Music Interviews
9:16 pm
Sun February 3, 2013

Kris Kristofferson On Writing For — And Outliving — His Idols

Originally published on Sun February 3, 2013 7:06 am

Kris Kristofferson writes the kind of songs that people love to sing: songs like "Help Me Make It Through The Night," from 1970. Jerry Lee Lewis recorded a version, as did Joan Baez — and even Elvis.

Kristofferson has had a long career, writing songs covered by the likes of Johnny Cash and Janis Joplin. He's a country music Hall of Famer with a few movies to his name, too. He's 76 now, and still writing songs. When he's not out touring, he's back home in Hawaii. Success, he says, has not gone to his head.

"I spend most of my time on my tractor, mowing the grass around there," Kristofferson says. "That's my therapy. No one can mess with me on the tractor."

He's off the tractor for the time being, performing new music. His latest album is called Feeling Mortal, and he discusses it — as well as some of the pleasant surprises that have come with old age — here with NPR's Rachel Martin.


Interview Highlights

On being a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University

"I wanted to be a creative artist. It was a kind of a blessed existence, you know. I'd gotten to be in college and gotten to play football and box and do the things I loved to do. And I think what Oxford did was, you know, rather than a liberal arts education where you have to study a lot of different things, I got to get really involved in William Blake and Shakespeare."

On being in the country supergroup The Highwaymen with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash

"Every time that I'd be standing there on stage, at least at some point in the show, I had to just pinch myself to realize that I was really up there on the stage. Every one of these guys was my hero before I even knew them, you know? Because really, the first time I ever heard Waylon [Jennings], I was a janitor at the recording studio at Columbia Recording in Nashville. And I volunteered to do a Saturday [cleaning shift] when Waylon was doing a demo, and I'd never heard anything like him. It was a real eye-opener to find myself on the same stage with these guys. Because Johnny Cash, as human as he is — or was — he was always larger than life. He always felt like something right off of Mount Rushmore."

On hearing other musicians perform his songs

"Every performer that's performed my songs has done them better than I did. I guess Janis doing "[Me and] Bobby McGee" was one that moved me profoundly, because of our relationship. ... I got to know her not too long before she died. But we were close. [The first time I heard her version,] unfortunately, she had just died. And it blew me away."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Kris Kristofferson writes the songs that people love to sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELP ME MAKE IT THROUGH THE NIGHT")

KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: (Singing) Take the ribbon from your hair. Shake it loose and let it fall...

MARTIN: Songs like "Help Me Make It Through The Night" from 1970. Jerry Lee Lewis recorded a version. So did Joan Baez, even Elvis. So the voice on the radio often belonged to someone else. But it was always Kris Kristofferson's music and his words.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELP ME MAKE IT THROUGH THE NIGHT")

KRISTOFFERSON: (Singing) Come and lay down by my side till the early morning light...

MARTIN: Kristofferson has had a long career, writing songs covered by the likes of Johnny Cash and Janis Joplin. He's a Country Music Hall of Famer with a few movies to his name, too. He is 76 now and still writing songs. When he's not out touring he's back home in Hawaii. But success hasn't gone to his head.

KRISTOFFERSON: I spend most of my time on my tractor, mowing the grass around there.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You would think that Kris Kristofferson could pay someone to mow his lawn, no?

KRISTOFFERSON: Oh no, that's my favorite therapy. Nobody can mess with me on the tractor.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: He's off the tractor for the time being, performing new music. His latest album is called "Feeling Mortal" and this is the title track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEELING MORTAL")

KRISTOFFERSON: (Singing) Wide awake and feeling mortal. At this moment in the dream, that old man there in the mirror and my shaky self-esteem. Here...

MARTIN: I spoke with Kris Kristofferson while he was in Nashville, the city that launched his career so long ago. And I asked him why he started to really feel those years.

KRISTOFFERSON: Well, you know, every album that I've done since they let me start doing them has always been for me sort of a summation of what I'm going through at the time. And this is that time of my life when you start becoming aware of mortality. And it's a lot more pleasant than I thought it would be.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Really?

KRISTOFFERSON: Yes.

MARTIN: Why?

KRISTOFFERSON: I - well, I don't. I have no regrets. I feel very grateful for the life that I've had. You know, family I live with and I've been doing work that I love ever since I came to Nashville.

MARTIN: There are things I didn't necessarily know about you when I was doing a little bit of background reading, and some of our listeners may not know, including the fact that you were a Rhodes Scholar...

KRISTOFFERSON: Hmm.

MARTIN: ...a long time ago.

KRISTOFFERSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: But back then, that young Kris Kristofferson who went to Oxford, what was going through his mind? What did that guy want to do with his life?

KRISTOFFERSON: Well, I wanted to be a creative artist. It was a kind of a blessed existence, you know. I'd gotten to be in college and got to play football and box and do the things I loved to do. And I think what Oxford did was, you know, rather than our liberal arts education - where you have to study a lot of different things - I got to get really involved in William Blake and Shakespeare.

MARTIN: Did you already know you wanted to be a songwriter?

KRISTOFFERSON: I'd been writing songs since I was a little boy. You know, I think I wrote my first song when I was 11.

MARTIN: Do you remember it?

KRISTOFFERSON: Yeah, it's called "I Hate Your Ugly Face."

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I don't suppose you can indulge us with a couple of bars.

KRISTOFFERSON: Well, it's a - let me. It says (Singing) You heard a lot of singers moaning of the loves they've lost. They're always true to their long lost dear no matter what the cost. I want you to hear I ain't crying in my beer. This is how it goes with me. The happiest day of my unhappy life was when you set me free.

MARTIN: Wow.

KRISTOFFERSON: (Singing) I hate your ugly face. I see it every place.

(LAUGHTER)

KRISTOFFERSON: (Singing) Follows me wherever I try to go. Your skin is tan like leather. It looks just like a heifer...

(LAUGHTER)

KRISTOFFERSON: (Singing) ...Oh, I hate you dear and think you ought to know.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Wow, love and hate and tears in beer. I mean that's a lot for an 11-year-old.

KRISTOFFERSON: Yeah. Well, I'm sure that I wasn't talking on personal experience.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: We'd love to play one of your earlier songs to kind of channel that chapter of your life. Johnny Cash made this song a particular hit. It's called "Sunday Morning Coming Down." And let's listen to your performance of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNDAY MORNING COMING DOWN")

KRISTOFFERSON: (Singing) Well, I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn't hurt. And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad so I had one more for dessert. Then I fumbled through my closet for my clothes and found my cleanest dirty shirt...

MARTIN: What comes to mind when you hear that voice from that time?

KRISTOFFERSON: I'm just real grateful for that song because that opened up a whole a lot doors for me. So many people that admired, admired it. Actually, it was the song that aloud me to quit working for a living.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNDAY MORNING COMING DOWN")

KRISTOFFERSON: (Singing) And there's nothing short of dying, half as lonesome as the sound, on the sleeping city sidewalk. Sunday morning coming down...

MARTIN: I'd love if you could talk a little bit about your experience as one of The Highwaymen.

KRISTOFFERSON: Oh, wow. That's - that's...

MARTIN: This is you and Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.

KRISTOFFERSON: Yeah, and Waylon and Johnny Cash.

MARTIN: Let's play a little bit of that title song, it's called "The Highway."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HIGHWAY")

THE HIGHWAYMEN: (Singing) I was a highwayman along the coach roads I did ride with sword and pistol by my side. Many a young maid lost her baubles to my trade...

KRISTOFFERSON: You have to that every time that I'd be standing there on stage, at least at some point in the show, I had to just pinch myself to realize that I was really up there on the stage. Every one of these guys was my hero before I even knew them, you know. I mean, because, really, the first time I ever heard of Waylon, I was a janitor at the recording studio at Columbia Recording in Nashville.

And I volunteered to do a Saturday session...

MARTIN: Saturday cleaning shift.

Yeah, when Waylon was doing a demo and I'd never heard anything like him. It was a real eye-opener to find myself on the same stage with these guys. Because Johnny Cash, as human as he is - or was - he always felt like something right off of Mount Rushmore.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HIGHWAY")

HIGHWAYMEN: (Singing) And when I reached the other side, I'll find a place to rest my spirit if I can. Perhaps I may...

MARTIN: I want to play a little more music from your newest album. There are a couple of love songs on this album.

KRISTOFFERSON: Why do you say it with such surprise?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, I'm mostly surprised because they're about unrequited love.

KRISTOFFERSON: Well, that happens to everybody. Doesn't it?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I suppose so. Let's listen to a little bit of this particular track. It's called "My Heart Was the Last One to Know."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HEART WAS THE LAST ONE TO KNOW")

KRISTOFFERSON: (Singing) Taking time you got by these defenses of mine though I tried not to let you slip through. And when you worked your way to the back of my mind, it was too late stop loving you...

MARTIN: So, Mr. Kristofferson, is this about someone specific?

KRISTOFFERSON: Well, yeah. I mean, really heart and soul songs are written from personal experience.

MARTIN: I don't suppose you're going to tell us who it was.

KRISTOFFERSON: No.

(LAUGHTER)

KRISTOFFERSON: No. I got enough people in my life, in my background, who have suffered enough bruises from me.

(LAUGHTER)

KRISTOFFERSON: They don't need another one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HEART WAS THE LAST ONE TO KNOW")

KRISTOFFERSON: (Singing) They could sense you were something too good to be true. But my heart was the last one to know. Yes, the heart is last one to know.

MARTIN: I'd like to go back to that first track on the album, "Feeling Mortal." And there's a lyric in there, it says: God Almighty, here I am. Am I where I ought to be? Did you get an answer to that question? Are you where you ought to be?

KRISTOFFERSON: Well, I feel like it. To my surprise, I feel nothing but gratitude for being this, you know, old...

(LAUGHTER)

KRISTOFFERSON: ...and still above ground, living with the people I love. I've had a life of all kinds of experiences - most of them good. And I've got eight kids and a wife that puts up with everything I do and keeps me out of trouble.

MARTIN: As long as you get to spend some time on the tractor mower in Maui?

KRISTOFFERSON: Yeah. Yeah...

(LAUGHTER)

KRISTOFFERSON: ...which I will in a day.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Kris Kristofferson talked to us from Nashville, Tennessee. His new album is called "Feeling Mortal."

Mr. Kristofferson, it's been a pleasure. Thanks for taking time to talk with us.

KRISTOFFERSON: Well, thanks for the nice questions. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAMBLIN' JACK")

KRISTOFFERSON: (Singing) Most of his lifetime he's been wasted on the wine of life he's tasted. And I guess the rest...

MARTIN: You can hear a few tracks from Kris Kristofferson's new album at npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAMBLIN' JACK")

KRISTOFFERSON: (Singing) ...to lay his weary head in some funky, unfamiliar beds. He was only looking for a home. And I know... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.