Kris Kristofferson – Freedom’s still the most important thing for me
At the Country Music Hall of Fame, they’re letting the problem children back into the fold.
A few years ago, hell-raiser Faron Young was inducted, and Waylon Jennings made it even though he’d said quite clearly that he didn’t give a shit about a Hall of Fame that didn’t have Carl Smith in it. (Waylon didn’t show up for his induction, sending son Shooter in his stead.) Then, in 2003, the Country Music Association voted Smith, who’d owned a period of the 1950s with his glorious honky-tonk songs, into the place. And in November 2004, Kris Kristofferson’s name was called as the latest artist to enter that promised land.
Prior to November, Kristofferson’s last big appearance at a CMA Awards show (the program during which Hall of Famers traditionally are officially inducted) was much-criticized. In 1970, he won a song of the year prize for writing “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, and at the awards podium he was slurry and emotionally disheveled. Letters were written to a Nashville newspaper calling Kristofferson “a disgrace.”
These days, he’s called an enduring legend, a monumentally important singer-songwriter and an Americana prototype. He’s been sober for years and lives in Hawaii with a doting but strong-willed wife and a slew of good-looking kids. His performances seem like reports from a man who was imbedded in the abyss and has returned to sing us all some stories about the whole thing.
I. WE THOUGHT WE WERE WRITING STUFF THAT WAS GOING TO BE FOREVER
ND: When you were studying at Oxford, you’d written a novel and you started shopping it. When publishers rejected it, you quit writing novels. Yet your songs were rejected hundreds of times, but you pushed forward as a songwriter. Why did you accept rejection as a novelist, but not as a songwriter?
KK: I just figured it wasn’t time for me to be doing that, to be writing novels. The songs, I was writing the songs since I was a little kid, and I wasn’t going to stop just because I wasn’t selling them. But while I was in the Army I had a little band there doing some of my songs. I came to figure that was the only way that I was going to be able to be a creative person, was to be a songwriter.
Plus, when I came to Nashville, and spent time with Marijohn Wilkin and Cowboy Jack [Clement], it was heaven for me. Especially after five years in the Army. Tom T. Hall was there. Mel Tillis. Songwriters would get together every night and knock each other out. It was incredible. I wrote five songs the first week I was there. They weren’t any good, though.
ND: Most people’s response upon seeing how good people are in Nashville is either to give up or to try harder.
KK: I figured that it was so fascinating to me, especially after I met Johnny Cash backstage at the Opry, that if I didn’t make it as a music writer then I could at least write about it. I’d never seen so many colorful people. It felt so creative to me there. Everybody was creating, writing stuff, every day, and singing it that night at somebody’s apartment.
The trouble is that the business got successful, and it wasn’t like the blues anymore, or R&B. It was like pop music. I guess subject to the same rules, to where you’re here today and gone tomorrow. You’re making disposable art. We thought we were writing stuff that was going to be forever.
ND: People talk about your early years in Nashville as if you were a young pup, but you’d actually done some living. Was it to your advantage to be 30-ish instead of 20-ish when you moved there?
KK: I was ten years older than all my peers. Shit, I was as old as Hank Williams when he died, when I went there. I often thought it gave me a perspective I wouldn’t have had ten years before that, about patience. When my family and friends thought I was insane for being down there, when I’d been there two years without getting a cut, when I was picking up trash as a studio setup man at Columbia, I couldn’t understand that they couldn’t understand that I was doing OK. Looking back, I can understand.
ND: It didn’t take them that long to think you were insane, though. Your mom sent a letter essentially disowning you soon after you got there.
KK: I got the letter from my mother right away. That was kind of liberating, in fact. I grew up in a family that took duty seriously, and responsibility. And living up to what your parents wanted you to be. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been as successful in college or gone to Oxford on scholarship if I hadn’t been trying to do what they wanted me to do.
When I decided I was going to do what I wanted to, it was a shock to my mother. Even my brother who backed me, he came through two years later and said, “You said you’d give this a year, and it’s been two now. You gonna think about doing anything else?”
It was four, almost five years before I did make it. I never felt like I was failing, though. I felt like it was all good, like I was working toward good stuff and my writing was getting better. I remember the first time Tom T. Hall told me he liked a song of mine. It was “From The Bottle To The Bottom”, and Billy Walker cut it. They put it on the jukebox at Tootsie’s there and he said, “God, that’s a great song,” and he quoted me some lines out of it. That kind of thing was enough to keep me going back then.
ND: Did you ever consider giving up and going home?
KK: No. I went through periods of some despair when I looked around me and felt like I’d trashed it all. I went down in the Gulf, flying down there every other week, for a little over a year, and my wife and I finally split up. The music came to be for her kind of a wall between us. It brought all these shady people into the house. She didn’t want them in the house, let alone have me hanging out with them for three days and nights at a time.