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From the Vaults

Personal Struggles Fueled Kristofferson's Songwriting

February 06, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Those too young to remember when Kris Kristofferson was the most penetrating and influential songwriter in country music may be puzzled by the Sony-owned Legacy label's decision to release Kristofferson's 1970 debut album in its prestigious "American Milestones" series.

Since the Nashville-based series was started in 1999, it has saluted some of the most celebrated works in Sony's giant country music catalog--albums with the cultural resonance of "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison," Willie Nelson's "Red Headed Stranger" and Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man."

For those who know Kristofferson better as an actor than as a musician, the natural question is, "What's one of his albums doing in this company?"

The answer isn't Kristofferson's singing, which is shaky, but his songs--the best of which combine the confessional ache of Hank Williams, the literary sensibilities of Bob Dylan and the restless independence of Johnny Cash.

Though the original version of "Kristofferson," released by Monument Records, only sold about 30,000 copies, four of the songs went to No. 1 in the country or pop charts after being recorded by other singers. The best known: Janis Joplin's splendid version of "Me and Bobby McGee" and Johnny Cash's "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down."

That success generated such interest in Kristofferson that Monument re-released the album in 1971 with a new title, "Me and Bobby McGee," and a flashier cover. It sold 500,000 copies within a month.

For the "American Milestones" edition of the album, which will be released today, Legacy has gone back to the original cover. It has also added four previously unreleased tracks that would have been better fits on "Kristofferson" than some of the album's self-conscious social commentary, which hasn't worn well. Either way, however, "Kristofferson" is a landmark in modern country music.

*

**** Kris Kristofferson, "Kristofferson," Monument/ Legacy. One reason Kristofferson's tales of melancholy and desire were so convincing is that they were drawn from his life. Few pop artists have ever given up so much for their art as Kristofferson--and you feel that emotional struggle and uncertainty in his best songs.

By the time the Brownsville, Texas, native reached Nashville in the mid-'60s, he had been a Rhodes scholar and had been offered a prestigious teaching position at West Point.

His decision to pursue songwriting instead made him a failure in his family's eyes, he has said, and it eventually tore his marriage apart. He worked for a spell as a janitor at Columbia Records in Nashville so he could be close to the music industry and pitch his songs to singers.

Though he had some success as a writer in the late '60s, Kristofferson, who learned to fly helicopters in the Army, was still so desperate to get his songs recorded that he landed a chopper in the backyard of Johnny Cash's estate outside Nashville.

When Cash came out to check on the commotion, Kristofferson handed him a demo tape.

It's not clear whether "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" was on the tape, but Cash eventually recorded the song, and the record went to No. 1 on the country chart (and No. 46 on the pop chart) in the fall of 1970.

Typical of his best songs from the period, "Sunday Mornin' " was blessed with a melody so seductive that it defied you not to sing along. The lyrics spoke to a generation's post-'60s hangover as strongly as the Eagles' best music would later.

The opening lines: "Well, I woke up Sunday mornin' with no way to hold my head that didn't hurt/And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad/So I had one more for dessert/Then I fumbled through my closet for my clothes/And found my cleanest dirty shirt . . . ."

Kristofferson wrote the song after his wife and daughter left him and moved to California. "Sunday was the worst day of the week if you didn't have a family," he once said about the song. "The bars were closed until 1 in the afternoon so if you didn't have a family, there was nothing to do all morning. I was just writing about what I was going through."

By the time the Cash record reached No. 1, there was such a buzz about Kristofferson in Nashville that other singers raced to record songs from the debut album. They didn't have to worry about competition from Kristofferson's versions because radio programmers found his vocals too ragged for their playlists.

Cash's hit was soon followed on the pop and country charts by Ray Price's lushly designed version of "For the Good Times," and then by Sammi Smith's tender rendition of "Help Me Make It Through the Night."

But the most evocative record was still to come.

Roger Miller scored a modest country hit in 1969 with "Me and Bobby McGee," a tale of wanderlust and need whose memorable chorus included the line, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose/Nothin' ain't worth nothin', but it's free."

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