The title track from Kris Kristofferson's excellent new album, Feeling Mortal, delivers a perfect summation. "Here today and gone tomorrow is the way it's gotta be/With an empty blue horizon for as far as I can see," he sings. "God almighty, here I am/Am I where I ought to be?/I've begun to soon descend like the sun into the sea."
The 76-year-old frequently looks back fondly on a life well-lived and offers compelling messages throughout the album. Wit peppers the brightest moments. "I've got a friend named Ramblin' Jack, and he's got a face like a tumbledown shack," he sings on "Ramblin' Jack." "Been lived in too long to be torn down."
Kristofferson knows his subject well.
"I think I met Jack through Johnny Cash way back in the beginning," the legendary songwriter told CMT Edge, calling from his Hawaii home. "I wasn't even performing yet. He hasn't changed. He'll never change. He's absolutely the same 24 hours a day."
We continued talking about Kristofferson's new album, his heroes and his role in the Grammy-nominated This One's for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark.
CMT Edge: Tell the story behind writing the title track.
Kristofferson: Well, hell, that's just my age. (laughs) It's amazing. We don't think about dying or anything, although all of us end up there. I guess when you get to be 76 years old, you start thinking about the shortness of the time left, but amazingly I do without regret. (laughs)
Yeah! It's funny. As human beings, we don't think about dying all the time even though we know that's what's gonna happen. Fortunately, we're wrapped up enough in our lives.
You thank someone for making you the man you are in the song. Who?
God! I mean, it's not like a prayer, but it's talking straight to the man.
Seems like you're expressing gratitude in most of the songs. True?
Oh, I hope there's a lot of gratitude! I can't help but feel grateful for the life that I've had. All my heroes ended up being close friends. I find it kind of amazing that Johnny Cash and Willie [Nelson] and Waylon [Jennings] have been friends. Willie was my hero long before he was famous. He was the hero of all the serious songwriters there in Nashville.
I never even met him for years. Now, he's like my best friend. Johnny Cash and Waylon, we're all the same. Muhammad Ali. Roger Miller. I think it's pretty amazing when I think of all the people who I really respected ended up being close friends. I'm still close with Muhammad, and he's probably the biggest hero in my lifetime.
What kind of a friend is Muhammad Ali?
Well, he doesn't talk anymore, but he was always, always the most unselfish superstar I've ever known. There's nobody like him.
What's the best lesson you took away from your early years in Nashville?
Well, I think looking back, it's just the notion that if you follow your heart, you can't lose. I was just doing what I loved to do, and it didn't matter whether I was emptying ashtrays. Man, it took me four or five years to make it as a songwriter, but I never felt like those were bad years. To me, my creative life started really when I went to Nashville. After the Army, that's not surprising! It was just finding out where I was supposed to be, and I think you're lucky in your life if you do find that out.
How has your songwriting process evolved since?
Well, I write a lot slower now just because I'm older. When I went to Nashville, songs were just coming out of me all the time. Everything I heard or overheard would stimulate some part of my brain that would start writing a song about it.
Your mother didn't approve of your move.
My mother was just horrified that I'd gone to Nashville to be a songwriter. She thought country music sucked, and nobody appreciated it anyway. I never questioned the move. I think it was one of the lucky things that happened in my life.
Tell the story behind the song "My Heart Was the Last One to Know."
I was just writing about heartbreak that I was going through and doing it the way the people I admired like Hank Williams would've handled it.
Describe Shel Silverstein's part in writing that song.
I probably wrote more with Shel than anybody. I didn't co-write much and not much even with Shel. He'd give me the idea for a song, and I'd go down to the Gulf of Mexico, where I was flying every other week, and try to work on the song. Then we'd come back, and I remember laughing about it. Shel had even convinced himself that he co-wrote the song, but actually I'd written the whole song. He'd given me the idea for it. But we did co-write some songs together.
Why didn't you co-write more with other people?
Songwriting's always a real personal thing for me. I never was, but some songwriters were very disciplined. They got up and went to work every day and started writing in the morning. They felt if they hadn't written a song in a day, they were not doing the job. Tom T. Hall used to work around the clock. Of course, he was good, too. I couldn't do it that way. I always had to wait until I was inspired, and then I could write anywhere I was. I've never been a craftsman who can sit down and put in so many hours a day being creative.
You know, you could be the man you describe in "Ramblin' Jack."
(laughs) I'm sure it's true. I was writing about Ramblin' Jack, but it was the same as when I was writing "The Pilgrim (Chapter 33)." I was writing about Chris Gantry and other people, but I was really writing about me, too, I guess. People thought I was writing about myself. I think we all just have something in common. We're people who are singers and songwriters, and that's just what they are, and it's not contrived or put on. It's the real thing.
You and Jack are both on the Guy Clark tribute album. What drew you to record "Hemingway's Whiskey"?
I just wanted to sing on the album. (laughs) Hemingway was a hero, too. I didn't meet him, but I got to see him at a bullfight over in Spain. When I was growing up and wanted to be a writer, Hemingway seemed to be a pretty good hero. The human part of him wasn't always great, but he was a good writer.