The announcement that Kris Kristofferson, now 84, is no longer making public appearances has caused me to listen more attentively to — and reflect more deeply upon — the music of this “walkin’ contradiction.”
As a mostly do-gooder youth growing up along the Georgia-Tennessee line, my risks and rebellion were mainly lived vicariously through the music of Cash, Haggard and Kristofferson. But I learned some things, especially from Kris.
His gravel-throated, poetic music flowed — along with my hair at the time — from the windows of my 1969 Pontiac LeMans with a little fender damage. The 8-track tapes of Jesus Was a Capricorn and The Silver-Tongued Devil and I were on manual rotate and repeat.
Kris is my favorite songwriter and the first person I saw in concert — performing with his then-wife Rita Coolidge at Chattanooga’s Memorial Auditorium in the early ’70s. He helped me to spot hypocrisy and to see social injustices in places I never knew to look.
“Mother tells the ladies at the bridge club every day, of the rising price of tranquilizers she must pay. And she wonders why the children never seem to stay at home. Blame it on the Rolling Stones.”
“That policeman said, ‘Mister Cool, if you ain’t drunk, then you’re a fool.’ I said, ‘If that’s against the law, then tell me why I never saw a man locked in that jail of yours who wasn’t neither black or poor as me?’”
“Don’t wonder who them lawmen was protectin’, when they nailed the Savior to the cross. ‘Cause the law is for protection of the people. Rules are rules and any fool can see. We don’t need no riddle-speakin’ prophets scaring decent folks like you and me, no siree!”
Kris exposed sins of partiality and pretense that the church didn’t — because they hit too close to home.
The title track from Jesus Was a Capricorn conveyed some timely hippie culture but also challenged the nice, safe version of the Jesus we “good Americans” had domesticated. And the Dobro playing of Uncle Josh Graves of Flatt & Scruggs fame drove the message just right.
“Long hair, beard and sandals, and a funky bunch of friends. Reckon we’d just nail Him up if He come down again.”
“Sunday Morning Coming Down” (when voiced so perfectly by Big John Cash) paints a vivid and tragic reality. I can smell the chicken frying and hear the church bells ringing — and feel the combined sense of loss and comfort they bring.
“Why Me Lord” is as confessional as any altar call response: “Now that I know that I’ve needed you so, help me, Jesus, my soul’s in your hand.”
My favorite among favorites remains “Lovin’ Her Was Easier.” The phrasing is so colorful, well-crafted and sensuous that it’s hard to lift a preferred line or verse.
“Waking in the morning to the feeling of her fingers on my skin. Wiping out the traces of the people and the places that I’ve been. Teaching me that yesterday was something that I never thought of trying. Talking of tomorrow and the money, love and time we’d have to spend.”
And, oh, how Kris makes other singers better, putting the right words and tunes in their mouths. And how those singers bring his songs to greater light and life.
Ray Price put such a perfect mellow touch on “For the Good Times” that he had me turning away from any bridges that might be burning.
There is no better turn-it-up-loud and sing-along song than “Me and Bobby McGee,” whether voiced originally by Roger Miller or more-popularly and powerfully by Janis Joplin, or the numerous other artists who cut it.
Everybody, it seems, recorded “Help Me Make It Through the Night” as well — including Sammi Smith, Anne Murray, Willie Nelson, Tammy Wynette, Gladys Knight, Engelbert Humperdinck, Charley Pride, Tom Jones, Andy Williams, LeAnn Rimes and some guy named Elvis.
Lost or dying relationships are the staple of country music as Ronnie Millsap conveyed so movingly in Kris’ “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends.”
“Never’s just the echo of forever. Lonesome as the love that might have been.”
A Rhodes scholar with a deep and wide knowledge of literature, and a master of language in his own right, Kris strung together words and chords with feeling, ease and magic. Many songs are deep — with lyrics worth pondering again and again.
A few are just clever and edgy — and clearly not written while sober:
“I dig Bobby Dylan and I dig Johnny Cash, and I think Waylon Jennings is a table thumpin’ smash. And hearin’ Joni Mitchell feels as good as smokin’ grass. And if you don’t like Hank Williams, honey, you can kiss my ass.”
Yet his song, “They Killed Him,” covered by both Dylan and Cash, pays fitting tribute to those martyred for living above society’s standards. He names Gandhi, King and “brothers Kennedy” — and says rightly of Jesus, “for his love they took his life.”
In “The Pilgrim – Chapter 33,” Kris describes some friends, yet all of us, as “walkin’ contradictions, partly truth and partly fiction.” An earlier writer said similarly: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15, NIV).
It just seems that Kris confesses all of that more willingly and creatively than the rest of us. And then his confessions of contradictions make ours more possible.
I’m still listening, Kris. I’m still learning.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.