only for those few, short years at the turn of the '70s.

And once that's what Kristofferson wanted most: to write songs. He left the Army, and a cushy gig teaching literature at West Point, to take work in Nashville as broom pusher, bartender, and apprentice songwriter.

The wanting, the work, and no small measure of talent all brought success, and success came with its own imperatives. But for one long season Kris Kristofferson wrote masterful, classic, enduring country songs.

It takes just one listen to Johnny Cash singing "Sunday Morning Coming Down" (#1 in 1970, and CMA song of the year) to curse the fact that Kristofferson has made more movies than music. Soon after, Sammi Smith went #1 with "Help Me Make It Through the Night." Toss in "For the Good Times" (#1 in 1971 for Ray Price) and "Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)" (1971, by Kristofferson himself) and the race was on.

Those songs remain surprisingly vital on his latest, The Austin Sessions (Atlantic). Originally conceived as part of a short-lived songwriters' series on Guardian that produced Jimmy Webb's 1996 Ten Easy Pieces (Webb wrote "Wichita Lineman" and "MacArthur Park," among others), The Austin Sessions reprises Kristofferson's best-known work. Producer Fred Mollin (who also produced the Webb album) placed Kristofferson in a comfortable, low-key setting, surrounded him with first-rate musicians, and added in guest harmonies from folks like Jackson Browne, Steve Earle, Vince Gill, Matraca Berg, and Mark Knopfler.

A variation of this theme is a frequent cheat in NashVegas, and a particular curse when so much of country music's history remains out of print. It is also, much less often, a chance to recontextualize the work of an artist.

In this case, it's neither con nor revelation, but an occasion to remember that Kristofferson was a significant songwriter. His classic works were weary, worn affairs, short, dignified snapshots of the hopeless end of middle age, bloody but unbowed. Now that he's 63, Kristofferson's voice better fits those songs, for it too is worn and dignified. Although his re-reading of "Sunday Morning Coming Down" won't rival Johnny Cash's hit, it has acquired an engaging, lived-in quality over 30 years: "And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad/So I had one more for dessert." Uh-huh.

Besides, Kristofferson's original early-'70s recordings for Monument (whose founder, Fred Foster, co-wrote "Me and Bobby McGee") are no great bargain. His original vocals were somewhat more tuneful, and his voice was a bit more flexible. But the songs were submerged in a half-realized Nashville Sound production (imagine Billy Sherrill on a dimestore budget), and they lacked the urgency and drive that others would summon when taking them to the top of the charts.

At ease -- at least financially -- Kristofferson has been able to revisit that past on The Austin Sessions with warmth and fondness. There's no hunger here, no rent to be paid, just memories.

Nothing wrong with that, really, but he told an on-line interviewer a few years back that he'd never stopped writing. The Austin Sessions makes you wonder what has become of all those songs.


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