Kris Kristofferson Explains How Shaking Johnny Cash's Hand Changed His Life
"It's just me and my guitar," said Kris Kristofferson when I asked him about his upcoming show at Phoenix's Celebrity Theatre on Tuesday, October 14. Songwriter, actor, Army captain, Golden Gloves boxer, helicopter pilot, football player, Rhodes Scholar, and husband, Kristofferson has done multiple things many of us would be happy about if they were our only major accomplishment.
Seriously, though, Kris freaking Kristofferson. A real Renaissance man, a hall of fame writer of hit songs.
I got to spend exactly 10 minutes talking to Kristofferson a few days ago, and at no time during those fleeting seconds did I waste time thinking about the short duration of our chat. I was told, very pleasantly, Mr. Kristofferson could only be interviewed for 10 minutes at a time. For almost any other entertainer, I would have rolled my eyes and thought, "what a diva," but for a true living legend like Kristofferson, a member of the Highwaymen, it was a small concession to make. In reality, I could have chatted with him all day because the guy has literally done it all.
In a world ruled by Google, information is still valuable, especially when you can get it straight from the source. Kristofferson, 78, was forthcoming, sharp as a freaking tack, and downright fun to talk to.
Up On The Sun: You've done so many amazing things in your career, let's talk about what you've been doing recently. How did you end up working with Don Was?
Kris Kristofferson: He's a great, great director or producer, whatever you call it. He's got great relationships with musicians. Everyone respects him. He came to my house one day and ask me if we wanted to work together. He's a good one. Don Was has been working with me since the Highwaymen. (The Highwaymen featured Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and the late Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings)
He was part of those sessions as well?
Well, I think that I've just been very blessed, really, to make my living singing my songs, which is what I feel like I was supposed to be doing and I've earned the respect and friendship of my heroes, you know? It's very hard for me to not be moved when I think about the Highwaymen. Everyone one of them is my hero.
Right. You came across Johnny Cash working at a studio in Nashville, correct?
I'm sure I went to work at that studio so I could see Johnny Cash. It was Columbia Recording studios [in Nashville] and I was the only singer/songwriter they let in on the Bob Dylan sessions [the 1966 recording sessions of Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, which some people think of as amazing]. It was quite an experience and I really, I feel blessed that I was smart enough to go in that direction.
Did you know that you always wanted to be a songwriter? You had success in so many areas. Most folks would be pretty happy with one of your accomplishments.
I know, I know. I think of that often. I think, for some reason, for all my life that I can remember, I followed my heart. There is no reason a guy as little and slow as I am should play football, or box. I had head injuries and concussions, and for some reason, I had the audacity to just do it and I'm still around, so I feel very blessed.
Have you always been driven to reach goals?
You know something, for one thing, I don't feel driven. I don't feel like it is a job. For some reason, for me, my songs are kind of like my children. I love'em, you know, but I have no control (Laughs), after they're born the songs out there. They could be sung by hundreds of people. Like "Make it Through the Night."
How does it feel to know so many people have had great success recording your songs?
It's always been a thrill to me to have some artist that I respect sing my songs. Whether it's been Janice [Joplin], Johnny Cash, or George Jones. it's always been an honor to me to have someone sing my songs. Willie Nelson, he's done whole albums of my stuff. When I went to Nashville, he was the "serious songwriter's hero" and just really deep. ... We thought he was always going to be too deep for popular sales.
Did you always know you were going to be a songwriter?
I think I must have because I can remember making up songs when I was just a little boy. I didn't have a doubt in my mind when I went to Nashville and hung out with two streets on songwriters there on 16th and 17th Avenue South and it just, ah, it saved my life.
Well, it immediately saved my life because back then, it was right before the big build up in Vietnam. When I was in the army, I had I was one of two guys who were in Germany that volunteered to go to Vietnam, but it was turned down I was supposed to teach literature at West Point, which would have been a great assignment, but I, thank God, I went to Nashville and shook Johnny Cash's hand when I was still in uniform. It just changed my life. It electrified me and I knew that was where I belonged. I resigned my commission and got out of the army.
Our ten minutes were up. There were so many things I would have liked to ask him, but his short history lesson of one small, but formative piece of his life will have to suffice. Kris Kristofferson will take the stage Tuesday and share many of his hit songs from over the years, as well as selections from his most recent Don Was produced album, Feeling Mortal.
Tom Reardon has been an angry Phoenix punk rocker in four decades now. His highlights include Religious Skid ('80s), Hillbilly Devilspeak ('90s), North Side Kings ('00s), and now The Father Figures. He loves small furry animals, playing soccer with his kids, and skateboarding.
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