Master songwriter-singer Kris Kristofferson recently visited CMT to perform during a taping of Studio 330 Sessions and to talk about some of his most famous songs and where they came from. Here’s the second segment of our two-part interview.
Did the song “Why Me” come from Connie Smith taking you to church?
We had done a benefit the night before. I can’t even remember the name of the town, but at any rate, she asked me if I would go to church with her the next day. I hadn’t been to church, I guess, since I had been married years before that. But Connie was really sweet, and I’d go anywhere she asked me to go, so I went to church with her. It was Jimmy Snow’s church in Hendersonville [a Nashville suburb], and Larry Gatlin sang “Help Me” and it really moved me. Then everybody was kneeling down and praying, and Jimmy Snow said something about is anybody lost or something like that, and I remember thinking why would anybody raise their hand. And then my hand went up almost involuntarily, and then he said if you want to be saved, come down front. I can’t remember his exact words, but I remember that I thought at the time, you know, there is no way in the world that I would get up in front of a bunch of strangers. And then I found myself doing it, and I walked down to where he was. He asked me, “Are you ready to accept Jesus Christ as your savior?” And I said, “I don’t know,” and he looked at me, and I guess he knew that I didn’t know, and he said get down on your knees. I can’t remember all he was saying, but I remember I was weeping uncontrollably and felt this tremendous relief like some big burden had been lifted off my shoulders. I was too lost in what was happening to even be embarrassed by it. I was, a little later on, embarrassed because I had never done anything like that before or since. I can remember coming out of it. It was almost like coming out of some acid experience or something. That led me to writing “Why Me,” and I really felt like I was just holding a pen. I wasn’t thinking up the words of it, you know.
Where did “For the Good Times” come from?
That was a break up of a relationship, a real relationship that was over. It was probably one of the first ones that was a big hit. I remember somebody told me that Ray Price had cut it at the time. I knew that it would be the A side. He cut it in Studio A in Columbia with a big orchestra behind him, and it was record of the year, I think.
That song changed his career for the better, but it also changed his singing style forever. What was it like for you to know that something you had written had that much power over someone else’s career?
Well, I felt more like he had made it a hit than the song had, because Ray Price was one of the most respected singers among the serious musicians and serious songwriters in town. Willie Nelson you know, idolized him. And the people, musicians like Jimmy Day and people like that, thought more of Ray Price than the rest of the world did yet, but he had some big hits, one of them was Willie’s.
Tell me about “Shipwrecked in the ’80s.” I always thought of that as an anthem for the Reagan era.
It started out from a personal place where I was. I had just come out of [the film] Heaven’s Gate, the biggest bomb of all time. My manager died, my agent died, and the company I was recording for, Monument, went under. I was feeling kind of adrift — and my marriage was over and my little girl was gone, and I felt pretty shipwrecked. It was partially the Reagan years. The second half, it was really inspired by an old veteran out in Hawaii who came up to me, and it looked like he had been standing too close to the flame. He had been in Vietnam, and he was showing me this old Bible which he had underlined. He was telling me about how disappointing the government had been, and he was a picture of disillusionment to me. That’s where I got the lines for the second verse — “like an old Holy Bible you clung to” — that written word that you can still understand. I’m so superstitious that I have opened every show with that song for as long as I can remember now. Still do.
Where did “Me and Bobby McGee” come from?
That was really kind of a funny story. It wasn’t really kind of a personal experience. I had just started writing for Combine [Music], and [record producer and Monument Records chief] Fred Foster called me up. Every other week, I was going back to the Gulf of Mexico and flying helicopters back and forth for oil companies. Fred called up and said, “I have a song title for you.” I guess it was sort of in the tradition like the guys did with Hank Williams, you know, the way Fred Rose did, but he said it’s “Me and Bobby McKee,” and I thought he said “Me and Bobby McGee.” He said, “Here’s the hook: Bobby McGee is a she.” And that sounded to me like the worst idea for a song and he said they’ll be traveling around or something, and he said, “Try to write it.”
So I hid from him for a couple of months and started thinking of it. There was a film that really affected me, La Strada by Fellini, where Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina travel around on his little motorcycle thing. They did a traveling circus act, and he had gone all over the world with her — or all over his world — and he left her one time. He just couldn’t take it anymore and left her sleeping by the road. Later on in the film, he hears the song that she used to play at the circus. He hears it while this woman who was hanging up the wash on the line was doing the melody, and he went up to her and said, “Where did you hear this song?” And she told him it was this little girl who had showed up in town and nobody knew where she was from or anything, and she had later died. That night, you see Anthony Quinn in a bar, and he gets in a fight. He’s drunk, and then he goes out to the beach and is looking up at the stars and just howling in misery. It’s where I got the idea that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” because he had his freedom from this girl, but it was a two-edged sword. Anyway, that’s a long involved story, but that’s where it came from.
What’s the story behind “Help Me Make It Through the Night”?
“Help Me Make It Through the Night” was just what I was feeling. I was actually sitting in a helicopter tied down on top of an oil rig 50 miles south of New Orleans out in the Gulf and just thinking about asking someone to just help me through the night.
Where did “This Old Road” come from? It seems like it’s the life and appraisal of your life it seems in a way.
“This Old Road” somehow seems to get better the older you get. I actually wrote it many years ago, maybe 20. My daughter had just been hit by a car on the back of a motorcycle with her boyfriend. She was hospitalized, and I was waiting for her to come out of that. I had left my band over in Europe and had flown back to be with her in the hospital. I would go out running every day in the desert, and I guess I was feeling just about as old as I am now because the song fits just as well today as it did then — probably better today. I remember [band member] Donnie Fritts telling me when I sang it at a benefit for him in Muscle Shoals, “Man, I haven’t heard that song in forever, but I never realized how good it was.” And I said, “Well, we probably were too young.”
That was your first music video. While you were shooting it, I heard you were almost killed by a train in the Mojave Desert shooting it?
I think it’s kind of odd that “This Old Road” was the first video I ever did. Because of all of the work I had done in films and everything, you’d think I would have done a video before that. But we were out in the Mojave Desert in a tunnel, of all things, and almost got hit by a train. When we went into the tunnel, they said there were no trains out there and nothing coming. Sure enough, here one came, and we all end up running madly out of the tunnel. But the funny thing was at the end of the day, [United Farm Workers of America founder] Cesar Chavez’s son showed up. We hadn’t planned to meet or anything, and here’s the guy that I’ve been working for — for 30 years, you know. [Dedicated to social and political causes, Kristofferson is a longtime supporter of the UFW.]
I think you cut “Moment of Forever” in the early ’90s on an album, and it’s coming up again. Willie has cut that, hasn’t he?
Willie nailed “Moment of Forever.” The funny thing is, I pitched him that song back when I wrote it. We were on one of those live songwriter things in Austin on TV, and I sang the song for him. Willie acted like I was singing the love song to him, and he said, “I don’t know, Kris. I’m not ready for that.” It turned into a big joke, and I knew he would sing it great because he’s got the perfect voice for it. It’s just like an archetype. I knew that either he or Julio [Iglesias] or one of those guys should sing it, and sure enough, he sang it, just destroyed me. I hope he puts it out as a single or something.