I have no idea how I ended up with a copy of Kris Kristofferson’s first album — I was buying hardly any country, or rock, or pop at that point — but however it came into my hands, I was instantly hooked. The writing was like nothing I’d ever heard: a perfect combination of hip, smart, soulful, literary, and simple as a great country song. It matched Kris’s unique background: Vietnam, Oxford University, flying helicopters to oil rigs, emptying ashtrays at Columbia’s Nashville studio. But I didn’t know that at the time; I just knew how much I loved his writing. In retrospect some of the songs feel a little over-romantic — in a 19th century literary sense — but I was the right age for that, and others have held up as well as any songs I know. I’ll probably get to “Me and Bobby McGee” before this project is over, because overdone as it is, it’s a great song; and I don’t think I can write about busking in Norway without doing “Help Me Make It Through the Night”; and I don’t know many better phrases than “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” and have a soft spot for “Just the Other Side of Nowhere”…
But my favorite to play and sing was always “Best of All Possible Worlds,” because it came along just when I was getting into Jim Kweskin and Willie McTell and all those guys who played rural ragtime circle-of-fifths tunes, and I figured out that a riff from McTell’s “Kill It, Kid” would fit perfectly with Kristofferson’s song. Plus, I never heard anyone else do this one, unlike all the other Kristofferson songs I liked, which were mostly covered to death.
Also, obviously, I love the story, and the wry humor:
They finally came and told me they were gonna set me free,
And that I’d be leaving town if I knew what was good for me.
I said, “It’s nice to learn that everybody’s so concerned about my health.”
I was lucky enough to meet Kris a couple of times, and interview him, and he was one of the most likeable people in the music business. He carried a band made up of songwriters who enjoyed hanging out and playing together, including Billy Swan and Donnie Fritts, and I once came back to the dressing room and asked Swan, who was acting as the bandleader, if he had a set list for the show I’d just heard, and behind me Kris quietly said, “You got a pen?” And then, while his band drank beer and relaxed, he wrote out the set for me. That may not sound like much, but headliners don’t typically act that way — not to mention headliners who are also movie stars. But he has always been atypical, in a lot of ways: that night, he’d done a country set about the Nicaraguan revolution, including a moment when he named Sandino, Che Guevara, and other Latin American revolutionary heroes, and the bandmembers pumped fists in the air and yelled “¡Presente!” after each name. (The album was called Third World Warrior. It wasn’t a great record, but it was heartfelt and a very unusual project to be touring around county fairs in middle America in 1990.)
It was Kris’s first album, though, and his follow-up, The Silver-Tongued Devil, that changed the course of country music, and if anyone reading this hasn’t heard either, or both, you’ve got a treat in store.