Kris Kristofferson's new album is "Feeling Mortal." (Mary Ellen Mark )
Kris Kristofferson has been one of country music's most esteemed songwriters since he hung up his janitor's broom and turned to his guitar full time in the late 1960s, creating a treasure trove of literate and insightful songs including "Help Me Make It Through the Night," "Sunday Morning Coming Down," "Me and Bobby McGee" and "For the Good Times."
But if there's anything constituting a sure bet in 2013, it's that, Kristofferson's legacy or not, mainstream radio programmers won't come within a country mile of his new album, "Feeling Mortal." That's largely because of the unflinching look the 76-year-old takes at what it means to stare straight into the eyes of death — and to be fine with what he sees there.
With its strong foundation in the church, country music once dealt with life and death issues. In recent years, though, it's moved away from songs of sin and salvation toward a glossier view of life that typically ignores the place where life inevitably leads.
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"To me, that was always a trait of the best country songs, the ones I love," Kristofferson said by phone from his home in Hawaii. "That's the stuff Hank Williams was doing: taking a hard look at yourself and your life."
That's what Kristofferson does consistently on "Feeling Mortal," which is being released Tuesday on his own new KK Records label. It's his third effort over the last seven years with producer Don Was, another instrumentally stripped-down, emotionally raw exploration of some of life's biggest questions, a powerful excursion leavened by Kristofferson's sense of humor, which is never far from the playing field.
"It kind of amazes me that it took me this long to think about feeling mortal," he said with a chuckle. "You can't help but feel that way when you get up in the 70s."
In fact, the album opens with the title track, the first sound that of Kristofferson's craggy voice alone in all its battered glory singing the words, "Wide awake and feeling mortal." Then he continues, with no sense of sentimentality:
Here today and gone tomorrow
Is the way it's gotta be
With an empty blue horizon
For as far as I can see.
In "Castaway," he uses a perspective the former Army pilot said grew out of his experience of flying helicopters over the Gulf of Mexico in the early 1960s, looking down on a small boat being tossed about on the sea:
Each day I'm drawing closer to the brink
Just a speck upon the waters
Of an ocean deep and wide
I won't even make a ripple when I sink
Don't think, however, that Kristofferson is bidding adieu to the world. Rather, he's examining what he experiences at this stage of his life, much as he did in bringing a new level of honesty and real-world relevance to songs of love and romance decades ago.
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"I think all great artists write to their point of view at any given moment," said Was, who besides his roles as bassist, singer and songwriter is a producer for other artists including the Rolling Stones.
"I don't think this should be viewed as the final word from Kris Kristofferson, despite the grim title," he said. "But it's very interesting to get the global perspective of a 76-year-old who's really lived in the world and who has squeezed a lot of living into those 76 years. It's interesting to see where he's at now and how his perspective on what's important has changed over the years.
"I think the album really is a primer in remaining fiercely independent, yet finding a state of acceptance and gratitude and grace regarding the way things are."
Indeed, Kristofferson expresses less of Dylan Thomas' celebrated call to "rage against the dying of the light" than offering up an invitation to join him in marveling at all that life has to offer.
"Jesus, I'd have to be pretty stupid to not appreciate how well things have turned out in my life," he said. "Looking back to when I was playing football and boxing and doing stuff I shouldn't been doing according to my physical limitations, it all was a wonderful experience. I'm just glad that I had the audacity to follow my heart everywhere it wanted to go, and it always worked."
It's an idea that related to the album's closing song, "Ramblin' Jack," a salute to the veteran folk singer, songwriter and onetime acolyte of Woody Guthrie, a patron saint of folk-rooted singer-songwriters.
"I always admired Ramblin' Jack just for being the one-dimensional person he is," Kristofferson said, laughing. "He's never changed a bit and he never will."
Was takes the explanation a step further, spotting elements of a universal commentary behind the biographical specifics.
"It's about all of us, really," he said. "The lyric on chorus is incredibly powerful: 'He ain't afraid of where he's going, not ashamed of where he's been, made his own mistakes, made his own love.' That's everybody. There's a real acceptance of the flaws."
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