Still chasing his dream

Kris Kristofferson. Photo: Supplied
Kris Kristofferson. Photo: Supplied
Kris Kristofferson has enjoyed a busy career, as a singer, song-writer, actor, recording artist and Grammy Award winner. Tony Nielsen caught up with the 83-year-old country star ahead of his Dunedin performance in October.

Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin' for a train

When I's feelin' near as faded as my jeans

Bobby thumbed a diesel down just before it rained

And rode us all the way into

New Orleans

That, in my opinion, is one of, if not the best, opening lines to any song. Kris Kristofferson wrote these words in 1969 and in the following year Roger Miller laid down the first recording. But it was the 1971 posthumous version by Janis Joplin that set the world on fire for Me and Bobby McGee.

Kristofferson's early life was driven as an "army brat", as his family moved around at the behest of Uncle Sam. From the start, his academic emphasis was on creative writing, while his sporting pursuits included rugby and boxing. After graduating with an arts degree from Pomona College, in California, Kristofferson was granted a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University where he pursued song-writing and performing without success and began teaching. He then followed in the family tradition and joined the US Army and reached the rank of captain. He became a helicopter pilot after receiving flight training at Fort Rucker, Alabama, and also completed Ranger School. When his tour was over in 1965, song-writing was becoming his burning desire.

"Song-writing is what I always wanted to do, so I gave up teaching at West Point to move to Nashville. Most people thought I was crazy and I sometimes wondered if they were right. When I first came to Nashville, as soon as I got there, I knew I was in the right place. The first time I got to Music Row, I walked from downtown to Seventeenth Avenue South. By the time I got there I was soaking wet. It was the most exciting creative atmosphere that I'd been around. I'd always liked country music and this was the home of it.

"I spent the whole night listening to cowboy Jack Clement and I think Bobby Bare was there, and I was just head over heels. Then I got to shake Johnny Cash's hand backstage at the Opry, and that put the nail in the coffin right there. It didn't look like a smart choice for several years. My family thought I had lost my mind. But it all worked out.

"I don't think of songs as hits. I write them as literature. I've started songs very differently. Usually it's the sensual idea of the song, it's the idea of it and you build around it. I've never, to my knowledge, started with a melody. I remember a song-writer telling me once, that my lyrics were good, but I was quitting right after the lyrics. It was good advice. I think one of the tools you have as a song-writer is the melody that carries so much emotion with it. The appeal of the song is to the emotions, the heart, not the intellect. If you don't use it you're wasting one of your weapons to get the effect that you want to get."

Kristofferson's songs have been cover by everyone from Janis Joplin to Elvis, Johnny Cash to Willie Nelson, but he said he doesn't have any favourites and "loves all of them".

"A lot of them happened around the same time there. It was real fortunate. Sammy Smith did Help Me Make it Through the Night. Johnny Cash had his television show going at the time and he covered Sunday Morning Coming Down. Roger Miller and Janis Joplin both did Me and Bobby McGee and I never had to work again."

The show

Kris Kristofferson and The Strangers Regent Theatre, Dunedin, October 8. Tickets available from Ticket Direct,



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