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Kris Kristofferson: ‘The Wild American’

Stephen Miller reveals singer-songwriter to be more than a ’70s sex symbol

Nov. 1, 2010
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If you’re like me, you may have dismissed Kris Kristofferson as a 1970s sex symbol due to his appearance alongside Barbra Streisand in A Star Is Born. But like me, you may not have known that he wrote his major dissertation on William Blake during a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University; that he gave up teaching English at West Point University when he had only a little over a year left to rise to the rank of major; that he did this to pursue his dream of becoming a singer-songwriter, moving to Nashville and taking only jobs with no experience necessary in order to become close to those he expected to one day be his fans. Or that he penned such hits as “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Stephen Miller’s unauthorized biography, Kristofferson: The Wild American

(Omnibus), recounts these events and is a welcome addition to the subject in lieu of Kristofferson’s autobiography, which has been awaited for more than 10 years.

Kristofferson’s major break came when Johnny Cash performed “Sunday Morning Coming Down” on his weekly TV show, deciding at the last minute to sing the song as it was written and not change the line “Wishing Lord that I was stoned,” as the producers would have had him do. As legendary is the story of how Kristofferson delivered the song to Cash. While flying helicopters for the National Guard, he landed on Cash’s lawn. Cash reported that Kristofferson emerged from the aircraft with the tape in one hand and a beer and cigarette in the other. Kristofferson maintains that it would have been impossible to pilot in this manner, but says he’ll go along with the legend. He was, however, fired from another job shortly thereafter for “not letting 24 hours go between the bottle and the throttle.”

Miller claims Kristofferson changed the face of country music, opening it to a folk and rock audience, and introducing sex, drugs, and politics to the genre. The songs that purportedly brought an unprecedented foray into sex were “For the Good Times” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” The former was recorded by Engelbert Humperdinck, Dean Martin, Andy Williams, Chet Atkins and Loretta Lynn, among others, but at first was not played by country stations. The latter was recorded by several of the same names, as well as Elvis. What is interesting is that these songs, while brilliantly written, are akin to Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” leaving the majority of the tryst up to the listener’s imagination. (A further synchronicity is Kristofferson’s testimony that in composing the second song, he was influenced by Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”)

Miller draws a comparison between Kristofferson and Dylan by listing them among the originators of the outlaw country genre. While Kristofferson was introducing folk and rock to country music, Dylan was introducing country music to folk and rock audiences. Another analogy offered to this end occurred when Kristofferson caused a stir when accepting the award for Song of the Year at the Country Music Awards for “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” wearing jeans and no tie while other attendees were attired in tuxedos. Miller makes the connection that it was only after this incident that Willie Nelson adopted his trademark haggard appearance.

Kristofferson’s political endeavors are also among his most important undertakings. He traveled to Moscow and Nicaragua in order to secure support for humanitarian reform. He criticized U.S. foreign policy and championed the cause of the American Indian Movement’s Leonard Peltier. Sadly, his views reduced his fan base, but Tex Ritter once acknowledged his striving for change as “the healthiest thing going on in country music today.” Hopefully, others will one day rise to do the same.

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