Kris Kristofferson is a brave man indeed to stand up in front of 2,000 people with his only weapons an imperfect voice, an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. But he's backed up by his army of near-perfect songs, and there are hundreds that he can call upon.
The result was an extraordinary concert Thursday evening (Nov. 11) at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. It was Kristofferson's first solo performance at the Ryman, a building that nonetheless holds many memories for him, and his first concert since this week's induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In his introduction, Keith Bilbrey of WSM-AM/Nashville drew an ovation when he said, "He changed my life with his music." Kristofferson walked onstage to a deafening standing ovation, and the evening went uphill from there. Dressed in black shirt and jeans and boots, Kristofferson stood proudly in the spotlight, and the years fell away as he journeyed through his musical world.
There was a lot of gray hair in the audience but also a fair number of young people, and I spotted many, many songwriters I knew. On Kristofferson's part, it was both a homecoming and a salute to the music community. And a master songwriter class. On the audience's part, it was an homage to a hero. Throughout the evening, I could hear people singing along -- but quietly -- to all these songs that they know so well. He revisited his landmarks from Vietnam to Wounded Knee, from Darby's Castle to Duvalier's Dream. And his songs recalled many of his characters, from Johnny Lobo to Layla Al-Attar, from his father to his children.
He opened with "Shipwrecked in the Eighties," and its lines "So you turn to your trusty old partner/To share some old feelings/And you find to your shock that/ Your faithful companion is gone (so long, Tonto)" seemed to lament the loss of his partner Johnny Cash. (He would later dedicate "Here Comes That Rainbow Again" to Cash, remarking that Cash had told him it "included everything that he liked" and that he didn't know until he read it in Cash's recent autobiography that it was the latter's favorite song.) Another song of loss, "Darby's Castle," followed, leading into "Me and Bobby McGee" and screams of recognition from the audience.
He said, "It's Veterans Day" and launched into "Broken Freedom Song," one of several antiwar songs -- including "In the News" and "Don't Let the Bastards (Get You Down)" -- during the evening, prompting one audience member during the encores to yell, "Tell us how you really feel!" Kristofferson laughed at that. He also said he felt he should "apologize to the people who are trying to clap along with my songs. Now you know the trouble my band used to have." Mike Utley, Donnie Fritts and Billy Swan, his band members sitting in the balcony, visibly had a good laugh over that.
He closed out the first hour with "Why Me," remarking that he had first sung that song on the Ryman stage many years ago on the old Grand Ole Gospel radio broadcast.
After a half-hour intermission, he played for another hour and 15 minutes with highlights including "Shandy," "The Pilgrim -- Chapter 33," "The Circle," "The Sabre and the Rose," "Beat the Devil," "Love Is the Way" and "Silver Tongued Devil."
He dedicated "The Final Attraction" to Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, John Lennon, Waylon Jennings, Shel Silverstein, Chris Gantry and others who "lay it out there on the line." He continued, "There are a lot of ghosts in here tonight. This is the first place I ever saw Johnny Cash. The first place I ever heard Hank Williams, singing on this stage."
And with that, he began "Sunday Morning Coming Down," perhaps his quintessential Nashville song. He sang the line "I'd smoked so much the night before," then stopped, laughed and said "I'm sorry. That's the line I had to throw out" and resumed singing, "I'd smoked my brain the night before." After finishing the song, Kristofferson recalled, "Johnny Cash sang that on his show right here on this stage. They tried to make him not sing the word 'stoned'. I told him, 'John, it ain't the same.' I was standing up on that balcony right there, and John looked up at me and sang 'stoned'!"
Kristofferson finished the evening with a four-song encore encompassing his messages of love and peace, finally going from "Don't Let the Bastards (Get You Down)" into "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends." The latter was sung poignantly to this crowd of believers as a love song to all of them: "This could be our last good night together/We may never pass this way again/Just let me enjoy 'til it's over/Or forever/Please don't tell me how the story ends."