Weekend Drive Through Nashville With Kris Kristofferson

The actor Ethan Hawke recently wrote a Rolling Stone profile about this interesting man, describing him this way:

"Imagine if Brad Pitt had also written a number one single for someone like Amy Winehouse, was considered among the finest songwriters of his generation, had been a Rhodes scholar, a U.S. Army Airborne Ranger, a boxer, a professional helicopter pilot -- and was as politically outspoken as Sean Penn."

Well, that describes Kris Kristofferson in 1979.

Kristofferson, now 73, is releasing "Closer to the Bone," his 24th album, this week. With soulful lyrics addressing family, friendship, love and mortality, the album is Kristofferson at his best.

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Among the songs are "From Here to Forever," written for one of his children; "Good Morning John," for his beloved friend, Johnny Cash; and the first song he ever wrote, when he was just 11 years old.

For the last decade he's been touring the United States and internationally to sold out crowds.

"I guess it must be down to the essence of the songs, because God knows, there's better guitar players and singers," he said. "But it seems to be working with my material -- just me and the song."

Recently, Kristofferson invited Bill Weir to join him for the day in Nashville, Tenn. The two toured music row, old songwriter haunts and the beautiful Ryman Theatre, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry.

BILL WEIR: What's it like coming back to Nashville after all these years?

KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: I have a special place in my heart for Nashville because it saved my life back in the day. Everybody was into songs and songwriting and I loved it. When I first came here I was still in the Army. I had a two-week leave coming to me, so I came to Nashville. I came straight here.

WEIR: You met Johnny Cash shortly after arriving in Nashville. What was that like?

KRISTOFFERSON: Whoo -- electric. It was backstage at the Opry. It was at the end of my two-week leave here and it was the final nail in the coffin of my military career. I just knew ... I just shook hands with him. I am sure he didn't remember. I said, 'I'm coming back here [as soon as I'm out of the Army].' I figured if I couldn't make it as a songwriter, I could get so much material to write fiction because it was just fascinating to me.

WEIR: And what was it like between writers? Was it competitive? Was it collaborative?

KRISTOFFERSON: The people that I hung out with just loved music so much that we'd get just as enthralled by somebody else singing. We'd sit around the floor and knock each other out. It was competitive, but not like cutting somebody else down.

WEIR: You got a job pushing a broom at Columbia Records shortly after you arrived in Nashville.

KRISTOFFERSON: They called it "studio setup man," but I would clean up after the sessions and empty the ash trays. I wasn't supposed to give my recording demos to any of the people who were recording there, but I did. I gave everything I ever wrote to Johnny Cash. I think he said later in some interview that he would take them home and throw them in the lake with all the other demos. I'm sure he got a million of them.

WEIR: Were you ever discouraged? Did you ever come close to hanging it up?

KRISTOFFERSON: No. I think it was harder on my family than it was on me. I just loved it. I'd go out with different songwriters some of whom never were recorded. We'd hang out all night every night and then I'd go back to work at Columbia until 9 o'clock and then I'd go out and do songs again. I guess after four years in the Army it was probably like going to heaven for me.

WEIR: So what do you think is your best song? Do you have a favorite or is it like trying to pick a favorite child?

KRISTOFFERSON: I think it's like your kids. There's something you love about all of them. I'd probably lean toward the ones that everybody cut, like "Sunday Morning Coming Down." I think it'd probably be "Me and Bobby McGee," because that was the biggest step up for me as a songwriter and eventually as a performer.

WEIR: I know it was hard to listen to after Janis [Joplin] died. Does it still tug at your heart?

KRISTOFFERSON: Yeah. I think of it all the time. It isn't as hard as it once was. I couldn't listen to it for months after that and then I played it all night one night, just listening to it so I could get used to it.

WEIR: Were you two in love?

KRISTOFFERSON: We really had a lot of love and respect for each other. I wasn't in the marrying kind of love with anybody at the time but we were really close. Janis was smarter than I was. She was really bright. Music, it was her passion. She put so much soul into it and heart.

WEIR: Did she tell you she was going to record "Me and Bobby McGee"?

KRISTOFFERSON: No. I didn't know. After Janis died, her producer said, "I wanna play you something." And he played Janis' version of "Me and Bobby McGee." I couldn't even listen to all of it. I just went out and walked around the town. I'm not sure where I walked. It was so good, but it was so good that it was so sad that she couldn't enjoy it. When it came out it was at the top of the pop charts. It was the biggest thing I ever had at the time.

WEIR: Tell me about acting. Was that an accident?

KRISTOFFERSON: The first movie I was ever on was a Dennis Hopper film down in Peru. A friend of mine was on an airplane seated next to Hopper and they got to talking.. It turned out that Hopper loved "Me and Bobby McGee." So my friend called me up and said "Hopper wants you to bring any music you got and come on out to L.A." I brought out the acetate for what turned out to be my first album. And he played it for everybody in the building.

WEIR: How did you take to acting early on? What was your method?

KRISTOFFERSON: You know, the only advice I had from anybody was from a friend of mine who is a real good actor who said just forget the camera and be yourself, and that was all the acting advice I got. I figured it was a case of making believe you weren't acting and it worked. I got other offers off that and pretty soon I was up there on a billboard with Barbra Streisand for "A Star Is Born." That was a very short time later, a couple of years, you know, kind of hard not to get vertigo.

WEIR: Now I have to ask, is the story true that you and Barbra were doing more than acting in that hot tub scene?

KRISTOFFERSON: It was a very sexy scene and, unfortunately, her significant other was the producer. It was very romantic and probably the neatest scene I got to do in the movie.

WEIR: Has acting every eclipsed your songwriting?

KRISTOFFERSON: No, never. For a while it supported my band. There was time in the first half of the '80s when what I was saying on the stage was controversial. A lot of things I was talking about -- Nicaragua and American foreign policy. I had people picketing my shows with posters acting like I was a communist or a dangerous radical. During those times the music was supported by the films that I was doing. If it hadn't been for the films in those days then I wouldn't have been able to continue. Nowadays it is just the opposite. I can work anywhere I want. Just me and my guitar and where the crowds for some reason are bigger than ever. Sold out everywhere.

WEIR:: I'm curious, if you could talk to the young Kris Kristofferson who rolled into this town all those years ago, what would you tell him?

KRISTOFFERSON: Follow your heart. I would say you know you were right. Even if I hadn't made a living at it, I would never regret because I loved every minute of it even, when there were hard times.