Kris Kristofferson is grateful for a lifetime of making music, he tells Iain Shedden
KRIS Kristofferson likes to get out and about on his tractor, keeping the grass down and his dogs’ company on his sprawling property near Hana on the Hawaiian island of Maui. It’s quiet, the way he likes it. “The people here are very protective of me,” he says in his warm, slightly mischievous tone.
At 77 Kristofferson could be forgiven for wanting some privacy after a lifetime in the spotlight. Indeed no one would begrudge him if he chose to do nothing more than spend time with his family and cruise around the place he has called home for 24 years; but that’s not what the singer, songwriter and actor is about.
At the end of this month Kristofferson arrives in Australia for a national tour — not of state capitals but also taking in Gladstone, Mackay and Albury along the way, 21 shows in 27 days, all of it conducted by bus. “We’re doing a lot,” he admits, “but I’ve always enjoyed playing in Australia because the audience and I connect. We seem to have the same taste I guess. I’ve always felt comfortable there.”
His return to these shores offers fans the chance to hear Kristofferson classics such as Help Me Make It Through the Night, Sunday Morning Coming Down and Me and Bobby McGee as well as material from his recent album Feeling Mortal. His isn’t the voice most readily associated with those hit songs. It would be easier to list the artists who haven’t sung a Kristofferson composition but Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Gladys Knight, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton are among the most celebrated.
His own voice, he says, “was never very good but I have no trouble with it”. Indeed, he was seen and heard in fine form worldwide in January, when he performed with his close friends Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard at this year’s Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. He’s planning to make an album with those buddies after his Australian visit. Then there’s another movie, Dolphin Tale 2, to promote when it comes out later this year. He has just finished filming that one, although he doesn’t sound particularly smitten with the process. “I’m looking forward to going back on the road,” he says. “I’m getting a little sick of doing the movie.”
Sick or not, Kristofferson rightly considers himself fortunate to have enjoyed two careers in the past 45 years, combining his talents as a songwriter and performer with roles in movies, from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and A Star is Born in the 1970s through to the more recent Blade series and the two Dolphin films.
“I can’t complain,” he says. “It’s something I’ve been doing since I was almost 30 and I’m 77 now. I’m just grateful that I can still do some- thing creative, but I’d rather do the music than the movies. With movies you’re waiting all the time … and then you go out and do a few things that don’t matter.’’
That’s a somewhat self-deprecating point of view. Few would his dismiss his talents as an actor or musician so readily. Indeed Kristofferson’s life in public and in his pre-fame years paints him as something of an action man. A child of the military through his father, the young Kristofferson spent his formative years moving from one army base to another in the American south. He excelled at sport and as a student, graduating in literature from Pomona College in California and then becoming a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, before joining the army and rising to the rank of captain. It was only when he left the army, in 1965, that his love of music steered him to Nashville in the hope he could make it as a songwriter. Unlike his academic endeavours, songwriting was a school of hard knocks. “It took me about five years to make a living at it,” he says, “but it was worth it ... I didn’t care if I was working as a janitor for a couple of years or as a helicopter pilot out in the Gulf of Mexico. I was doing what I love to do.”
He says songwriting always felt like “what I was supposed to be doing. Even as a little kid I was making up songs. Hank Williams was my first hero, when I was still in school. He and Johnny Cash were the guys who really drew me to music. Now, when I look at my life, I can’t believe I went from being that person to the one I became, on stage with Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and the guys who were my heroes.’’
That posse of performers, known collectively as the Highwaymen, recorded two successful al- bums and toured the world. Kristofferson and Nelson, the two surviving members of the quartet, remain best friends. Nelson also has a home on Maui. “He’s an amazing human being,” Kristofferson says. “He’s very funny and he hasn’t changed a bit. And he’s one of the best guitarists and best songwriters in the world. He’s totally his own person.”
It was during his stint as a helicopter pilot for the Louisiana-based Petroleum Helicopters International in the late 1960s that Kristofferson wrote some of his landmark material. Sunday Morning Coming Down, for example, which gave him a hit in 1969 (recorded by Ray Stevens) and was followed by his own version and a No 1 hit for Johnny Cash in 1970, came to him while on an oil rig. So too Me and Bobby McGee, a song that has been covered by scores of artists in the past 40 years, took shape in the Gulf of Mexico, although its origins are more complex.
Country artist Roger Miller was the first to record the song and had a hit with it in 1969, but the most recognised version is by Janis Joplin, released in 1971 soon after her death. Kristofferson had been seeing Joplin in the months before she died. He says she made the song her own. “To me it’s validation,” he says. “When you hear some real artists like Janis doing your song it becomes their song too.”
Kristofferson had a string of relationships with women during his prime, including with Barbra Streisand, Joan Baez and Rita Coolidge, his second wife. He has been married for 33 years to Lisa Meyers and they have five children. “I’ve got eight kids and they all like each other,” he says. “When they’re together all I hear is laughter so I can’t help but feel blessed.’’
Kristofferson has been having problems with his memory and at a recent performance in the US had to be prompted with one of his lyrics. He’s upbeat about it, however, putting it down to age. “I’m older and my memory’s gone. But I feel like I’m the same person,” he says. “I’m very grateful for the life that I’ve had. It has taken me all over the world. And I can’t say it was hard work … I really don’t think of it as work. I guess because I’ve been doing it since I was 11.”
right, in 1971