Kris Kristofferson: Performing "until they throw dirt on me"

Kris Kristofferson has done more than you.

Sure, that can be said of just about any commercially-successful musician, but for Kristofferson, there’s more to it. He’s a member of three Halls of Fame (Country Music, Songwriters and Nashville Songwriters); he’s the mind behind some of the largest hits of the ’60s and ’70s (“Help Me Make It Through The Night,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Me and Bobby McGee”); and he’s been in arguably the biggest country supergroup ever — The Highwaymen, with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. But Kristofferson’s achievements reach beyond music.

He’s an actor, picking up a Golden Globe Award in 1976 for “A Star is Born.” He’s a Rhodes Scholar, receiving his BPhil in English Literature from Oxford University. And, at 76 years old, he’s still fit enough to kick your ass.

But to hear Kristofferson tell it, things would have played out very differently, if not for some prodding from The Man in Black.

“The first time I went to Nashville, I had been nothing but a janitor and a songwriter,” said Kristofferson from his home in Maui. “I really was writing for other people. I didn’t think at the time that I’d be doing my own thing. If it hadn’t been for Johnny Cash, I’d probably have been a Nashville songwriter. (Cash) put me on stage at the Newport Folk Festival, and it went over so well that they brought me back the next day for an afternoon thing with James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and some really great songwriters. So I picked up a couple musicians — Billy Swan and Donnie Fritts — and had a band. The next thing I knew, I was performing at the Troubadour.”

Influenced by contemporaries like Cash and Bob Dylan, Kristofferson has been a politically vocal performer, ready and willing to let his music shout out his cause.

“I’ve been doing it my whole life, and I will. I always felt like it’s been sort of our job to talk about the situations we think matter. The things that concern me the most are the current events, the things that kill people.”

Now, after his success throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Kristofferson is a calmer person. He enjoys things more and seems more at ease with who he is.

“(When) you get to be my age, you look at things a little differently than you did when you were scrambling and young,” he said. “To be looking at it from this end of the road, it’s kind of evaluating everything. When I was writing ‘Sunday Morning, Coming Down,’ I was living by myself in a little slum tenement. I’ve got eight kids now, and a bunch of grandkids, and they’re really the best part of my life. At that time, I would have never thought that I would ever be a family man because I had pretty much moved away from my family — or they had moved away from me. But that was quite a long time ago. I feel really lucky to have persisted.”

The one-time Highwayman now lives as much of a life of leisure as a spirit like Kristofferson’s can. He tours when he wants, acts often — five films are slated for release in 2012 — and, of course, he’s still writing.

“I don’t write as fast as I used to, or as much, (but) I can still do it. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be writing, but probably until they throw dirt on me, you know?”

article originally ran in Cityview August 2, 2012