Kris Kristofferson: A semi-tough veteran gets back in the game
Good spirits reverberate through the control booth of the West Los Angeles recording studio where Kris Kristofferson is at work on a new album with producer Don Was. They’re standing just behind engineer Krish Sharma, who is in the pilot’s seat at a mixing board about 12 feet long, every square inch of which is crammed with dials, buttons and switches.
There’s a seriousness of purpose, a pronounced sense of mission, beneath the convivial conversation, lighthearted quips and abundant stories of life on the road for one of the most revered songwriters of the last half century. The banter bounces around the room but doesn’t distract from the power of the song they’re crafting, “Closer to the Bone,” a celebration of that point in life where every moment becomes precious.
Like others from his forthcoming album, “Starlight and Stone,” it features a no-frills arrangement built on the lanky Texan’s raspy voice, wheezy harmonica and sparse finger-picking of his acoustic guitar. The only additions are colorful mandolin fills from Kristofferson’s longtime pal Stephen Bruton, the primal upright bass played by Was and artful percussion from studio ace Jim Keltner that push it forward rhythmically.
They’re closing in on the final mix of this track; others await whatever instrumental touches the team decides will best complement Kristofferson’s economical lyrics and old-school country melodies.
“The trick,” says Was, his coffee-colored dreadlocks dangling to his shoulders from beneath a fedora, “is to find one thing that can define the song rather than filling up every space . . . In the digital age, you can have 300 tracks, and the temptation is to use every one.”
But not this day. Not with this song, not for this artist, whose gruff voice pours out of the studio monitors:
Coming from the heartbeat
Nothing but the truth now
Everything is sweeter
Closer to the bone
Kristofferson and Was, who also teamed on his 2006 release “This Old Road” (his first studio album of new music in 11 years) are striving for a sonic openness to match the exposed emotion of his latest material, slated for a late summer release.
The song crystallizes Kristofferson’s mind-set at 72. He’s long been a singular voice in American music, writing hundreds of songs over the last half century, many of them recorded multiple times by other performers: “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “For the Good Times,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Why Me” and “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again).”
His songs reflected rapidly changing social and sexual mores of the ‘60s with a sophistication and honesty that Nashville hadn’t embraced previously -- and rarely does today. “My favorite country guys are the same ones I’ve always liked: Willie and Merle and John Prine. . . . It just got to where I couldn’t identify with most of what I would hear on the country charts,” Kristofferson says.
The establishment resisted at first, but Johnny Cash bestowed the imprimatur of country music acceptance on Kristofferson through his hit recording of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and by introducing the young songwriter to a national audience on his hit TV show.
In their way, Kristofferson and Was are on a path paralleling the one Cash took late in life with producer Rick Rubin, ditching the elaborate production typical of their major-label recordings.
“A few years ago after Kris played South by Southwest,” Was says during a break, “he started playing live solo, and when I saw him, I thought, ‘This is the way to do it, instead of him being hidden behind a lot of big production.’ It’s how we did the last album. The way he plays his songs the first time, just him and guitar, tends to be the closest to the way they end up.”
Kristofferson found it liberating, if intimidating, to step out of his musical comfort zone. “I carried a band for about 30 years,” he says. “Playing solo means I can make a mistake without causing a train wreck.”
This more intimate approach lets Kristofferson keep things where he likes them, closer to the bone.
Ain’t it kinda funny
Ain’t it just the way, though
Ain’t you getting better
Running out of time
Running out of time isn’t the image projected by Kristofferson, who looks maybe three-fifths his age. He’s quick with a hearty laugh and remains movie-star handsome -- ridiculously so -- with his salt-and-pepper hair and slightly scraggly beard. The onetime Golden Gloves boxer is still physically fit in a faded black denim jacket over a black T-shirt and jeans, into which he regularly stuffs his weathered hands.
Reminders of the limited nature of life on Earth crop up regularly, in conversation and in the new songs. When Bruton, a fellow Texan a dozen years Kristofferson’s junior, shows up about an hour into the proceedings, he walks into the darkened studio with the aid of a cane. He confesses to feeling less than in his prime, having undergone several rounds of chemotherapy for throat cancer since 2007. Earlier this year, he had a particularly rough bout, from which he’s bouncing back, albeit more slowly than he’d like.
“How old were you when you started playing with me?” Kristofferson asks.
“Twenty,” answers Bruton, now 60.
“You were the baby of the group,” Kristofferson says.
“The funny thing is,” Bruton adds, “I still am. Even though I don’t look like it.”
At one point, doctors told Bruton his chances of surviving much longer were pretty slim. On this day, Bruton’s happy to be back in a studio, a guitar in his hands again.
“What are you gonna do?” he says to Kristofferson and Was, “just sit around till they throw dirt on you?”
Kristofferson tosses out the same phrase in reference to himself now and then, and he’s clearly relieved about the upturn Bruton has taken. He’s lost a lot of friends, not least among them two cohorts from the country supergroup the Highwaymen: Waylon Jennings and Cash.
His long and close relationship with the Man in Black crops up in “Good Morning, John,” a song slated for the new album that he wrote in the ‘70s shortly after Cash had come out of a rehab program to deal with his substance abuse. He asks Was to add voices echoing the various greetings he sings in each verse: “Good morning, John,” “You scared me, John,” “I know you, John” and “I love you, John.” That leads to an anecdote about an earlier attempt to record it with help from Willie Nelson, now the only other surviving Highwayman.
Nelson dutifully repeated after Kristofferson on the first three lines. “When I got to ‘I love you, John,’ I hear Willie sing, ‘He loves you, John.’ I broke up -- I couldn’t finish the song. . . . But he wasn’t about to sing ‘I love you, John.’ ”
Cash was an early and ardent admirer of Kristofferson’s literate songwriting, which married his early grounding in the music of Hank Williams with a passion for English literature -- in the ‘50s, Kristofferson won a Rhodes scholarship and studied at Oxford. Cash’s recording of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” was part of a string of No. 1 country hits artists had in 1970 with Kristofferson songs; Janis Joplin took “Me and Bobby McGee” to the top of the pop chart the following year. Kristofferson’s recordings appeared amid the decade’s singer-songwriter explosion, and he found himself sharing the stage with major rock, pop and country figures.
Hollywood fell in love with his rugged looks and penchant for bringing characters to life, turning him into a sex symbol at the box office, most famously opposite Barbra Streisand in the 1976 remake of “A Star is Born.” His starring role in Michael Cimino’s commercially disastrous “Heaven’s Gate,” however, sent his acting career into the dumpster for years.
Kristofferson still does movies and TV more frequently than he makes records.
“I’ve never been a disciplined writer. . . . I just wait till something hits me -- and as I get older, it doesn’t hit as often,” he says with a laugh. “But I’ll keep writing until they throw dirt on me. I just write more slowly.
Hence the decade-long gap between “Moment of Forever,” another collaboration with Was that came and went in 1995 without much notice. Released by the small indie label Justice Records, it sold only 22,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The comeback aspect of “This Old Road,” released by the more aggressive roots-attuned New West Records label, helped it sell better. That collection has sold 69,000 copies, and label officials are hoping to build on that momentum with “Starlight and Stone.”
“Some people have suggested that the acting negatively influenced my songwriting. I think that was probably more a case that the acting drew the attention of the spotlight. Hell, I was up there on the screen in a bathtub with Barbra Streisand. But I always felt like I was writing to the best of my ability, writing about what I was going through at the time. I never felt acting took away from my creative talent.”
The truth for Kristofferson these days is that acting and music both play second fiddle to his primary role as husband, father and grandfather. The son of an Air Force major general, he was disowned by his parents after he rejected an offer to teach English at West Point in order to go to Nashville to make it as a country songwriter. Eventually they came around, not so much approving of his choices but accepting his right to make them.
He’s been married for 26 years to attorney Lisa Meyers, who has five kids of her own as well as three foster children, making for a big brood in addition to his three kids from his previous marriages to singer Rita Coolidge and his first wife, Fran Beir.
In the early ‘90s they moved to Hawaii, to raise those kids far from Hollywood. They’ve temporarily moved back to Malibu, where the couple met, so he could work on the new album and manage a tour more easily, but they still consider Hawaii home.
Family, he says “is the best part of my life right now, because they all get along.”
That’s worth a lot, given his intimate familiarity with dysfunctional relationships. When Sharma punches up “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” so Bruton and Was can come up with ideas on what musical accents might fit, Kristofferson’s voice rolls out, encapsulating the anguish of divorce in a few artful strokes of the pen:
Faded photographs, dusty dreams
Lying scattered on the floor
Nothing’s here to bind us
To the years behind us
Love don’t live here anymore
“That’s the great thing about being a songwriter,” he says. “You get to take [crappy] experiences and make something nice out of ‘em.”