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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Nothin’ Left to Lose

Kris Kristofferson finds freedom in songwriting

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When told he's known better as a songwriter than a singer, Kris Kristofferson laughs. "I don't think there's much doubt about that," says Kristofferson, 72, in a familiar, graveled baritone thickened with age.

Armed only with a guitar, a harmonica and his soul, Kristofferson has come to appreciate the directness of the acoustic approach and its ability to help him reach an audience.

"All I can do is go by people's reactions to my work," Kristofferson says. "It's just the way I communicate with people."

Judging by the number of awards won by other artists who have recorded his work, Kristofferson has remarkable communication abilities, or one helluva good-luck streak. The self-deprecating performer might well describe it as a blend of both.

The son of a U.S. Air Force major general, Kristofferson was a classic "military brat," moving from city to city and honed for a military career. The former Pomona (Calif.) College Phi Beta Kappa pledge and college athlete earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University and, eventually, a master's in literature. He joined the U.S. Army, learned to fly helicopters and achieved the rank of captain. Offered a position as English literature professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he turned it down and moved to Nashville, where he pursued songwriting in earnest.

"I had been writing songs since I was 11 years old," Kristofferson says. "When I moved to Nashville I tried to write songs in as many ways as I could. All my education had prepared me for this career."

Awareness of the songwriter's ability dawned slowly on the country music scene, but eventually everyone from Johnny Cash and Ray Price to Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings covered Kristofferson. In 1970, Price's recording of Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" won the Academy of Country Music's Song of the Year award, while "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," recorded by Cash, earned the same honor from the rival Country Music Association, a first.

"My songs haven't changed over the years, although fewer of them are coming out now," Kristofferson says. "They're my response to what's going on around me. It's how things look from this end of the road."

One of Kristofferson's most fertile songwriting periods came in the very early '70s, when the songwriter was dividing his time between pitching tunes in Nashville and flying helicopters for Petroleum Helicopters International out of Lafayette, La., to oil rigs anchored in the Gulf of Mexico. He wrote songs constantly, composing "Help Me Make It Through the Night" while sitting on an oil platform. That's also where Kristofferson penned "Me and Bobby McGee," which became a hit for then-girlfriend Janis Joplin.

"Fred Foster, who was president of Monument Records and my publisher, told me he had a title, 'Me and Bobby McKey,' which I mistook for 'Bobby McGee,' and he wanted me to write a song around it," Kristofferson recalls. "He said, 'Here's the hook: Bobby is a girl.' And I said, 'Oh, I can't record that.'

"I was flying helicopters at the time, which is probably why there was all that Louisiana stuff in the song," he adds.

The song, released posthumously after Joplin's death, rose to No. 1 on the pop charts and ignited Kristofferson's career.

"The idea behind any song is the most important thing," Kristofferson says. "I usually approach the song as a whole, but when I was a kid the tunes always seemed to come first. Maybe you have more melodies in you when you're young and not so heavy into thought."

Kristofferson says he's slowing down with age, toying with the ideas of writing novels or his autobiography. At the May 2 close of his current tour, he'll head to Wilmington, N.C., to appear in a film version of William Gay's Provinces of Night with Hilary Duff and fellow musician Toby Keith, reviving the acting side of his lengthy career. But the art of the song lies closest to Kristofferson's creative core.

"The emotional impact of a song tells you whether or not it's good," he says. "If the emotions are engaged, the thought process will follow and that's when I think a song becomes successful. If you're writing songs because you love it, then you're in the right place. Just remember to follow your heart."

Kristofferson plays an 8 p.m. show April 15 at the Potawatomi Bingo Casino.

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