Songwriter Kris Kristofferson is ready for simpler times. One of the last remaining true American music legends, the 73-year-old has also had a sideline career as a successful actor. He isn't interested in reinventing country-folk music; rather, he wants to return to his roots, and he does so beautifully with his most recent album, Closer to the Bone. It's a thoughtful collection of Kristofferson classics: simple songs about love and family.
"Closer to the Bone evokes the kind of image of being stripped down, bare basics. Not a lot of tap-dancin'," Kristofferson laughs.
It's also the way he's spent the last several years connecting with his audience. The majority of his current performances are solo efforts, but he admits it was "scary at first not to have a band to hide in."
Imagining Kristofferson scared of anything is almost incomprehensible. Even his earliest accomplishments prove he hates backing down from a challenge. As a young man, he won a Rhodes scholarship and did a stint as a captain and pilot in the U.S. Army. Ultimately, he pursued songwriting, relocating to Nashville in 1965 and taking a job as a janitor at Columbia Records, where he hoped to meet some of his favorite musicians.
He did make connections, and, by the early 1970s, some of his musical heroes were playing his songs. Some of the most notable versions included Johnny Cash's rendition of "Sunday Morning Coming Down," Waylon Jennings' "The Taker," and, most famously, the Janis Joplin cover of "Me and Bobby McGee."
"I think one of the best things about being a songwriter is you can hear your work interpreted by other people, most of whom are a lot better of singers to my ears," Kristofferson says. "Like, to hear George Jones, or Janis singin' 'Bobby McGee.' A genius singer, and there are a lot of 'em out there, can make it something better than just the words. They can transform it into something better than it was. Jerry Lee Lewis did it with a song Shel Silverstein and I wrote, 'Once More With Feeling.' It's not a bad song, but it wasn't great 'til he sang it. It was incredible."
The '70s continued to be kind to Kristofferson. He released 13 albums, and made the jump to movies, including the Academy Award-winning A Star is Born, co-starring Barbra Streisand. At the height of his film popularity, Kristofferson's bare chest and bushy beard graced a bevy of marquee posters. By the 1980s, Kristofferson had also gained entry into the ranks of his musical heroes, forming the super-group, The Highwaymen, with Cash and Jennings.
Throughout the next 20 years, Kristofferson continued to act, record, and continue his social activism. On Closer to the Bone he pays tribute to freedom of speech with the song "Sister Sinead," an ode to the Irish pop singer who was vilified at a Dylan concert Kristofferson hosted, following her controversial Saturday Night Live appearance in which she tore up a picture of the pope.
"I've never ever seen everybody boo somebody. I'd never heard anything like it," Kristofferson recalls. "The guy who was runnin' the stage came up to me and he said, 'Get her off the stage — now.' It shocked me so bad, I walked up there to her and said to her, 'Don't let the bastards get you down.' And it went over the microphone!
"She said, 'I'm not down' and sang this other song, and then she wheeled around and she was so shocked I guess by what they were doing, she threw up on the stage. She may be wrong, but she may not be, you know? I've never seen an audience turn on a person like that. And the fact that it happened at a Bob Dylan show made it almost cosmic, you know?"
"Sister Sinead" is the fifth track on Closer to the Bone, a record that seems to double as a time capsule of some of Kristofferson's most personal moments. The album's eighth track, "Good Morning John," was written for Cash over 30 years ago, but it's never been recorded until now.
"There were different reasons about why I didn't record it, but I wrote it for him long ago when he was comin' off of rehab," Kristofferson says. "It's a special relationship I had with him. He was my hero and turned out to be my best friend." Cash died in 2003.
Kristofferson admits he's grown more reflective, but he's not slowing down at all.
"I'm sort of getting ready to finally write an autobiography I've been threatening to do, and people have been trying to get me to do," he admits when pressed about his future plans. "I've been resisting for a long time, but I feel I better get started while I can still remember what I had for breakfast!" He laughs loudly. "Seriously, as you get older, you really do have a hard time with names, or at least I do, so I think I better start writing."
Closer to the Bone might just be the perfect jumping off point for delving into his rich past, since he admits that songwriting is how he makes sense of his life experiences, good and bad. Kristofferson laughs happily as he considers what the rest of his life will look like.
"Listen, I'll probably be doin' this till they throw the dirt on me."