Kris Kristofferson Still Feels the Thrill of a Happy Life

Gretchen Wilson and Willie Nelson Honor Songwriting Legend on New Tribute Album

HOLLYWOOD — Kris Kristofferson recently walked quietly alone onto the small stage of the Troubadour, the famed West Hollywood club where he made his L.A. debut more than 30 years ago. Guitar in hand, he looked at the packed house and said something you wouldn’t expect from a songwriting movie star who has been performing in one way or another for most of his life.

“Man, this is scary,” Kristofferson admitted with a laugh.

After three decades in the spotlight, Kristofferson still feels the thrill of living a life that he calls “happy” on his latest album, This Old Road. His story, by now, is as famous as his songs. He’s a Rhodes Scholar and helicopter pilot who chucked it all to sweep floors and empty ashtrays at a Nashville recording studio in his quest to make it as a country songwriter. His tenacity paid off in ways even he couldn’t have imagined. Johnny Cash recorded “Sunday Morning Coming Down” in 1969 and set Kristofferson on a course that would make him a songwriting legend and a Hollywood movie star.

Today, Kristofferson continues to make movies, and he continues to write music. On This Old Road, his stripped-down collection on New West Records, the prolific singer-songwriter looks back on his travels down that road without regret.

The Pilgrim: A Celebration of Kris Kristofferson — a new tribute album that hit stores Tuesday (June 27) — features artists like Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Gretchen Wilson, Bruce Robison, R&B star Brian McKnight and actor Russell Crowe putting a fresh spin on Kristofferson’s musical legacy.

The Country Music Hall of Fame member, who turned 70 on June 22, sat down recently with CMT Insider to talk about his new music, his rock-solid marriage and why he still looks so damn good on his new album cover.

CMT: How do you feel about your latest birthday?

Kristofferson: Oh, listen, I remember when I turned 30 when I was a janitor back in Nashville at Columbia Recording Studio, I almost got sick you know. I mean, I thought I was over the hill ’cause I was older than Hank Williams was when he died. When I was down in Peru, I was 33 years old when I wrote “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33.” Everybody would say, “Oh, that’s the age of Christ,” so it seemed like a symbolic age. But other than that, I pretty much have gone through them just like telephone poles going past you on the highway. They go faster every year, too.

You look amazing on the album cover for This Old Road. You may be 70, but you sure don’t look like it.

I sure feel like it! (laughs)

You look so healthy and so vibrant. How do you stay healthy?

I think it’s gotta be the genes. My daddy looked good right up to when he died, you know, and all of my brothers have looked younger than we are. There’s a time in your life when that was a handicap, but it feels good now. But, really when I look at that picture that you’re talking about, I see a real old guy looking back. He doesn’t look young at all to me.

You’ve had an amazing life and career, and you’ve experienced so many things. When you look back on everything that you’ve done, what’s the one thing you might have done differently?

I’d be afraid to do anything differently. I think the luckiest thing that I ever did was decide to go to Nashville and be a songwriter. I think it saved my life. I know there are people that I’ve hurt along the way and things that I’ve done that I probably would not do if I had the chance to do it again, but I would hate to change anything, seriously, because I feel so lucky to be where I am right now. I can make a living doing something that I feel like is creative, and I have a beautiful family. I’ve got eight kids, and they all love each other. It would be hard for me to change anything because I might not have ended up where I am now.

Speaking of family, in listening to This Old Road, it amazed me that there are so many different subjects on it. You talk about family, addiction, love, faith, God and war.

That about covers everything, doesn’t it? (laughs)

What frame of mind were you in when you wrote all of these songs.

Well, it covered a big span of years. The title song was maybe 20 years ago. We were just shooting a video for it out in the Mojave Desert, and I realized I wrote it in the desert outside of Lancaster [Calif.] when my daughter had been hit on a motorcycle and was in a hospital and hadn’t really recovered consciousness yet. I was going for these long runs out in the desert while I was waiting for about a week until she came around. She’s fine now.

On “In the News,” you talk about Laci Peterson, the war in Iraq and other current events. What actually inspired that song?

It was all going on at once. You know, the war’s been going on for years now, and I guess ever since I started writing songs seriously, I’ve pretty much used it to figure out what my experience was and what was going on around me. When you’re as old as I am, you get more reflective about your life and how grateful you are for the life that you’ve had and the blessings and the curses, you know.

I can imagine it’s easy to write about the good things and the happy things, but is it difficult to write about the things that weren’t so great?

No. It’s kind of therapy for me, I think, to write about everything that’s happened. It’s a way to deal with things that are painful, like the death of your close mates and your heroes. I’ve been writing songs it seems like all my life and, I think that’s just the way my brain reacts to what’s going on around me.

That’s how you process it?

Yeah, and since it’s at the end of the race, you know, you’ve got a lot of ground to cover.

When you first started in country music, it was a whole different ball game. You and Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson did a lot over the years to take the music outside Nashville and bring it to a whole new audience. Now that Johnny’s gone and Waylon’s gone …

Roger Miller had a lot to do with it, too.

Yes, and Roger’s gone, too. Do you feel the pressure to keep that tradition going now that some of those guys are no longer with us?

Well, they may not be with us, but their work is always gonna be with us. And people like Bob Dylan, who brought a lot of respect to Nashville and country music, are still active and hitting on all cylinders, and so are Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. I don’t feel like country music has to depend on me for any respect, you know. I’m just proud to be part of it.

You were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2004. Has that experience managed to sink in?

I don’t know if that will ever sink in, but there have been so many wonderful things that have happened to me that looking back on it, I’m amazed I wasn’t more amazed. You know, like Johnny Cash cutting “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and making it the record of the year and so many things like that. The Hall of Fame will probably startle me some day when I’m waking up. I’ll say, ’God, how could I have ever hoped that?” I never would have dreamed that I’d be recognized by the Country Music Association like that.

You talked about Johnny cutting your songs. You’ve had so many great people cut your songs.

Oh, yeah!

If you think about all of the ones who have cut your songs, what’s the one you’re most proud of?

I couldn’t take one. There have been so many. I think one of the blessings of being a successful songwriter is that you get to see your own work interpreted by so many great creative people like Jerry Lee Lewis and Janis Joplin and Willie Nelson. A songwriter gets to experience that where as other kind of artists don’t. Like, a painter doesn’t get to see how some great artist paints his picture, you know.

After all these years you’ve been writing these songs, how do you keep it fresh for yourself?

It’s just a natural part of my makeup I guess. I think it’s the way my brain organizes my experience, and it’s something that I’ll probably be doing long after I’ve quit performing — when it gets a little too hard to get out there on the road. It doesn’t happen as fast as it used to, but I’ll probably be writing songs when they throw dirt on me. You know, I’ll be thinking of something.

In addition to your songwriting and performing, you’ve been married to Lisa for how long now?

I think we’ve got 23 or 24 years and five kids, yeah.

In Hollywood or Nashville, that’s a long time!

Listen, for me it’s an incredibly long time! (laughs)

What’s your secret? What do you think has kept you guys happy all these years?

I think [marriage is] not for sissies. I think we have the same values, and we love our children. I think probably the main thing is we’ve got the same values, and we love each other. I hope that over the years I’ve gotten to be better as a partner than I was back when I was scrambling to be who I wanted to be. But, I think if we’ve been together this long, there’s no chance of anything messing up on it.

What’s next for you?

I haven’t really taken anything yet. I wanna sit back and, and plan it out. My life sort of disrupts the life of my kids. I take them along with me on the road, and they’ve got to be homeschooled in the bus. That’s a blessing and it’s a curse because they miss their friends. I might wanna sit back and be reflective for a while.

Is there anything that you have not done so far that you really want to do? It seems like you’ve done everything in your career and your life.

Well, I’d like to eventually put it all down on paper — as long as I can make that a creative experience — to go over what I have been through because it has been a real good ride. Probably the best part was that the people who were my heroes turned out to be close friends, guys like Willie and Waylon and Johnny Cash and Muhammad Ali. That’s one of the best things that could ever happen to somebody. Roger Miller was a real close friend before he died.

And I would imagine that you have a lot to teach people after all you’ve been through.

Well, I don’t know! (laughs) If maybe they can learn from my mistakes, you know. I think that it’s an interesting life I’ve had.