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A Rebel Among Outlaws: Kris Kristofferson

kris_kristofferson_sxsw_2006_cropWell I think what they’ve done is well worth doing

And they’re doing it the best way that they can

You’re the only one that you are screwing

When you put down what you don’t understand.

- Kris Kristofferson, If You Don’t Like Hank Williams (You Can Kiss My Ass)

I was raised on country music, specifically outlaw country.  By people of my nationality and generation – to many of whom Johnny Cash became acceptable only when, very late in life, he started covering U2 and Nine Inch Nails – this is generally seen to be some kind of shameful confession; something for which I really ought to atone.  I have no truck with this kind of prejudice, often simultaneously uninformed and incredibly smug.  I have particularly little patience when the people affecting to be far, far above liking country music subscribe to the depressingly new fashion (new in comparison with the span of his career) for finding Johnny Cash acceptable.  It’s a dirty little word, acceptable.  And for far too many people, Cash only became so when he moved away – in their eyes – from country music, although in fact he never did.

I never intend to atone for my country background.  In fact, I am deeply grateful to my parents for introducing me, live and in recorded form, to artists who have stayed with me ever since.  One such is Kris Kristofferson: singer, songwriter, actor, activist, veteran, Oxford graduate, former helicopter pilot and Blake enthusiast.  Today’s post will look at his lyrics.  Song lyrics are too often overlooked as a literary form, but the best songwriters, in my opinion, produce lyrics that stand alone as poetry even when stripped of the added impact of music and voice.  Kristofferson’s music is simple – in the best sense of the term, elegant and punchy and memorable – and his voice rough around the edges.  All the subtlety is in his lyrics.  The balance is sublime.

This article can in no way be comprehensive enough to give more than an idea of the extraordinary richness and complexity of Kristofferson’s songwriting.  Instead, I will have to restrict myself – reluctantly – to a brief overview.  Here, then, are five essential things you should know about Kristofferson; five things I very much hope will inspire you to explore his work further (even if it is – insert shudder here – country).

Kristofferson is a poet

Casey leaves the hollow sound of silent people walking down/ The stairway to the subway, in the shadow down below/ Following their footsteps through the neon-darkened corridors/ In silent desperation, never speaking to a soul/ The poisoned air he’s breathing has a dirty smell of dying, ’cause it’s never seen the sunshine and it’s never felt the rain/ But Casey minds the arrows and ignores the fatal echoes of the clicking of the turnstile and the rattle of his chain… (Casey’s Last Ride)

As we will see below, Kristofferson’s songwriting is nothing if not eclectic in terms of content.  What unites his creations, from protest songs to love songs to breakup songs to breakdown songs, is a particular skill with – and joy in – language that is unique to him.  Kristofferson plays with internal rhyme, assonance, consonance and alliteration with an apparent ease that would make strong poets weep.  Read the extract above out loud and see what I mean.

Recommended songs:

Why Me, Lord?

Darby’s Castle

Josie

Kristofferson is a comedian

I was running through the summer rain, trying to catch the evening train/ And kill that old familiar pain weaving through my tangled brain/ But when I tipped my bottle back I smacked into a cop I didn’t see… (The Best of All Possible Worlds)

This skill with language, combined with a heavy sense of irony, makes for some of the best bittersweet comic songs (I believe) in any genre.  Kristofferson rarely if ever goes in for pure comedy: his songs always carry an edge of sadness, of anger or of indignation.  Nothing is straightforward: he sprinkles literary references through songs about bums, hobos and miscreants, and his most damning indictments of social and political hypocrisy are strongly tinged wth self-deprecation.

Recommended songs:

New Mister Me

Once More with Feeling

Blame it on the Stones

Kristofferson is a tragedian

Don’t look so sad, I know it’s over/ And life goes on, and this old world just keeps on turning/ Let’s just be glad we had some time to spend together/ There’s no need to watch the bridges that we’re burning… (For the Good Times)

This might be surprising to those who know the more traditional form of the sad country song (for those who don’t, go and look up He Stopped Loving Her Today) but the great strength of Kristofferson’s songs about love and loss is their lack of sentimentality.  His saddest songs are sparse, pared down and elegant, both lyrically and musically.  He can convey a world of sorrow in a few well-chosen words.  Warning: if you’re anything as soppy and susceptible as I am, listen with care…

Recommended songs:

I’d Rather be Sorry

Nobody Wins

Loving Her was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)

Kristofferson is a polemicist

So thank your lucky stars you’ve got protection/ Walk the line and never mind the cost/ Don’t wonder who them lawmen was protecting/ When they nailed the Saviour to the cross/ ‘Cause the law is for protection of the people/ Rules are rules and any fool can see/ We don’t need no riddle speaking prophets/ Scaring decent folks like you and me… no siree… (The Law is for Protection of the People)

When it comes to the things he sees as unjust, Kristofferson does not hold back.  His usual subtlety tends to fly out of the window when it comes to Nicaragua, or poverty, or the police state; I won’t pretend that these are his most technically accomplished songs.  But good Lord, are they satisfying.

Recommended songs:

Under The Gun

Jesus was a Capricorn

Don’t Let the Bastards (Get You Down)

Kristofferson is a chameleon

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose/ Nothing ain’t worth nothing, but it’s free/ Feeling good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues/ Feeling good was good enough for me, good enough for me and Bobby McGee… (Me and Bobby McGee)

Janis Joplin, Perry Como, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare, Jerry Lee Lewis, Patti Page and Brenda Lee are only some of the artists who have sung Kristofferson.  His ability to write for a diverse range of artists across a number of genres is one of his great strengths, and it’s also the reason that many people are unaware just how influential his work is.  However, I maintain that the greatest pleasure is hearing Kristofferson sing his own songs.  His interpretation always reveals some extra layer of meaning, some particular impact that other performers overlook.

Recommended songs:

Help Me Make it Through the Night

Sunday Morning Coming Down

The Taker

For information about Kris Kristofferson’s recordings, biography and tour dates, visit his official site here. All citations in this article are from memory and as such any errors are my own.  The picture of Kris at the South by Southwest Festival 2006 was taken by Ron Baker and is licensed underCreative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License.

9 comments on “A Rebel Among Outlaws: Kris Kristofferson

  1. Melrose
    May 2, 2009

    Gave me goosebumps, Kirsty…

  2. Moira
    May 2, 2009

    Well, you were preaching to the converted here, Kirsty … but even if you hadn’t been, I think you’d have convinced me to at least get over to YouTube and give him a whirl …

  3. Sharon
    May 3, 2009

    Thanks for this, Kirsty: I’m a huge Kristofferson fan and have been ever since my teens, when ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ was a theme song for a bunch of alcoholics I was doing voluntary work with. No-one can do the lost & lonely like Kristofferson! Lost it entirely when he ‘got religion’ but still go back to the good old stuff from time to time.

  4. Melrose
    May 3, 2009

    To me, Kristofferson’s “religion” makes his message of man’s inhumanity to man more poignant:

    From: WHAT ABOUT ME…

    They killed both of her parents in an undercover war/For wanting all their children to be free/She said, it’s even sadder that it’s in El Salvador/
    They named it for the Savior don’t you see/Suddenly the Truth was like a blinding flash of light/Holy Thunder rolled across the sky/I stared into the wonder of the Warrior Jesus Christ/And destiny was burning in his eyes.

  5. kirstyjane
    May 3, 2009

    Thanks all for the comments and I am glad to see enthusiasm for Kris here! Re. religion, I have to agree with Melrose. I’ve yet to see any evidence of Kris losing it and I actually really rather like his thoughts on the Divine (despite not being of the same religious bent myself!)

  6. Pingback: The Soul in the Song: Words, Music, Rhythm and Performance « Vulpes Libris

  7. Tina St. Sebastian
    January 25, 2010

    Kris has been one of my favourite musicians since before I even knew his name – my mama raised me on country and I ain’t ashamed to admit it.
    I even managed to see him live the last time he performed in Iceland!

    I hope you don’t mind me sharing this article on Facebook: I use every opportunity to spread the love (including hissing at people who refer to Me & Bobby McGee as a Janis Joplin song).

  8. Tina St. Sebastian
    January 25, 2010

    Ps. Even though I count myself a pretty staunch atheist, I love his religious songs, especially Why me, Lord.

    Also In the news:

    “Burning up the atmosphere and cutting down the trees
    The billion dollar bombing of a nation on it’s knees
    Anyone not marching to their tune they call it treason
    Everyone says God is on his side.”

    Absolutely brilliant.

  9. kirstyjane
    January 25, 2010

    Hi Tina – of course I’m more than happy, go on ahead! More people need to know about Kris. I often find that they actually do (as he wrote so many classics for so many performers), they just don’t associate the name with the song…

    *country-child high five!*

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This entry was posted on May 2, 2009 by in Entries by Kirsty, Poetry: 20th Century, Poetry: lyric and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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