Kris Kristofferson wrought profound changes in Nashville as a songwriter but also as a no-compromise performer and a free spirit. His songs introduced a new social realism to country music, and he has influenced country songwriters and country music ever since. Songs such as “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night” — and a lifelong commitment to musical honesty — have made Kristofferson perhaps the ideal of the country songwriter.
His decision to abandon a promising Army career and a teaching appointment at West Point to strike out for an uncertain future as a songwriter in Nashville led to a wrenching separation from family and friends. This former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University began his Nashville career as a janitor at Columbia Records. On Tuesday (Nov. 9), Kristofferson will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame during the 38th annual CMA Awards.
In a recent interview with CMT.com, Kristofferson talks about his creative days in Nashville and his recollections of his first appearance on the CMA Awards show when he accepted the 1970 song of the year honor for “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
CMT.com: Did you ever think the day would come when you would be in the Hall of Fame?
Kristofferson: Oh, no! Really, absolutely not. I was always like the rest of us back then trying to get respect for country music, but I didn’t think country music had much respect for me. It’s like the epitaph on the gravestone of some old baseball player. He said, “I knew if I hung around long enough, something like this was bound to happen.” I really feel lucky. I really am. It’s a long way from them dark days back at the end of the ’70s or whatever.
What has changed over the years in terms of getting respect for country music?
When I went to Nashville, you know, they still called it shit-kickin’ music, and my parents and my peers thought it was some kind of hillbilly land that nobody knew anything about. And nowadays, they’re putting out records that are right up at the top of the pop charts. I think the people that were most influential were, first of all, Roger Miller and Bob Dylan. Because of Dylan’s relationship and his respect for Johnny Cash and everything. I think Dylan was the most important because, even before he started recording in Nashville, I remember reading his notes on the back of one of his albums about how great Hank Williams was. Nobody could have brought more respect to country music then than Dylan.
When you came to Nashville, what was the reaction from the Army and your family and friends?
I remember that one Army general told me to follow my heart when I told him I was thinking of going to Nashville. But most people thought I had just gone crazy. I know my family did. And it was kind of hard not to agree with them for a while. Because I wasn’t really being successful at it for about four years. But it was so exciting to me, and it was so creative especially after five years of being in the Army. I knew I was in the right place, but I didn’t know if I was ever going to make any mark on it, though.
Did you ever have doubts about your decision?
Oh, yeah. I had doubts as to my own sanity, you know. Because I even got fired from my janitor’s job [at CBS Records]. Well, it wasn’t really being fired. The guy who was the head of Columbia asked me to run a publishing company that they wanted to start, which was kind of illegal for a record company then. I said I didn’t want to because I liked the job I had that didn’t take any brains, you know, and I could still write while I was hanging around the music. And he said, “Well, I get the idea that you’re doing us a favor just working for us,” and he told me that I could either take the publishing job or go. And I left.
Glenda Brown gave me a job at the Tally Ho Tavern, and I worked there for a couple of months, and then I went down to the Gulf of Mexico and got hired on flying helicopters to the offshore oil rigs. And I did that for a couple of years. And I got fired from that. I was breakin’ the rules about drinking during duty, you know. Fortunately, it happened during the time that Johnny Cash was doing his TV show. I remember telling Mickey Newbury that I had been fired and he said “Great! That’s the best thing that could have happened to you. I’ve got a room up here at the Ramada Inn, and we’re pitching songs to the people coming in for the Johnny Cash show.” Within a couple of months, Roger [Miller] had cut “Bobby McGee,” John cut “Sunday Morning Coming Down” on the show, and Sammi Smith cut “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and Ray Price did “For the Good Times.”
What actually happened when you landed a helicopter on Johnny Cash’s lawn to pitch him a song?
Well, what actually happened — it wasn’t like I was flying into a stranger’s house, because I had known John all the time I was at Columbia and had tried to get his attention there. I almost landed on his house because the lawn ran up to the roof there. I remember it a little differently than John did. I read somewhere he said that I had a beer in one hand and a cigarette and a tape in the other. But I never drank in a helicopter — it takes two hands and two feet. But I was willing to go with the story as long as he cut “Sunday Morning.”
How did Roger Miller get “Me and Bobby McGee”?
Mickey Newbury told him about it. Back in those days, Mickey and I were sort of pitching each other’s songs, which was kinda neat. But he called me up and said, “If you can get down here in the next 15 minutes, Roger wants to hear your song. He’s gonna take us to California.” We flew out there. He never did listen to the song. He finally heard it and liked it and learned it. It was not a big country hit, but it helped me because Bobby Neuwirth heard it and taught it to Janis [Joplin]. I had been off in Peru with Dennis [Hopper], and Dennis just loved “Bobby McGee,” you know, and I think that’s why he took me down there to do the music [for the film The Last Movie].
I had a song cut the first week I was in town called “The Vietnam Blues,” a recitation, kind of Woody Guthrie talking blues [recorded by Dave Dudley], and then I didn’t have another cut for about three years. But after “Jody and the Kid,” which also wasn’t a hit, [but] it got songwriters’ attention.
I had started a band while I was still in the Army, and I was writing like parodies to country songs with Army lyrics in them. My platoon leader was a relative of Marijohn Wilkin, and he sent her a tape which I don’t think she even liked. But she was polite enough to say if you’re in Nashville, come on by. … Marijohn showed me around the music scene for about two weeks, and I just fell in love with it. It was the most exciting life I had ever seen. I remember walking from the hotel downtown to Music Row, and it was just two streets, and you could hit all the spots and see somebody you knew every day. And they had a couple of watering holes — the Tally Ho and a place called the Professional Club where guys in the business hung out.
How did the song “Me and Bobby McGee” come about?
Fred Foster [who ran Kristofferson’s first record label, Monument] gave me the idea to write it. He called me up. We used to hang out all night at the office at Combine [music publishing firm]. He called me when I was about to head back down to the Gulf for a week of flying helicopters, and he said I got a song title for you: it’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” I thought he said “McGee.” He was actually talking about a secretary for Boudleaux Bryant [Nashville songwriter] who was named Bobby McKee. But he said the hook is that Bobby McKee is a she. And I thought, “Oh, shit, I can’t write this song,” but I took it with me back to the Gulf. And I was flying around Baton Rouge, and the words started coming to me. I was thinking of the time and rhythm of a song that Mickey Newbury had just written called “Why You Been Gone So Long.” Somewhere between the helicopter’s rpm and Mickey’s song, the thing kind of came together. It was a breakthrough.
What do you think was the official Nashville reaction to you at first?
Well, fortunately, Marijohn had introduced me to a lot of guys like Mel Tillis and Cowboy Jack Clement and Merle Kilgore, and those guys were my friends right from the beginning. But I think they thought I was kind of crazy. Because I was a captain in the Army when I met ’em. I was in uniform. And the next thing you know, I was a janitor riding around on a motorcycle, you know. And the people who got to know me as a janitor kinda took it hard to take me seriously as a songwriter. But it was good! You got to find out who your true friends were. I was in heaven. Even when I wasn’t successful, it was heaven.
What happened at your infamous first time on the CMA Awards show?
Oh, God. I think it was my appearance. You know, I had long hair and everything. And everybody thought I was stoned. But I was more stunned than stoned. I was sitting in the audience, and I was so tickled just to be up for song of the year, but I figured that Merle [Haggard] was gonna win it for “Okie From Muskogee.” I remember when they announced that I won, I hit my head back against the back of the pew. You know, there were high-backed pews there in the Ryman then. I didn’t quite knock myself out, but I was just sitting there I guess for a long time because Marty [Robbins] told me to get up and go to the stage. “Get on up there!” you know. Then when I stood up, I didn’t even know how to get to the stage, I hadn’t listened to them before the show telling how to get up there. So I kind of staggered up on the stage. And some woman wrote an article in the Nashville newspaper on a campaign to keep me from ever getting onstage at the CMA ever again. They had about a month of articles going on there about what a black eye I was. But then Bill Anderson came up to me and said, “That was the smartest thing you could have done. That was a great publicity move. They’ll talk about that for months.”