Master songwriter-singer Kris Kristofferson recently visited CMT to perform during a taping of Studio 330 Sessions and to sit around and talk about some of his songs and where they came from. Here’s part one of our visit.
CMT: Other than the one song you wrote with Stephen Bruton and getting the song title for “Me and Bobby McGee” from Fred Foster, have you ever co-written any songs?
Kristofferson: The ones I’ve really co-written were with Shel Silverstein. We had “The Taker” that Waylon Jennings cut, “Once More With Feeling” that Jerry Lee [Lewis] cut and transformed into something better than it was. Faron Young put “Your Time’s Comin'” on the charts. I didn’t really co-write “Bobby McGee,” although I got the title and the idea from Fred, and most of the stuff that I’ve written with other guys in the band, we started out together and then I ended up finishing it up. I did co-write “Moment of Forever” with Danny Timms. He wrote the melody, and I just did the words.
Other than that, it’s just been you over the years pretty much.
I’ve never really felt comfortable co-writing. I usually go at my own speed, you know. It takes a lot longer these days than it used to, but it’s generally the idea and then it just grows itself.
In Nashville today, songwriting is done by a committee of two, three or four writers, which is a huge change from when you came here.
I’ve noticed that there are a lot of committee writers. When I came here it was mostly guys like Tom T. Hall and Harlan Howard that just wrote by themselves. Harlan and I were going to write toward the end there but never did get around to doing it.
Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Let your language be the slave of your idea.” Does that apply to your songwriting? The idea comes first, and the language is tailored for the idea?
Well, if you don’t have the idea in the beginning, I don’t think you have anything to keep you going. Kurt liked “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” I like Kurt more than any other writer, I think. I once had an idea to make a whole government with novelists. Kurt was the president because of his passion. I think J.D. Salinger was the secretary of state because he’d never go anywhere and never talk to anybody, and we wouldn’t get in trouble.
What was the genesis of “Sunday Morning Coming Down”?
“Sunday Morning Coming Down” is probably the most directly autobiographical thing I’d written. In those days, I was living in a slum tenement that was torn down afterwards, but it was $25 a month in a condemned building, and “Sunday Morning Coming Down” was more or less looking around me and writing about what I was doing. One time, some people broke into that place, and I had to call the police station to answer some questions about it, and the guy said, “Yeah, they really trashed the place when they went in there.” But I hadn’t noticed that it was any different. There were holes in the wall bigger than I was. It was quite a place, so “Sunday Morning Coming Down” is kind of more or less what I was living in at the time. I guess it was depressing, I don’t know, but the chorus was kind of uplifting.
Did that come from a real walk that you made on a Sunday morning?
I’m not sure whether I really walked. What I was really trying to do was to keep the feeling of loss and of sadness. For me at the time, it was the loss of my family and looking at a little kid swinging on a swing and his daddy pushing him. That was the feeling I wanted to get for the whole song. I think Sunday was the choice because the bars were closed in the morning and nobody was at work, so if you were alone, it was the most alone time. Ray Stevens cut it first, and he cut a great version of it. I remember I just wept when I first heard it. He had spent more time in the studio on it than anyone has spent with a song of mine, and he just sang it very soulfully, but they didn’t know how to market him that way because that was when he was doing sort of the novelty records like “The Streak” and those funny records that he used to do. They didn’t want him to sing something really serious. I felt really bad about it because he really put in a lot of work in it.
It’s sort of the continuing saga of “The Pilgrim” narrating your life.
Well, there were a lot of people that the pilgrim stood for or that I felt fit into that category, and most of them were people who were serious about songwriting, but an awful lot of us just looked like we were out of work.
How did Johnny Cash get “Sunday Morning Coming Down”?
John said that I landed in a helicopter and gave it to him. I don’t believe that was the one that I gave him that day. I don’t think he ever cut that one, but I’m sure that John heard me singing it to him out at his house because … there were three or four of us that could call up John when we really felt needy, and we could show him what we were doing and he would raise our spirits. He never let us down, and every time that I can remember, I wouldn’t overdo it to bother him or invade his privacy, but it was one of the great experiences for us at the time because we weren’t getting any songs recorded, but just to have him listen and give us encouragement was the great thing. I went out there and saw the ruins [of the former Cash house], and it just seemed like the end of a novel or something.
How did you first meet Johnny Cash?
First time I ever met him face to face was backstage at the Ryman. I was here on leave from the Army, and [songwriter] Marijohn Wilkin was showing me around and took me backstage and introduced me to the policeman back there. From then on, he always let me in back. John was pacing around backstage, and I said I’ve got to meet him, and she went up and introduced me to him. He shook my hand and it just electrified me, and I’m sure that’s when I decided that I was going to come back here and try to be another songwriter. After that, the next time I saw him was after Cowboy Jack Clement had showed him a letter I got from home where my mother had basically disowned me and said don’t come and visit my relatives, you’re an embarrassment to us, you know. And this tickled John to death, I guess, because when I was working over at Columbia as a studio setup guy, he came up to me and said, “It’s always nice to get a letter from home, isn’t it?” I gave him every song I ever wrote after that.
When he was going to do “Sunday Morning” on his TV show, the network tried to make him take the word “stoned” out of it. You were at the Ryman Auditorium when that happened.
Right. They were filming the Johnny Cash show at the Ryman, and he was going to sing it. The people from the network didn’t want him to say, “Lord, I’m wishing I was stoned,” and there was a bunch of them standing around and they suggested “wishing, Lord, that I was home.” And I said that’s not the same thing, you know, and John never said a word. He just stood there looking at us, so I didn’t know what he was going to do. I would have gone with whatever he wanted to do, but in the show, I was in the balcony up there, and he got to that line and looked up and he said, “wishing, Lord, that I was stoned,” and I just loved him for that. He saved the song. It would not have been the same thing.
What do you think his eternal legacy is going to be?
Johnny Cash’s legacy, I think if it was one word, it would be integrity. He was the original wild man and grew from that guy that was doing all the crazy things that you read that rock ’n’ rollers do to being someone who was like the father of our country, you know. He was a guest at the White House. He was Billy Graham’s friend. He was respected and really idolized by Bob Dylan, and that was such an important thing for country music. It gave it legitimacy, but I don’t think anyone was like John. I think he was always larger than life. Everyone remembers him being about 8 feet tall. His championing underdogs was something that a lot of us ought to emulate. He left a big hole. I don’t think there will ever be someone who’s got quite the character and the presence of John. His face was on the cover of Time magazine when he died, and I can’t think of any other entertainer that they’d be doing that with. I sure hated to see his house burn down, but he might have done it himself. He didn’t want anyone else living in it, you know.
The second part of the Kris Kristofferson interview will run Wednesday (July 11).