Dressed in an unassuming all-black ensemble consisting of a buttoned-down shirt and jeans, legendary singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson previewed new music from his latest album Feeling Mortal and fielded fan questions during a Sirius XM broadcast Tuesday (Jan. 29) at the satellite radio company's studio in downtown Nashville.
Known for his inimitable songwriting, unprecedented musical success and accomplished acting career, the 76-year-old Country Music Hall of Famer emitted the same sort of humility, authenticity and humor found within his expressive lyrics.
When asked by one listener, "How are you doing?" Kristofferson wryly joked, "Compared to what?"
Dazzling the small crowd of roughly 100 people with his stories and music, he performed an acoustic set of new material featuring his deeply reflective title track "Feeling Mortal" and paid tribute to folk-singing friend Ramblin' Jack Elliot with "Ramblin' Jack." He followed with beloved hits like his iconic "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" and the poignant "Why Me Lord," bringing out several surprise guests like Josh Turner, Kelly Willis, Bruce Robison and past touring musicians such as Billy Swan and Donnie Fritts.
But much like he sings in some of his latest material, the song craftsman spent much of his time philosophizing about his present and past state of life filled with earthly gratitude and vulnerability.
"I've never been able to write like a lot of the writers in Nashville," he explained, "like to sit down and write a song every day. I can only do it when it moves me, and it's still that way. Unfortunately, it moves me much more slowly these days. I was always in love with the process.
"All the guys who were singers and songwriters, somehow we're still friends," he went on. "I think what was different about it was that we lived totally for the song. It wasn't for the fame or for the ... ," he briefly paused, gathering his thoughts. "Well, some of the side benefits," he chuckled. "But it was for the song."
Giving details behind one of his newer tunes, a heart-wrenching and reflective song called "Castaway," he explained how he was stirred by the image of an empty vessel he once saw while flying helicopters off the Gulf of Mexico many years ago. Indeed, the poetic lyrics exemplify his masterful approach to songwriting.
"That lost abandoned vessel was the sister of my soul," the song alludes. "In the emptiness, my footsteps were like echoes in a cave/That seemed to say there ain't no way to leave this floating grave."
"I saw a little boat that didn't have anybody in it, and I always wondered if everybody had fallen off and drowned," he said of the song's inspiration. "It stuck in my mind and eventually came out in a song."
He said he couldn't possibly select his most cherished tune from his extensive songwriting catalog that dates back to the early '70s, noting, "That would be like saying which one of your kids do you like best."
However, he said he's always been humbled by any artist's interest and interpretation of his work. Whether it was Janis Joplin's stirring rendition of "Me and Bobby McGee," Johnny Cash's sobering "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" or Roger Miller's prophetic "Darby Castle," Kristofferson has always felt grateful and awe-inspired to see and hear the new life other artists have given to one of his own creations.
"I think one of the great things about being a songwriter is once you've written a song, it's like your kids," he explained. "You love them, but they live on their own. And to hear somebody else sing it, it was always good for me."
Addressing the present musical environment in Nashville, he explained how Music City today seems much more accepting of the craft than in years past.
"I believe the town acknowledges the music part of it more than it did back in the day. I think the academic part from the college crowd and the business part of the city was kind of embarrassed that country music came out of here," he chuckled. "But for me, this was the holy ground and people who loved country music, this was the mother church right here."
Turning his head to peer out the window to look at Nashville's Lower Broadway, he added, "I'm just looking over my shoulder at the Grand Ole Opry and Tootsie's. That was like going to church every week. I went every single weekend no matter what job I had at the time."
He went on to explain how he befriended the policemen backstage at the Ryman Auditorium and, after a few drinks at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, would head across the alley to see the Grand Ole Opry shows.
"It was just like being in church" he detailed, "worshipping the people that were out there."
In fact, this led to his chance meeting of one of his idols, Johnny Cash.
"I shook hands with him, and it changed my life," he smiled. "I was in uniform at the time and I knew at that moment that I was gonna get out of the army and come here, and I never regretted it -- not once."
"It all kind of snuck up on me, and it amazed me that I was able to sing with them and perform with them as if I were one of them," he said. "Waylon would get pissed off every now and then. But, really, I think we all really loved each other. I gotta say, I never felt like I really deserved to be there. And that's not false modesty or anything."
While reflecting on his career longevity and extensive song catalog, he also touched on his acting career where he has been featured in over 50 films. Though never having any formal training, Kristofferson starred alongside Hollywood heavy hitters like Barbra Streisand in the 1976 film A Star Is Born and played numerous other roles, often cast as a scoundrel.
"I don't have a hard time identifying with the villain," he revealed. "I think I've never played anybody that I couldn't imagine myself being.
"I sort of treated it the same way I did when I started singing my own songs. I figured the more honest I could be with the lines that I was delivering was the best way to do it and the way that I could identify with it. And some people hate that, and some people don't, but I've been lucky enough to make my living doing that and just being as honest I can be."
Nevertheless, Kristofferson will always be a true songwriter at heart.
"I feel more closely identified with the singer-songwriter because that's who I am whether anybody else likes it or not. You can do that until they throw dirt on you, and you can only act when they hire you," he joked.
"But the singer-songwriter is from here," he said. "And that's why Nashville changed my life. I immediately identified with it and knew I was home. ... It's the writing and the making of the song that to me is who I am. Being able to express it and being able to make a living at it is a blessing."