HOT DISH: Amazing! Kris Lived to Make It to the Country Music Hall of Fame

The Rhodes Scholar and Studio Janitor Changed Country Songwriting Forever

(CMT Hot Dish is a weekly feature written by former Country Music magazine columnist Hazel Smith. Author of the cookbook, Hazel’s Hot Dish: Cookin’ With Country Stars, she also shares her recipes at CMT.com.)

When Faith Hill and Willie Nelson induct Kris Kristofferson into the Country Music Hall of Fame, no doubt about it, they will honor one of the great minds of the 20th century. Nobody — but nobody — changed songwriting like Kris Kristofferson.

Before Kris, country songs suggested a little hand holding, a little kissing and a little smooching, but when Kris came on the scene with “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” he was writing lyrics like: “Take the ribbon from your hair/Shake it loose and let it fall/Laying soft against your skin/Like the shadows on the wall.” The man handled sex in such a tender manner, using such tender metaphors. Shoot, me and my sharecropping friends and kin had no idea he was talking about just sleeping together when he said, “All I’m taking is your time/Help me make it through the night.”

Referring to Kristofferson and his former wife, singer Rita Coolidge, “Kris’n’Rita” was spoken as one word on Music Row during the ’70s. The crown prince of hillbilly songwriters had survived his habits, and in spite of himself, he had a record deal and was off and running with his band of merry music makers that included funky Donnie Fritts (also known as the “Alabama leaning man”) and his picking buddy, Billy Swan. Didn’t somebody sing that in a song? Jerry Jeff Walker, I believe.

A Rhodes scholar with a master’s degree in English, Kris would have made his Air Force major general daddy proud had he not started writing songs while at Oxford University in England. After college, he got married, joined the Army and was sent to Germany. He went to jump school, ranger school, flying school and became a pilot. During a two-week furlough in 1965, he buzzed Music City, but he became an English literature instructor at West Point. An Army buddy suggested he send some songs to his cousin, songwriter-publisher Marijohn Wilkin.

Kris left West Point and the Army, moved to Nashville and became the janitor at Columbia studios on Music Row while writing songs. His wife divorced him, and his dad disowned him. His initial songwriting career began in 1969 when Roy Drusky recorded “Jody and the Kid” and Roger Miller cut “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Darby’s Castle” and “Casey’s Last Ride.” Kris landed a helicopter in Johnny Cash’s front yard and handed him a cassette, so the Man in Black eventually recorded “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Waylon Jennings cut “The Taker,” and Ray Price recorded what turned out to be CMA’s and ACM’s song of the year in 1970 — “For the Good Times.”

As an artist, Kris hit the pop charts with “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)” and had his only No. 1 country chart topper with “Why Me” in 1973. Janis Joplin had a No. 1 pop hit with “Me and Bobby McGee,” and country diva Sammi Smith enjoyed her biggest hit with “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” earning Kris a Grammy for best country song in 1971. Kris was on a roll. He had hits in every musical genre — from Gladys Knight to Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis to Ronnie Milsap and from Brenda Lee to John Hiatt. Willie recorded Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson, an entire album of his songs.

Meantime, Kris made his acting debut in 1971 in Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie. Since that time, the singer-songwriter-actor has shared his talent in a plethora of films including my favorites, A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid with James Coburn.

I actually bought a ticket to see Kris and Rita perform at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The show was awesome. Kris sorta growled his songs, but he was Kris — and that was OK. Even his drinking from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s onstage seemed acceptable. Like I said before, he was Kris — and it was OK. He was the hero of Music Row. He’d slept in cars, worked in bars, swept floors at CBS, wrote hits and was famous. His songs, like “Sunday Morning Coming Down” tell the story: “I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt/The beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad so I had one more for dessert/ I fumbled through my closet, through my clothes, and found my cleanest dirty shirt.” You English majors and mathematic majors: Read the man’s lyrics. Study the alliteration, the inner rhyme and how it is all put together so skillfully and mathematically correct. Kris could very well have genius written beside his name.

But he boozed with the best, and he roared with the rest. In 1979, the Kris’n’Rita stories ceased around the time the couple divorced.

Luckily, Kris later met an attorney who now goes by the name of Lisa Kristofferson. The couple and their five kids all reside in Hawaii. (All five of the children have those Kris blue eyes that appear to look plumb through you.) According to Jessi (Mrs. Waylon Jennings) Colter, who said to me in Lisa’s presence, “You know, Hazel, Lisa straightened out Kris’ ass.” Kris is sober. I assume that’s what Jessi was referring to. Lord knows, he’d needed straightening out for years.

Lord God, it’s a miracle that Kris lived to make it into the Country Music Hall of Fame. I’m so glad Willie was part of the introduction, and I’m so thankful it will be televised for all to see during Tuesday night’s (Nov. 9) CMA Awards show.

I’m sorry the other half of the great Highwaymen — Waylon and Cash — have left the building. I can still see Kris onstage with his three musical heroes, smiling like a kid in admiration as each one — Willie, Waylon and Johnny, all song-stylists, all legends — performed their part. God knows, the biggest fan in the room was Kris. He led the applause, clapped the hardest and the longest. It’s enough to make you cry. ‘Cause you know what? They ain’t making ‘em like these guys anymore.

Jim Foglesong Honored
Along with Kristofferson, Jim Foglesong will also be formally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this week in the non-performer category. Foglesong has served as president of two or three record labels at various times. His last and most famous was as president of the Capitol Nashville, where he signed Garth Brooks. For that alone, Foglesong deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Foglesong teaches music biz at the distinguished Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

McGraw Making News
I swear, Tim McGraw has been in the news almost as much as Bush and Kerry! Tim bought a stake in the Nashville Kats arena football team, a franchise owned almost totally by Bud Adams, who also owns the Tennessee Titans football team. Tim will perform a promotional concert for the Kats’ season ticket holders on Jan. 14 as his only live appearance in Nashville in 2005. Jon Bon Jovi owns a piece of the Philly Soul team. McGraw said if Bon Jovi plays in one of the games, he’ll get out there and play, too.

The singer-actor-arena football team owner returns with his second TV special for NBC on Thanksgiving eve (Nov. 24). Tim and his wife (and sometime duet partner) Faith Hill will perform. He’ll also team up with another duet partner, hip hop artist Nelly, on the special to perform their Top 40 smash, “Over and Over.”

Tim has not forgotten the folks back home. He just celebrated with his 10th year of Swampstock in Rayville, La., where he and Faith Hill were married in 1996. Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen helped out Tim’s band, the Dancehall Doctors, to bang out “Pour Some Sugar on Me” The rock star’s brother, Robert Allen, happens to be Tim’s tour manager. Other guests at Swampstock included Martina McBride, the Warren Brothers, Jeff Bates and Trent Willmon.

Bates got a huge thrill during Swampstock when Tim and Faith told him they were fans of his music and had practically worn out his CD. I can tell you, anyone who has heard Jeff’s CD loves it.

Double Congrats to Phil Vassar
Several songs ago when singer-songwriter Phil Vassar released his first Arista album filled with songs that read like wonderful mini-books, I thought he’d catapult into the hillbilly stratosphere as fast as those boys and girls at Cape Canaveral. He had one big No 1 hit single, “Another Day in Paradise,” then things grew a little quiet. His new album, Shaken Not Stirred, seems to be doing some shaking and stirring in the marketplace due to his current No 1, “In a Real Love,” that is spending its second week atop the charts. Congrats are due to this deserving artist.

Connie & Marty Off to Celebrate
Connie Smith and Marty Stuart will be in Washington on Dec. 2 to appear at the 2004 Christmas Pageant of Peace. Connie will serve as mistress of ceremonies, and TV weatherman Willard Scott (aka Santa Claus) is master of ceremonies at the event capped by the president lighting the national Christmas tree. Both Connie and Marty will perform at the ceremony.

Kenny’s Opening Acts for 2005
Kenny Chesney cannot just relax. Following an unbelievable tour with success out the patootie, one would think Kenny Chesney could — and would — take it easy. Not true. He’s been off to Fort Campbell, Ky., with Oprah Winfrey and Martina McBride to sing for 650 pregnant Army wives. He’s been off to some rocker’s big birthday bash in Mexico and to a Ray Charles tribute in L.A. And now he’s announcing his opening act for next year’s tour. Kenny’s choice, Uncle Kracker, opens the first leg of the journey because he waltzes good with Kracker. Pat Green will open the second leg. Country’s hot Gretchen Wilson is the middle act, alpha to omega.

Kenny’s When the Sun Goes Down was also just declared triple platinum.

Shania Mania
On Monday (Nov. 15) at 7 p.m. ET, you can catch Shania Twain selling her Greatest Hits collection from Nashville on QVC. TV Guide says it’s her QVC debut, and I might add it’s her Greatest Hits debut as well. You know, I’ve often wondered why someone hadn’t done that before.

Didja read see the rare photo of Shania with hubby-producer R. J. “Mutt” Lange in TV Guide and read the interview? Sounds to me like her touring days may be over. She will still write and record, but she’s comfortable with Mutt, loves being mom to 3-year old Eja and enjoys staying home in their castle in the Swiss Alps by Lake Geneva or maybe flying over to their 17,000-acre New Zealand estate-farm purchased last year for a reported $14 million.

New Year’s Eve
If your plans are to be in Music Town on New Year’s Eve, maybe you’ll want to go to the Gaylord Entertainment Center to bring in 2005 with Toby Keith and Terri Clark. If you dig bluegrass, you could meander up the street to the Ryman Auditorium to celebrate with the great Del McCoury Band and other “‘grassers.” Let the first music you hear in the New Year be bluegrass.

However, if you’re in the neighborhood of Lexington, Ky., you may want to drop by the Rupp Arena and greet the New Year with Montgomery Gentry, Trace Adkins, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Blue County.

Christmas Time’s a Comin’
I told you last week about the Skaggs Family Christmas show in Nashville and other cities. Also on the road this season is a Vince Gill-Amy Grant Christmas show, a Martina McBride holiday tour and a Bruce Robinson-Kelly Willis show.

Lots of Christmas CDs at Wal-Mart. About the best I’ve heard so far is Joe Nichols’ A Traditional Christmas that features him just singing good old-timey Christmas songs — songs to live by.

Bits & Pieces
Lord help us, Billy Currington’s gonna be on the cover of the March issue of Playgirl magazine.

Miss America 2004 Erika Dunlap, who promises to be the first African-American to become a female country star, will join Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Billy Ray Cyrus and others Thursday night (Nov. 11) at the Trap in Nashville for singer-songwriter Lane Brody’s third annual concert benefiting Walden’s Puddle.

Didja know LeAnn Rimes recorded a duet of “Last Thing on My Mind” with Ronan Keating that went Top 10 all over Europe. Due to her Access Hollywood production schedule, Nancy O’Dell can no longer serve as host of Nashville Star. Rimes has been chosen as host. What I want to know is which label will sign the 2005 winner.

Thank goodness, Sony signed Jon Randall to their Epic label. Listen, this boy is a package deal: singer, songwriter and musician. Do not let him slip through the cracks this time. Jon co-wrote the Brad Paisley-Alison Krauss CMA nominated single “Whiskey Lullaby” with Opry mainstay Whispering Bill Anderson.

Dolly Parton is the only country artist up this year for a People’s Choice award. Dolly is nominated with Norah Jones in the combined forces category for the haunting self-penned “The Grass Is Blue.”

Big & Rich’s “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” is the first digital download by a country artist to be certified gold.

Gretchen Wilson recently served as an official witness at a shotgun wedding in Tampa, Fla. Don’t know how legit the nuptials are, especially in view of the fact the morning man known as Cowhead from a local radio station planned to officiate but failed to get his license in time. Gretchen dressed up in jeans, a white Orange County T-shirt and flip-flops. Her wedding gift to the couple: a half-gallon of Jim Beam.

One thing country about the president’s acceptance speech: As he left the podium at the Ronald Reagan Center in Washington, the band was playing Brooks & Dunn’s “Only in America,” which was W’s campaign song. Aaron Tippin was seen in the audience at the Reagan Center, and Toby Keith — reportedly under vocal rest — cancelled a show in Wyoming, but was spotted in Crawford, Texas, when Air Force One arrived with the prez and first lady. All this info leads me to suggest that maybe it would help if the music of the blue states were to cross over and be the music of the red states. Hmmm.

See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Pumpkin Pie.