Good spirits reverberate through the control booth of the West Los Angeles recording studio where Kris Kristofferson is at work on a new album with producer Don Was. They're standing just behind engineer Krish Sharma, who is in the pilot's seat at a mixing board about 12 feet long, every square inch of which is crammed with dials, buttons and switches.
There's a seriousness of purpose, a pronounced sense of mission, beneath the convivial conversation, lighthearted quips and abundant stories of life on the road for one of the most revered songwriters of the last half century. The banter bounces around the room but doesn't distract from the power of the song they're crafting, "Closer to the Bone," a celebration of that point in life where every moment becomes precious.
Like others from his forthcoming album, "Starlight and Stone," it features a no-frills arrangement built on the lanky Texan's raspy voice, wheezy harmonica and sparse finger-picking of his acoustic guitar. The only additions are colorful mandolin fills from Kristofferson's longtime pal Stephen Bruton, the primal upright bass played by Was and artful percussion from studio ace Jim Keltner that push it forward rhythmically.
They're closing in on the final mix of this track; others await whatever instrumental touches the team decides will best complement Kristofferson's economical lyrics and old-school country melodies.
"The trick," says Was, his coffee-colored dreadlocks dangling to his shoulders from beneath a fedora, "is to find one thing that can define the song rather than filling up every space . . . In the digital age, you can have 300 tracks, and the temptation is to use every one."
But not this day. Not with this song, not for this artist, whose gruff voice pours out of the studio monitors:
Coming from the heartbeat
Nothing but the truth now
Everything is sweeter
Closer to the bone
Kristofferson and Was, who also teamed on his 2006 release "This Old Road" (his first studio album of new music in 11 years) are striving for a sonic openness to match the exposed emotion of his latest material, slated for a late summer release.
The song crystallizes Kristofferson's mind-set at 72. He's long been a singular voice in American music, writing hundreds of songs over the last half century, many of them recorded multiple times by other performers: "Sunday Morning Coming Down," "For the Good Times," "Help Me Make It Through the Night," "Me and Bobby McGee," "Why Me" and "Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)."
His songs reflected rapidly changing social and sexual mores of the '60s with a sophistication and honesty that Nashville hadn't embraced previously -- and rarely does today. "My favorite country guys are the same ones I've always liked: Willie and Merle and John Prine. . . . It just got to where I couldn't identify with most of what I would hear on the country charts," Kristofferson says.
The establishment resisted at first, but Johnny Cash bestowed the imprimatur of country music acceptance on Kristofferson through his hit recording of "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and by introducing the young songwriter to a national audience on his hit TV show.
In their way, Kristofferson and Was are on a path paralleling the one Cash took late in life with producer Rick Rubin, ditching the elaborate production typical of their major-label recordings.
"A few years ago after Kris played South by Southwest," Was says during a break, "he started playing live solo, and when I saw him, I thought, 'This is the way to do it, instead of him being hidden behind a lot of big production.' It's how we did the last album. The way he plays his songs the first time, just him and guitar, tends to be the closest to the way they end up."
Kristofferson found it liberating, if intimidating, to step out of his musical comfort zone. "I carried a band for about 30 years," he says. "Playing solo means I can make a mistake without causing a train wreck."
This more intimate approach lets Kristofferson keep things where he likes them, closer to the bone.
Ain't it kinda funny
Ain't it just the way, though
Ain't you getting better
Running out of time
Running out of time isn't the image projected by Kristofferson, who looks maybe three-fifths his age. He's quick with a hearty laugh and remains movie-star handsome -- ridiculously so -- with his salt-and-pepper hair and slightly scraggly beard. The onetime Golden Gloves boxer is still physically fit in a faded black denim jacket over a black T-shirt and jeans, into which he regularly stuffs his weathered hands.