Singer-songwriter and guitarist Kris Kristofferson knows a few things about the value of persistence. The Texas and California-raised musician, who plays at McCarter Theater on Friday, February 27, was a struggling songwriter in Nashville for the better part of five years before he began to have his first in a long string of hits.
Johnny Cash, one of his heroes, brought Kristofferson on stage at the Newport Folk Festival in August, 1969. That led to bookings at other folk festivals and an appearance on Cash’s then-popular TV show.
Once he began to get recognition in the early ‘70s, he was also able to segue his performing career into a successful career as an actor. By the late ‘80s it was estimated by his music publishing company in Nashville that his songs had been recorded by more than 450 artists. His certified hits are familiar fare to even the most casual fans of country and rock music: “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” and “For The Good Times.”
For the last 18 years, Kristofferson has lived on Maui in Hawaii, but his children attend school in southern California. He was born on June 22, 1937, in Brownsville, Texas, the son of an Army General father and a housewife mother. Raised in Brownsville and then San Mateo, California, he moved to Nashville in 1965, after getting his masters degree in English literature from Oxford University. Did you say Rhodes scholar? Yes. Asked if he thought Oxford degree helped him in his subsequent occupation as a songwriter of some depth and probity, he says “absolutely.”
“Any study of literature like that has got to help a creative writer, which is really what I was,” he says in a phone interview from his manager’s offices in Los Angeles. “And I think, in retrospect, the only thing that made it difficult was people’s expectations of what a worthwhile job is for a Rhodes scholar — they thought I was a little crazy.”
Asked who are “they,” Kristofferson admits he got more support from his father in his chosen occupation than he did from his mother, who looked down on country music.
Prior to Oxford he joined the Army in 1960 and was stationed in Germany. “I was actually already in the Army from the ROTC program,” he says, “so they deferred my active duty until I got out of Oxford. Growing up in an Army family, it wasn’t such a scary proposition. Everybody has to work their way through other people’s expectations and work things out on their own.
“When I got to Nashville, John Cash was already a hero of mine and had been for many years,” he says. “He was the guy who all the outlaw types liked. Willie [Nelson] hadn’t been discovered yet, but he was our hero in Texas. He wasn’t selling records like he is today.
“When I was in the Army, there was a DJ over there on Armed Forces radio in Germany who knew of Willie before the rest of the world. He was a fan of serious songwriters, so he was a hero for the guys who believed in the depth of music.”
Kristofferson, who has been touring solo for the last five years and regaling his audiences with funny anecdotes and songs, recalls his earliest awareness of country music and blues came about through the radio in Brownsville, Texas, situated so far south it’s practically a Mexican town.
“Down where I was, it was as much Mexican music as it was country music. Both of them were played on the radio and both of them influenced me,” he says. “I never thought I would be able to make a living at it myself, but from the first time I went to Nashville, I was totally in love with it and determined that that’s what I was going to be.”
After nearly five years trying to get his songs recorded by others in Nashville or tackle a record deal for himself, finally Johnny Cash brought him to Newport Folk Festival and insisted with those running the festival that Kristofferson get a shot on the main stage during his set.
‘Johnny Cash put me on as an unknown, and they didn’t want him to put me on, but he did anyway,” he says, “and from then on, I just started getting offers to play other folk festivals. That’s one of the great things about my life: Johnny Cash was a hero to me who became my friend. These other guys who were my heroes also became my friends: Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and others.”
Kristofferson says Nelson, who bases himself just west of Austin at his Pedernales Cut ‘n’ Putt Studios when he’s not on the road, is “kind of a genius, and he’s always been completely his own man. Merle, on the other hand, has got a voice kind of like Lefty Frizell or Jimmy Rogers, but Willie, he’s unlike anybody!” Nelson is currently on tour with Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel.
Asked if he was given any kernels of advice in the early years of his career from his two heroes, Nelson and Cash, Kristofferson says no. “Neither one of them ever gave me any advice but their example was, for me, a model to follow. The example from both of them for me was to be true to your calling and true to the music and true to yourself. And that, if you love it, there’s no way you’re losing, even if you’re not commercial. In those five years before I ever got to play for money, it was almost intoxicating how much I loved being around that creative process, being around other songwriters who I respected. So, I really learned from their examples.”
As for particular memories from folk festivals, Kristofferson easily recalls the Isle of Wight Festival in England. “My third gig ever was at the Isle of Wight. That was the last of the big folk things like Woodstock, and there were about a half a million people sitting out there, and none of them liked any of my music. But my band and I had just played at the Troubadour and the Bitter End in New York and everybody loved it. But over there, everybody hated it. I recently saw a video of it, and I’m standing on stage, telling the audience, ‘I’m going to do two more songs in spite of anything but rifle fire.’ They were burning the concession stands and tearing down the walls and I figured out right then and there, this music thing wasn’t for sissies. Really what they wanted was a free concert, so it was sort of a misdirected rage against all of us, because they didn’t like Jimi Hendrix much either.”
At McCarter on Friday night, Kristofferson says the audience can expect some old and some new songs and plenty of stories in between. He has gone on extended tours in the past with various bands, but recently he’s found more pleasure by performing solo. “For the last five or six years I’ve been playing by myself,” he says, “and I do stories and songs. It’s an interesting dynamic — being out there by yourself — and it’s working, so I’m going to keep doing it until it doesn’t work.”
Kris Kristofferson, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Friday, February 27, 8 p.m. Singer songwriter in acoustic performance. $35 to $45. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.