KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: born June 22, 1936
Originally published June 22, 2015.
A good friend of mine has returned to central Ohio during the summer break from his university teaching job in London. As we were catching up over lunch, he mentioned that I had come up during a lecture about Shakespearean acting. In the lecture, he and another professor were talking about how critical it is for actors to have multiple passions – not just a passion just acting. They were asserting the idea that multiple influences and passions would access different parts of their brains and their emotional landscapes, and these experiences would become like arrows in a quiver, and allow the actors to access more emotions and experiences while on stage. My friend used me as an example of someone with multiple passions. As we shared lunch, he re-told the story, and described me with the most humbling and flattering examples: scholar, cartoonist, father, singer. He said, “They’re impressed with you in London.” But as flattered as I was, I felt like the examples – while technically true – were misleading. I’m a singer who doesn’t practice very often and gigs less than once a year. I’m a cartoonist who hasn’t drawn or published in years. I’m a scholar inasmuch as it feeds projects like this or my job or my own curiosity, but I certainly haven’t published much or produced anything of import in a long time. In reality, I have the potential to have a quiver filled with arrows, but I’ve failed to fill it over the years. In reality, I am an average husband, an average father, and a hard working-but-underappreciated employee. And that’s about it. Because as many talents as I may have, when it comes time to access and embrace them, I rarely do. I regularly have people ask me, “Have you drawn anything lately?” or “How’s the music stuff going?” and when I admit that little is happening, they give a slight nod of understanding and their faces twist into a position that says “that’s a shame”. And it is a shame. Not because it’s wasted talent; nothing in this world is more common than wasted talent. It’s a shame because people who regularly fill their quiver with the arrows of passion can often create works of staggering originality. One of the easiest examples is Kris Kristofferson, who went from janitor to country superstar at age 34. He was an overnight sensation. One that could not have occurred without a quiver filled with arrows, a Rhodes scholarship, a rugby career, a heavy willingness to slog through his own shame and addiction, and a rented helicopter landed in Johnny Cash’s back yard. As grateful as I was for my friend using me as an example, he should have used Kristofferson. Because unsurprisingly, Kristofferson eventually expanded his quiver to include acting – another passion in which he excelled.
Kris Kristofferson was an unlikely country superstar. Mostly because his albums didn’t fit with the country music of the day. Sure, the songs were structured like country songs and they followed the basic country chord structures. But at a time when country singers had a polished, “countrypolitan” sound with large arrangements and smooth vocals, Kristofferson’s arrangements were stripped down. And his voice was less “polish” and more “frog croak”. (At the time, The Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau gave the album a “Disappointing” rating due to “such a lack of raw charisma”.) More concerning for country audiences in 1970 was the sexuality of the album. Country had spent the late 1960s in reactionary mode: fighting against the rising tides of rebellion and sexual freedom and non-conformity. The sweeping changes in America had all but avoided the country music scene, which was firmly entrenched in “The Fighting Side of Me” and “Okie From Muskogee” and the pro-Vietnam veteran songs of Dave Dudley. Kristofferson’s debut album was an affront to that stolid world. He sang of sang up hitchhiking hippies (“Me and Bobby McGee”). He sang of alcoholism and hangovers (“Sunday Morning Coming Down”). Worse than that, he sang about sex. The word “body” appears over and over on that debut album, and the world of country music clutched its collective pearls at the regular proclamation that sex might fuel connection or provide redemption. Country music had sung of bad marriages and cheating hearts for decades, but the celebration of “body” was unheard of. Country music fans and the country music establishment couldn’t understand where this album was coming from. Nashville was littered with young conservative guitar-pickers who’d left home after high school and moved to Music City to make it as a singer/songwriter. It was almost impossible to find a liberal song in Nashville. So where was this coming from?