Country Legends We Love: Kris Kristofferson

His classics include “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down"

Kris Kristofferson stands tall as one of the most literate and cinematic songwriters to emerge during the talent-rich 1960s, though his greatest creative impact would be felt in the decade ahead. He is often credited with bringing a new element of sexuality and vulnerability to the country music canon by writing now-classic songs like “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and “Why Me.”

“Maybe they don’t want to give me credit as much as the blame for changing it, but the truth of it is, I felt like I was writing in the tradition of country music,” Kristofferson told in 2007. “To me, country music, as opposed to pop music, was the one that wasn’t afraid to talk about cheating and drinking and messing up.”

Also the composer of such standards as “For the Good Times,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “One Day at a Time” and “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends,” Kristofferson is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and Songwriters Hall of Fame. In recognition of the 50th anniversary of his debut album, 1970’s Kristofferson, we honor him as one of CMT’s Legends We Love.

Kristoffer Kristofferson was born June 22, 1936, in Brownsville, Texas, the son of an Air Force officer. At Pomona College in California, from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in creative writing, he also was a Golden Gloves boxer and a football player. Chosen for a Rhodes Scholarship, he studied English literature at Merton College of Oxford University and developed a particular interest in the poet William Blake.

While in England, he began singing under the name Kris Carson. In 1959, he joined the Army and was stationed in Germany as a helicopter pilot. After being contracted to teach English at West Point military academy, he switched gears completely and instead moved to Nashville in 1965 to try his hand at songwriting. By this time he was married to his high school girlfriend, Fran Beer; the decade-long marriage yielded the first two of Kristofferson’s eight kids.

He had his first major label success in 1968 when Grand Ole Opry star Roy Drusky recorded his “Jody and the Kid” for Mercury Records. Although that record peaked at No. 24, Kristofferson was luckier the following year when Roger Miller took “Me and Bobby McGee” to No. 12 on the country chart.

Even greater luck lay ahead via rock singer Janis Joplin’s rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee.” It went No. 1 on the pop chart in 1971 and stayed there for two weeks. Kristofferson came up with the title after mishearing the name of a Music Row secretary, Bobby McKee.

Yet it may be Kristofferson’s connection to Johnny Cash that looms largest in country music mythology. In the late ‘60s, Kristofferson worked part-time as a janitor at Columbia Recording Studios, where Cash often recorded. He tried to pass off his demos to Cash’s guitarist Luther Perkins and even June Carter, without making much progress. In an act of bravado and perhaps desperation, Kristofferson landed a helicopter in Cash’s yard with demos in hand. The maneuver worked and Cash recorded Kristofferson’s “To Beat the Devil” and “The Devil to Pay” for his 1970 album, Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.

Cash also introduced the longing anthem “Sunday Morning Coming Down” on a 1970 episode of The Johnny Cash Show and the composition would go on to win Song of the Year from the Country Music Association. That same year, Sammi Smith released her sensual, career-defining single, “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”

In addition, Ray Price’s flagging recording career was rejuvenated with his release of “For the Good Times.” Besides taking Price back to No. 1 on the country chart for the first time since 1959, it subsequently won him a 1970 Grammy for best male country vocal performance.

Speaking at Kristofferson’s formal induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005, Price said, "At that time, I needed something really great, and it came from Kris. Of course, I was happy that it did. It's maintained me for many, many years. Without a hit song, there are no hit artists."

That sentiment may be echoed by Ronnie Milsap, who carried Kristofferson’s sweeping ballad, “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends,” to No. 1 in 1974. The recording also won a Grammy for Milsap as an artist. The song has been recorded by the likes of Bobby Bare, Mandy Barnett, Sammy Davis Jr., Freddy Fender, Buddy Miller, Willie Nelson and Rosanne Cash, and Joan Osborne.

A rough, raspy vocalist, Kristofferson never had consistent success at radio although many of his albums were reviewed enthusiastically and sold well. He signed a recording contract with Monument Records in 1969 and issued Kristofferson in 1970, though it was reissued with the title Me and Bobbie McGee a year later. None of its singles charted at radio.

The Silver Tongued Devil and I appeared in 1971 and the single “Josie” only made it to No. 70 at country radio. A prior single, “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again), fared better at pop radio, reaching No. 26.

“Why Me,” from 1972’s Jesus Was a Capricorn, marked his highest-charting pop song as a recording artist. It peaked at No. 16 there, but rose to No. 1 on the country chart. Rita Coolidge (his second wife, from 1973-1980) and Larry Gatlin provided vocal harmonies.

Kristofferson returned to the top with “Highwayman” in 1985, as a member of the Highwaymen with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson. “Highwayman” was written by Jimmy Webb. He returned to No. 1 as a songwriter (with Marijohn Wilkin) in 1980 with the gospel favorite “One Day at a Time,” recorded by Christy Lane.

In 1971, Kristofferson accepted his first movie role in the Dennis Hopper film, The Last Movie. He would go on to appear in a diverse array of films such as A Star Is Born (opposite Barbra Streisand), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Convoy, Heaven’s Gate, Blade, He’s Just Not That Into You, and Fast Food Nation, among many others.

He earned an Oscar nomination in the Original Song Score category for 1984’s Songwriter, in which he starred with Nelson. In addition he hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live in 1976, the series’ first season; Coolidge served as the musical guest.

Kristofferson’s three Grammys include one for best country song with “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (1971) and two with Coolidge for best country vocal performance by a duo or group for “From the Bottle to the Bottom” (1973) and “Lover Please” (1975). Kristofferson reprised the former song with a guest vocal on Dierks Bentley’s 2010 bluegrass album, Up on the Ridge.

Kristofferson has released 18 solo albums and three live albums, along with multiple collaborative albums. Of these, the soundtrack to A Star Is Born, recorded with Streisand, is his best-selling album, with four million copies sold. He won a Golden Globe award for his role in the film. Songs of Kristofferson, Full Moon (with Coolidge), Me and Bobby McGee, Jesus Was a Capricorn and The Silver Tongued Devil and I are certified gold.

Kristofferson received the First Amendment Center/Americana Music Association "Spirit of Americana" Free Speech Award in 2003, the ACM’s Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award in 2005 and the Poets Award in 2013, the Johnny Cash Visionary Award from CMT in 2007, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys in 2014. His enormous influence on the development of modern country music was highlighted in Ken Burns’ epic 2019 documentary series, Country Music.

In the early 2010s, Kristofferson and his third wife, Lisa, believed he was developing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. However, a Lyme disease diagnosis and treatment in 2016 restored much of his mental health and his ability to tour.

An all-star concert celebration of his music was staged in Nashville in 2016 with dozens of the artists he inspired, including Rosanne Cash, Eric Church, Willie Nelson, and Lee Ann Womack. That same year, he released the album The Cedar Creek Sessions, which brought him a 13th Grammy nomination.

Reflecting on his legendary career, Kristofferson told in 2007, “That’s what I wanted to be, more than anything else -- was some kind of creative person, some kind of artist. I think writing’s just the way that I organized my experience of my life and made it make sense to me. It was something I did naturally.”

Edward Morris contributed to this story.

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