Kris Kristofferson Feels the Love in Nashville

Willie Nelson, Reba McEntire, Eric Church Among All-Star Cast for Musical Tribute

Moments after his three-hour, celebrity-studded tribute concluded with a gathering of the stars singing along with Kris Kristofferson on his spiritual “Why Me, Lord,” the iconic singer-songwriter stared out at the 15,000 people Wednesday night (March 16) in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena and put his fist on his heart.

For those in the crowd who love him — and this writer admits to that emotion and a personal friendship — it was a sort of bittersweet coda to a wondrous evening. The man, who forever changed the language of country music is not getting any younger, after all. And as I stood there, watching, as some of the less affected began the climb up the stairs to head for the battle in the parking garage, a sort of “Will he pass this way again?” thought played in my mind.

That was quickly erased, though, as the 79-year-old Kristofferson, doubtless invigorated by the love ladled on him by performers and crowd, worked his way from the cluster of musicians and to the edges of the stage, pumping hands, exchanging greetings, demonstrating his love for the multi-generational crowd.

During most of those three hours Kristofferson sat on a chair at stage left, next to his wife Lisa — the good-hearted woman who saved his life — where they took in the tribute, hugging each artist who exited the stage after offering up interpretations of the songs the star penned in the half-century since he landed on Music Row.

From Dierks Bentley to Reba McEntire to Darius Rucker to Eric Church, the performances during the show — titled The Life & Songs of Kris Kristofferson — were a CliffsNotes run-through of a catalogue that couldn’t be covered in three days, let alone three hours.

Kristofferson’s own performances were sparse, yet powerful, as he chose his spots when he would join some of his disciples, outlaws or friends on a song.

If I should tell you, for example, that Kristofferson out-sang Emmylou Harris — possessor of perhaps the purest voices in all of music and a Nashville treasure — you wouldn’t likely believe me.

But that’s just what happened on “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” one of the most autobiographical songs in the Kristofferson oeuvre, a song in which many of us recognize ourselves when seeking comfort in his music.

The “see him wasted on the sidewalk in his jacket and his jeans, wearin’ yesterday’s misfortunes like a smile” tale of a man — who is variously a poet, picker, prophet, pusher, pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he’s stoned — is a snapshot of what Kristofferson brought to Nashville back in the 1960s.

Coupled with “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and his more sexually explicit songs, “The Pilgrim” and other such tales of desolation and depression and, most times, redemption brought a new reality to the world of rhinestones and guitars that is American country music.

Sure, your first reaction when I say he out-sang Emmylou Harris is likely greeted with “you’re an idiot” responses. But you, obviously, weren’t lucky enough to be in the hall for the show that was emceed by W. Earl Brown, an actor and Kristofferson crony.

Just short of the midway point of the night of tribute, Harris, fresh off a duet with Rodney Crowell, waited at center stage while Kristofferson, dressed in all black with his extremely worn tan cowboy boots, ambled slowly to join her at center stage.

“I can’t believe I’m going to sing this song with this man,” Harris said, the awe flavoring her words carrying over into the performance. While she was the pitch-perfect interpreter of “The Pilgrim,” when the guy who wrote “he has tasted good and evil in your bedrooms and your bars” sings that line, he owns the stage and the arena.

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Sure Harris sings like an angel. Always has. Always will. But the old Pilgrim, the guy who has compared his voice to that of a frog, sang the tale with the conviction and compassion that it took to live it, to survive it, back when he was hitting the “restart” button on how Nashville songs were written and what they were written about. That song from 1971’s iconic Silver Tongued Devil and I album truly came to life with Kristofferson singing.

That’s not to say the old wordsmith would win if competing with Emmylou on The Voice, where perfection reigns supreme, but it was his song, about his life, and he powerfully claimed it and all who listened.

After Harris left the stage, Kristofferson was joined by a star-struck Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, who read her proclamation naming Wednesday Kris Kristofferson Day.

The audience and Barry herself likely didn’t know the impact that proclamation had on Kristofferson unless they watched his reaction. He pounded his heart and said, “Thank you, Nashville. You blow me away. You’ve saved my life again.” His voice cracked close to weeping.

He has spoken frequently in the past of how this city, when he arrived here, saved him, perhaps from himself. And those of us who feel the same about the city and the man likely pounded at our own hearts, returning the salute to the man at center stage.

The evening was filled with fiery and touching moments. Fiery, as in when Jack Ingram turned “Jesus Was a Capricorn” into a flat-out rocker, wailing guitars backing him up from the house band that included music director (and bassist) Don Was, Nashville (TV show and city) musical treasure Buddy Miller, ageless harp-master Mickey Raphael and the harmonies of the city’s home-grown McCrary Sisters.

Perhaps Nashville’s best sideman, Miller got a chance to take center stage himself, putting together a thoroughly countrified version of “God Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” after admitting utter terror at the prospect of singing that song in front of the master who composed it.

Martina McBride’s powerful vocals on “Here Comes That Rainbow Again” — The Grapes of Wrath-inspired song that Johnny Cash called his favorite of all time — powerfully affected the song’s author, who hugged her tightly and lingeringly as she left the stage.

To list the songs and score or more of performers would perhaps be too cumbersome. But there were many highlights, like Lee Ann Womack’s stunning rendition “Nobody Wins,” a song with a title that could be a Kristofferson mantra and which he greeted with his piercing, two-handed whistle of joy and celebration. (He doesn’t use that whistle strictly for his own works, by the way. I’ve seen him whistle at the work of Earl Scruggs, Mac Wiseman and many other Country Music Hall of Famers during the past several decades.)

After a feisty performance by Jennifer Nettles came Rosanne Cash, the daughter of Kristofferson’s mentor and pal Johnny Cash, who captivated the crowd with a rendition of “Loving Her Was Easier” (she changed the “her” to “him”) that would have made the old Man in Black proud. The words exchanged between Cash’s daughter and his greatest friend and acolyte during the hug that followed her performance no doubt in themselves were bittersweet.

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After Dierks Bentley — who mixes mainstream country stardom with passion for bluegrass music — and the Travelin’ McCourys put mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitars and more to work on “From the Bottle to the Bottom,” he raised a few laughs when he remarked the arena was “a big room for bluegrass music.” The Station Inn, the cramped bluegrass shrine a few blocks away, does not seat 15,000 people, after all.

Sensations Lady Antebellum did Kristofferson classic “Help Me Make It Through the Night” in anticipated harmonic manner.

Proof that not all of Kristofferson’s rowdy friends have settled down, departed this world or entered the tribute stage of life, Bocephus himself, Hank Williams Jr. brought the crowd to its rocking and rolling feet when he sang “If You Don’t Like Hank Williams,” a Kristofferson-penned salute to the doomed country poet who lived the life of heartache and boozing that he wrote about before dying at a young age.

Among the strongest performances was Darius Rucker’s take on the anti-war anthem “Under the Gun” penned by Kristofferson and Glen Clark. His standing ovation-grabbing performance had this writer wondering how Hootie & the Blowfish might have sounded if they’d had Kristofferson writing their songs.

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Also noteworthy was the Alison Krauss-Jamey Johnson duet on “For the Good Times,” which not only met the approval of the guy who wrote it, it was strong enough that it would have made the late, great Ray Price smile.

Eric Church preceded his take on “To Beat the Devil” by telling how what many consider Kristofferson’s mightiest song “saved my life” after one more rejection by a Music Row publishing company left him, sitting in his vehicle, pondering discarding his dreams and heading home.

He told the crowd he had a CD with that song on it in his car and he played it. It convinced him that he could beat his devil, too. Only first he went out and got drunk before finally landing a contract.

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Of course, you can’t write about the night without mentioning Reba’s take on “Me and Bobby McGee,” at the end of which she coaxed the man of the evening — as well as many in the crowd — to join in the “nah nah nah nah-nah-nah … Bobby McGee” jubilant and redundant chorus etched into pop consciousness by the unmatchable Janis Joplin, the friend and lover of the songsmith, in her only No. 1 song, released after she died at age 27 in 1970.

But it was Willie Nelson who nearly stole the show when he strapped on his guitar, Trigger, and sang Kristofferson’s “Living Legend.”

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The half-century brotherhood between the men was celebrated when Kristofferson joined Nelson on “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down.” Again, the man with the frog voice more than held his own with one of country music’s most melodic vocalists.

Waylon Jennings’ son Shooter (his mom Jessi Colter performed earlier in the night) took the stage to join Jamey Johnson, Kristofferson and Nelson in a semblance of “The Highwaymen” — the Kris-Willie-Cash-Waylon supergroup — singing the song “Highwayman.”

And that’s when the show’s cast joined Kristofferson on stage for “Why Me, Lord” with the man of the evening powerfully dominating with his emotion-dripping vocals as the other performers and many in the crowd sang along in the show’s finale.

That’s when the bittersweet struck, as I wondered if and when Kris will pass this way again.

There was neither melancholy nor doubt in his eyes, though, as he shook hands with fans reaching up toward the stage and then retreated to the spotlight, where he hugged his fellow performers and looked out into the arena. Laughing. Jubilant.

I stood there, thinking about how much I love this guy and how I’d like to see him sing the songs by himself, with acoustic guitar accompaniment, the next time he passes this way again. For the good times.

Other than a tech guy or two, Kristofferson was the last one to leave the stage.

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Tim Ghianni is a freelance writer and author based in Nashville. He also continues his role as “journalist-in-residence” at Lipscomb University, where he has worked seven years.