Kris Kristofferson (born June 22, 1936) is an influential country music songwrite, singer and actor. He is best known for hits like “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”, many of which were co-written with Shel Silverstein or Fred Foster.
Although born in Brownsville, Texas, he moved around much as a youth, finally settling down in San Mateo, California, where he graduated from high school. Kristofferson’s father was an Air Force general who pushed his son to a military career. An aspiring writer, Kristofferson earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University (Merton College, Oxford) after previously attending Pomona College. While in England, Kristofferson began writing songs and working with his manager Larry Parnes; he recorded for Top Rank Records under the name Kris Carson, but was unsuccessful.
In 1960, Kristofferson graduated with a master’s degree in English literature and married an old girlfriend, Fran Beir. He ultimately joined the Army and achieved the rank of captain. He became a helicopter pilot, which served him well later. During the early 1960s, he was stationed in West Germany and returned to music and forming a band. In 1965 he resigned his commission to pursue songwriting. He had just been assigned to become a teacher at West Point. Kristofferson sent some of his compositions to a friend’s relative, Marijohn Wilkin, a successful songwriter in Nashville, Tennessee.
Kristofferson moved to Nashville after resigning his commission in 1965, intent on becoming a professional songwriter. He worked a variety of odd jobs while struggling to make it in the music business, burdened with expensive medical bills as a result of his son’s chronic condition. He and his wife soon divorced.
He got a job sweeping floors in Nashville studios. There he met Johnny Cash, who initially took some of his songs but ignored them. He was also working as a commercial helicopter pilot at the time. In 1966, Dave Dudley released a successful Kristofferson single, “Viet Nam Blues”. The following year, Kristofferson signed to Epic Records and released a single, “Golden Idol”/”Killing Time”, but the song was not successful. Within the next few years, more Kristofferson originals hit the charts, performed by Roy Druskey (“Jody and the Kid”), Billy Walker and the Tennessee Walkers (“From the Bottle to the Bottom”), Ray Stevens (“Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”), Jerry Lee Lewis (“Once More with Feeling”), Faron Young (“Your Time’s Comin’”) and Roger Miller (“Me and Bobby McGee”, “Best of all Possible Worlds”, “Darby’s Castle”). He also gained some success as a performer himself, due to Johnny Cash’s introduction of Kristofferson at the Newport Folk Festival. He got Cash’s attention when he landed his helicopter in Cash’s yard and gave him some tapes.
Kristofferson signed to Monument Records as a recording artist. The label was run by Fred Foster, also manager of Columbine Music, Kristofferson’s songwriting label. His debut album for Monument was Kristofferson, which included a few new songs as well as many of his previous hits. Sales were poor. In spite of his failure as a recording artist, Kristofferson’s compositions were still in high demand. Ray Price (“For the Good Times”), Waylong Jennings (“The Taker”), Bobby Bare (“Come Sundown”), Johnny Cash (“Sunday Morning Coming Down”) and Sammi Smith (“Help Me Make It Through the Night”) all recorded successful versions of his songs in the early 1970s. “For the Good Times” (Ray Price) won ‘Song of the Year” in 1970 from the Academy of Country Music, while “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (Johnny Cash) won the same award from the Academy’s rival, the Country Music Association in the same year. This is the only time an individual has won the same award from these two organizations in the same year for different songs.
In 1971, Janis Joplin, a very influential vocalist, had a number-one pop hit with “Me and Bobby McGee” from her posthumous Pearl. More hits followed from others: Ray Price (“I Won’t Mention It Again”, “I’d Rather Be Sorry”), Joe Simon (“Help Me Make It Through the Night”), Bobby Bare (“Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends”), O.C. Smith (“Help Me Make It Through the Night”), Jerry Lee Lewis (“Me and Bobby McGee”), Patti Page (“I’d Rather Be Sorry”) and Peggy Little (“I’ve Got to Have You”). Kristofferson released his second album, The Silver Tongued Devil and I, in 1971; the album was a success and established Kristofferson’s career as a recording artist in his own right. Not long after, Kristofferson made his acting debut in The Last Movie (directed by Dennis Hopper) and appeared at the Isle of Wight Festival. In 1972, he acted in Cisco Pike and released his third album, Border Lord; the album was all-new material and sales were sluggish. He also swept the Grammys that year with numerous songs nominated and several winning song of the year. Kristofferson’s 1972 fourth album, Jesus Was a Capricorn, began slow but the third single, “Why Me”, was a success and significantly increased album sales.
For the next few years, Kristofferson focused on acting. He appeared in Blume in Love (directed by Paul Mazursky) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (directed by Sam Peckinpah) and also married Rita Coolidge. With his new wife, Kristofferson released an album called Full Moon, another success buoyed by numerous hit singles and Grammy nominations. However, his fifth album, Spooky Lady’s Sideshow, was a commercial failure, setting the trend for most of the rest of his career. Artists like Ronnie Milsap and Johnny Duncan continued to record Kristofferson’s material with much success, but his own rough voice and anti-pop sound kept his own audience to a minimum. He continued acting, in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Convoy, (another Sam Peckinpah film which was released in 1978), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Vigilante Force, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea, and A Star is Born (with Barbra Streisand). In spite of his success with Streisand, Kristofferson’s career was heading downward with the non-charting ninth album, Shake Hands with the Devil. His next film, Freedom Road, did not earn a theatrical release in the U.S. He and Rita Coolidge then divorced. Meanwhile, more artists were taking his songs to the top of the charts, including Lena Martell (“One Day at a Time”) and Willie Nelson, whose Willie Nelson Sings Kris Kristofferson LP was a smash success. Kristofferson’s next film was Heaven’s Gate, a phenomenal failure that temporarily ended his acting career.
In 1982, Kristofferson participated (with Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Brenda Lee) on The Winning Hand, a country success that failed to break into mainstream audiences. He then married again, to Lisa Meyers, and concentrated on films for a time, appearing in The Lost Honor of Kathryn Beck, Flashpoint and Songwriter. The latter also starred Willie Nelson and Kristofferson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score. Music from Songwriter (an album of duets between Nelson and Kristofferson) was a massive country success. Nelson and Kristofferson continued their partnership, and added Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash to form the supergroup, The Highwaymen. Their first album, Highwayman, was a huge success, and the supergroup continued working together for a time. In 1985, Kristofferson starred in Trouble in Mind and released Repossessed, a politically aware album that was a country success, particularly “They Killed Him” (also performed by Bob Dylan), a tribute to his heroes, including Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus and Mohandas Gandhi. Kristofferson also appeared in Amerika at about the same time; the mini-series was controversial, hypothesizing life under Communist domination. In spite of the success of Highwayman 2 in 1990, Kristofferson’s solo recording career slipped significantly in the early 1990s, though he continued to successfully record with the Highwaymen. Lone Star (1996 film) reinvigorated Kristofferson’s acting career, and he soon appeared in Blade, Blade II, Blade: Trinity, A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, Fire Down Below, Tim Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes, Payback and The Jacket.
Kristofferson was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame and in 1977 to the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. In 2004 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was presented with the CMT Johnny Cash Visionary Award in 2007.
Kris Kristofferson has always identified himself first and foremost as a writer, and true writers know that what works best is giving a piece of themselves to the listener. With his latest album, This Old Road, Kristofferson lays a chunk of his own soul on every track. This beautifully sparse recording puts an emphasis on his fine lyrics and distinctive voice by featuring Kristofferson, his guitar, and harmonica. The album is so intimate it makes the listener feel as if they are sitting in Kristofferson’s living room while he picks and sings just for them.
Closer to the Bone (2009) doesn’t come with a campfire, but it might as well. “Here’s one I wrote for my kids,” says Kris Kristofferson, introducing “From Here to Forever”, one of a dozen fine songs on his fifteenth studio release. As the album title suggests, the scale is intimate - confessions and metaphysical ruminations, delivered in a weathered rumble, punctuated by the sound of harmonica and fingers scraping on fretboards. Songs like “Starlight and Stone” approach old age (he’s 73) with a wry smile and resignation that borders on religiosity: “The road never ends,” he sings, “and the soul never dies.”
Kristofferson finds himself releasing the third Don Was-produced album in a twilight year’s trilogy. Feeling Mortal (2013) follows 2009’s Closer to The Bone and 2006’s This Old Road in examining hard-won grace. Wide awake and feeling mortal, he writes on the title track. “At this moment in the dream/ That old man there in the mirror/ And my shaky self-esteem. Going back to the beginning, the songs have been reflections of where I was at that point in my life,” he says. “I always try to be as honest as I can in the songwriting, otherwise there’s no point in doing it. I might as well be doing an advertising job or something. And what I’m finding, to my pleasant surprise at this age, is that I’m more inclined to laughter than tears. I hope I’ll feel this creative and this grateful until they throw dirt over me.”
In the Nashville beginning, Kristofferson threw away a promising military career in favor of life as what he sometimes calls, a songwriting bum. He had excelled at most everything he’d ever tried, save for singing and songwriting, but it was the singing and the writing that called to him. He wound up penning classics including “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night”,” Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “For The Good Times,” as well as a slew of other empathetic, incisive gems. Kristofferson along with contemporaries Tom T. Hall, Mickey Newbury, Willie Nelson and John Prine enhanced the scope of country music songwriting, focusing on layering, nuance, empathy and emotional truth.
A major reason for Kris enduring popularity is that he’s always been very honest and open about revealing his inner life, says producer Don Was, who has worked with Kristofferson for the past 17 years. “’Sunday Morning Coming Down’” is a brutally frank, first-person narrative that just happens to hit a common nerve among millions of people, and that’s why Kris is such a great artist.”