Complementary stories about widely admired country singer and songwriter Roger Miller provided a highlight of Tuesday’s Writers Bloc session in Santa Monica featuring Johnny Cash biographer and longtime L.A. Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn with his guest for the evening, Kris Kristofferson.
Hilburn, whose new book “Johnny Cash: The Life” was published Tuesday, told an audience of about 300 that he first met Kristofferson in 1970. It was shortly before he’d been hired full time by the newspaper, when he was pursuing an interview with Miller, who was in Los Angeles at the time.
“I loved Roger Miller,” Hilburn, 74, said. “I got to the house in Woodland Hills and he opened the door, and he said there was another songwriter from Nashville he wanted to introduce me to. I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ because I just wanted to talk to Miller.”
At the end of the interview, Hilburn said, Miller handed him his latest single in a test pressing with no label on it. Listening to it later, Hilburn said he was thoroughly taken with Miller’s new song, and called him. “I told him it was maybe the best thing he’d written in years,” Hilburn said. “Roger said, ‘I didn’t write it. It was written by that other songwriter I introduced you to.’ ”
The song? Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” which Miller recorded before Janis Joplin got her hands and vocal cords on it.
Then Kristofferson, who played several songs during the session, many written for Cash or with Cash in mind, recalled early in his career watching Miller perform another of his songs on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.”
Miller had chosen to sing Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” subsequently a hit for Cash, and Miller got a similar reaction from Carson.
“He told Roger he thought it was one of the best things he’d ever written,” Kristofferson said. “Roger said, ‘Thanks!’ ”
Kristofferson also told the audience that “The reason I’m here is that Robert Hilburn wrote a review of the first show I ever played, at the Troubadour. I’d never played a gig before,” he said. “And after that review, I’ve never stopped working since.”
The session concluded with Kristofferson singing the song that Cash cited as his favorite among Kristofferson’s deep trove of literate and illuminating songs about the human condition — not one of the explorations of darkness such as “Sunday Morning Coming Down” or “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33” but the uplifting ballad of two impoverished children who are shown an act of kindness that generates a loving ripple effect, “Here Comes That Rainbow Again.”
Here’s a video of Cash singing it on "Late Night with David Letterman" in 1982:
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