A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.
Over the course of this project, I’ve written about a rogue’s gallery of drunks, ne’er-do-wells, and scoundrels, larger-than-life icons who lived fast, died young, and left behind desiccated, ghoulish corpses. That all ends with today’s entry in Nashville Or Bust, however, as I cover the dry, colorless, almost perversely uninteresting Kris Kristofferson.
Kristofferson is just your typical Army brat turned championship college rugby player turned Rhodes Scholar/expatriate Oxford alum turned Army captain/helicopter pilot turned recording-studio janitor turned hit songwriter turned recording artist turned producer turned movie star turned living legend turned primary inspiration for the role that will probably win Jeff Bridges a long-overdue Oscar this year. When he left the military, Kristofferson wrestled with a choice every country singer has faced, from Jimmie Rodgers to Taylor Swift: whether to accept a post teaching English Literature at West Point, or pursue his dreams of becoming a songwriter.
So when Kristofferson hit Nashville in the mid-’60s, clutching an honorable discharge from the Army and a sheaf of songs that would soon become hits in other people’s hands, he’d already done an awful lot of living. In the words of Kristofferson’s own “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33,” “He’s a poet, he’s a picker, he’s a prophet, he’s a pusher / He’s a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he’s stoned / He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction / Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.” When Cybill Shepherd referenced the “walking contradiction” line in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver to describe Robert De Niro’s iconic lead character, it was something of an inside joke, since Kristofferson starred in Scorsese’s previous film, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More.
In the rambling, tongue-in-cheek introduction to “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33,” Kristofferson says he set out to write the song about songwriter Chris Gantry, but somehow ended up writing about, among others, Dennis Hopper, Johnny Cash, Norman Norbert, Donnie Fritts, Billy Swan, Bobby Neuwirth, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The list of inspirations goes on so long that it becomes apparent Kristofferson wrote the song about country singers in general, especially himself. He’s writing about an archetype he embodies: the self-destructive spiritual seeker torn between deliverance and damnation, between creating timeless art and destroying himself with liquor and drugs.
Kristofferson embodies a set of raging contradictions. He’s the shaggy-haired, hard-drinking product of a distinguished military family (his father was a general, his grandfather a Swedish officer). He was a sex symbol who cultivated his scruffy rough edges, a former janitor with a belly full of whiskey and a mind full of lofty ideas. He was a jock whose first hit song as a songwriter (“Viet Nam Blues,” which was a hit for Dave Dudley) gave a soldier’s disapproving take on hippie protesters, and yet he later became a fierce critic of U.S foreign policy in Central America and the Middle East.
Every great country songwriter doubles as a philosopher, and Kristofferson is no exception. On his 1970 debut, Kristofferson, he’s equal parts mystic, rumpled everyman, poet, and philosopher. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” he famously wrote in “Me And Bobby McGee,” a downbeat character study about a drifter who’d trade in “all my tomorrows for a single yesterday” with a traveling companion who alleviated his loneliness for a brief idyll, yet left him feeling more melancholy than ever.
Kristofferson’s first four albums, 1970’s Kristofferson, 1971’s The Silver Tongued Devil And I, and 1972’s Border Lord and Jesus Was A Capricorn are filled with tender elegies for angel-headed hipsters living beatific lives on the fringes of society, like Silver Tongued Devil’s “Billy Dee,” which begins with the immortal line “Billy Dee was 17 when he turned 21 / fooling with some foolish things he could have left alone.” On the title track to Jesus Was A Capricorn, Kristofferson depicts Jesus as part of his roster of troublemaking outsiders: he “ate organic foods, he believed in peace and love and never wore no shoes.”
The notion of Jesus as ultimate hippie also appears in Kristofferson’s “The Law Is For The Protection Of The People,” where he adopts the persona of a member of the silent majority and admonishes listeners, “don’t worry who the lawmen was protecting when they nailed the Savior to the cross / ’Cause the law is for the protection of the people / Rules are rules and any fool can see / We don’t need no riddle-speaking prophets scaring decent folks like you and me.”
As a shaggy-haired ex-soldier who slept with Janis Joplin and Joan Baez and worshipped at the altar of Johnny Cash (whom he later joined as a quarter of The Highwaymen) Kristofferson had a unique perspective on the culture wars of the late ’60s and early ’70s. “Blame It On The Stones,” the first song on his first album, couldn’t have less in common with the sleek product being pumped out of Nashville at the time. It’s a heavy-handed bit of social satire about stock establishment figures like “Mr. Marvin Middle Class” and “Mother” who look down their noses at the excesses and debauchery of the counterculture while blithely ignoring their own vices. It segues from Bob Dylan-style smart-assery on the verses to the demented ringmaster bombast of mid-period Beatles on its chorus.
Factor in a hook that facetiously recommends blaming Mick Jagger and company for the world’s problems, and you have a song that all but begs country fans to tune its creator out. To win them back, Kristofferson dedicated the next song to Johnny Cash, “a great and wasted friend of mine… only about a step away from dying,” who pulled himself back from the abyss and taught Kristofferson how to beat the devil. (In the ultimate honor, Kris named one of his children Johnny Cash Kristofferson.) “Beat The Devil” is a song of divine understatement that posits the narrator’s victory over evil incarnate in terms both spiritual and mundane; he doesn’t conclusively beat the devil, but he “drank his beer for nothing” before stealing his song.
In his early albums, Kristofferson adopts a militantly plainspoken approach that puts the emphasis where it belongs: on his beautiful words and a voice that sounded weathered and prematurely wise even at the very beginning of his career. “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” one of Kristofferson’s three instant standards—the others being “Me And Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down”—elegantly illustrates Kristofferson’s singular gift for combining the grizzled, the world-weary, and the romantic with disarming tenderness. It’s a naked plea for a night of human connection, however ephemeral, in a cold world.
“Sunday Morning Coming Down,” however, represents a master class in songwriting, Kristofferson-style. It begins with a killer first line that captures a visceral feeling with impressive specificity: “Well, I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt.” It moves on to a great deadpan joke—“The beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad, so I had one more for desert.” The rest of the lyrics encompass Proustian reverie and bluesy despair.
Had Kristofferson died after writing and recording Kristofferson, his place in country history would be secure. But he’d barely begun. Though not as loaded with instant classics, The Silver Tongued Devil And I is nearly as distinguished, with “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33” and the hushed intimacy of the ballads “When I Loved Her” and “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again).” Plus the title song, which pays homage to the charming devil in the mirror every morning.
1973’s Border Lord is an ingratiatingly ramshackle affair by turns philosophical and weighty (“Burden Of Freedom”), libidinous (“Josie” and the weirdly doo-wop “Smokey Put The Sweat On Me”), and funky, loose, and goofy (“Gettin’ By, High And Strange”). And Jesus Was A Capricorn lives up to its title, which is high praise indeed. “Nobody Wins” surveys the wreckage of a dead marriage with the perfect note of weary resignation, the title song is a cheeky thumb in the eye of self-righteous Christians, and “Help Me” is an almost unbearably sad, humble gospel song written by Larry Gatlin. Kristofferson’s hero, Johnny Cash, covered it to devastating effect on the fifth installment of his American Recordings series.
Listening to Kristofferson’s first four albums, I fell in love with his words and his forthright delivery, his genius for creating an entire world with just a few carefully chosen lines, his wit and sadness and gift for novelistic detail and poetic abstraction. I admired the way he moved skillfully from the mundane to the sacred, from affectionate character studies to aching ballads.
Of course, Kristofferson’s career didn’t end after Capricorn. He went on to become one of the biggest movie stars of the ’70s, and he remains a talented character actor. His recording career has been through highs and lows, though his latest album, 2009’s Closer To The Bone, was heralded as a spare return to form.
Given his battles with alcoholism and drug abuse, today’s entry in Nashville Or Bust possibly should have died years ago, yet he stands tall today as a survivor. To answer a question Kristofferson asks of the archetypal self-destructive country singer in “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33,” the going up was worth the coming down.
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