NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Kris Kristofferson’s Vivid Nashville Beginnings

New Album Traces His Early Recorded Song Demos

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

I was thinking about waiting until May to write about this upcoming music release, but I think it’s so significant and such a landmark event that I want to tell you about it now. It’s an album of song compositions as demoed by the songwriter.

That may not sound like terribly earth-shaking news to you, but nothing like this has existed before in country music history. Although some of Hank Williams and Willie Nelson’s demos eventually surfaced as albums, there are few such music documents that capture the early work of country’s most prominent and important songwriters.

But now there is a CD and vinyl album release coming May 11 with 16 of Kris Kristofferson’s compositions, as demoed by him. Kris Kristofferson: Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends: The Publishing Demos 1968-1972, on the small label Light in the Attic Records, also includes extensive liner notes documenting the project and its history and scope.

Kris has been an Army captain and helicopter pilot, a janitor at Columbia Records in Nashville, a Hollywood movie star, a country music star and a bit of a celebrity, but at heart — if you ask him — he’s a songwriter. Pure and simple. Today I heard Jamey Johnson perform his new song, “That’s Why I Write Songs,” and it is such a pure example of what writers like Kristofferson always strived for that I couldn’t help but think that Jamey is a spiritual descendant of Kris and Hank and Mickey Newbury and all those who came before.

In the late 1960s, when Kris hit Nashville, he helped transform the country music landscape from Nashville pop to country gothic. He and such like-minded revolutionaries as Newbury took Nashville songwriting into a new land, one where social realism and frank talk were as much song elements as rhyming and melody and whiskey and cheating.

When all of music history is sorted out and chronicled, I suspect that Kris will be regarded as the chief architect of what became modern country music, post-Hank Williams. Kris and all the writers and singers he influenced were responsible for a total sea change in Nashville and in country music at large. And they were pivotal in influencing and changing societal attitudes, as well. And I don’t think they ever mentioned tractors in their lyrics. Or Skoal or NASCAR or Springsteen or small towns or drinking beer out of a mason jar or collard greens or other elements of a modern country song check-off list. They were telling stories about real life, which is what the best songs always are.

But, you’re probably wondering and asking by now — this is all well and good, but what does this album sound like?

Pretty amazing. Starting with “Me and Bobby McGee,” Kris sounds very young and strong-voiced and is singing in a relatively high register — if you can believe that. Kris recorded it in the demo studio at Combine Publishing with Billy Swan adding organ, and they both overdubbed their voices many times for a cheesy background vocal chorus. But it’s a remarkable listen of this classic song.

“Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” begins with a vocal flub. Kris is in good voice. For him. And he sounds very folksy and intimate. “The Lady’s Not for Sale” sounds even more intimate.

Kris wrote the seldom-heard “Smile at Me Again” with longtime bandmate Stephen Bruton. Kris’ notes here say that he and Bruton thought, with “Smile” and “Border Lord,” that “we were cutting a master.” He cut the “Border Lord” demo with his full band.

“Come Sundown” is heartbreakingly simple and sincere. Kris writes of it, “’Come Sundown’ shows how much Mickey Newbury was in me then. Just the simplicity of it.”

The ebullient “Slow Down” is another seldom-heard song. Kris: “I like it. I’m glad that’s on here … the only time I recorded it is when Rita [former wife Rita Coolidge] did it and it didn’t have the same feel. … That’s a hell of a record.”

“Epitaph (Black and Blue)” was written by Kris as a tribute to Janis Joplin. Accompanied by his band keyboardist Donnie Fritts on piano, Kris gives this demo a funereal air.

I love his liner note for the seldom-heard and pained “Enough for You.” He writes, “That was uh … what I was livin’ through at the time. ’71 or ’72 solo at Combine.” He adds at the end, “Was that just perfect?” The album ends with “Getting By, High and Strange,” which is a perfect summing up of Kris and his band of merry thieves cutting a swath through country music all those years ago.