Kris Kristofferson :: The AD Interview

Last week Aquarium Drunkard cut a session with Kris Kristofferson at a studio in Los Angeles — we also had the opportunity to interview the troubadour/actor/activist. Below, Kristofferson speaks to his new LP, Nicaragua, old friends, and what exactly did happen with that National Guard helicopter on Johnny Cash’s lawn.

Aquarium Drunkard: Why the album name Closer to the Bone? And why the change from Starlight & Stone?

Kris Kristofferson: One felt righter than the other, at the time. “Closer to the Bone” seemed like it fit the mood for the whole album.

AD: What is “closer to the bone” for you?

Kris Kristofferson: For me, it’s down to the bare essentials. If we’re talking about the songs, they’re stripped down to where I was just playing it with the guitar. Now, we’ve got Stephen Bruton playing. And this is Stephen’s last album [recording completed before his May 2009 death]. Stephen and Jimmy Keltner [drums], Don [Was, who also produced] playing bass, and Rami Jaffee [keyboards], he did some stuff that was so tasty, like on “From Here to Forever.”

AD: Why the more intimate setting now, both on this record and on [2006’s] This Old Road?

Kris Kristofferson: Those were both Don’s ideas, and it seemed logical to me because, for the last five or six years, I’ve been performing that way, you know, without a band. Just played the guitar and harmonica. And something about it is working. I was really surprised at the reaction to both albums. The first one, This Old Road, we did it in about an hour and a half. And he [Don Was] was trying out this new kind of recording where they have you surrounded by microphones. I don’t know what they call it, but there was 360 degrees of reception. And I’m just standing there with a guitar and playing. And I figured it would   just be a demo for a later session. But whatever’s been workin’ on the road now–on the stage, you know–seems to be workin’ on the last two albums. I’m still kinda stunned by the reception; people just seem to like it, you know. And I’m more critical of myself, I guess. Maybe more than I ought to be.

AD: So you thought …

Kris Kristofferson: … I thought maybe I would have to record them again, but it’s workin’.

AD: You’ve obviously had a strong career–songwriting, film, across the gamut, and collaborations with the Highwaymen and The Winning Hand–but your solo recording career hasn’t had as much commercial success after you first came on the scene in the late ’60s, early ’70s.

Kris Kristofferson: Way back in the day, I was selling records up till, oh about ’80, I guess. Then I started selling fewer. But I’ve always been amazed than anybody buys any of them. It’s been a long ride. And if I ever thought that people would be treating me like an icon at the end of the road, I would think we were dreaming. I don’t know, it seems like the reviews are better now and the audience reaction. I used to get people who’d get pretty mad at some of the things I would be saying, mad about “What the hell were you doing in Nicaragua?” and places like that.

AD: What were you doing in Nicaragua?

Kris Kristofferson: Our government was trying to overthrow theirs. And it was really depressing because they [the Sandinista National Liberation Front] had finally overthrown the Somoza dictatorship that the United States had backed for years. And the people had a revolution and threw him out. And we [the U.S.] started training what they call the contras down in Fort Benning, and sending them off to blow up schools and hospitals and roads and health facilities. It didn’t seem like a righteous thing for our country to be doing to another.

And those kind of things, back what I was doing in the ’80s, a lot of people were mad about it because they didn’t agree with me. And I’ve had audiences where 300 hundred of ’em wanted their money back [laughs]. And it doesn’t happen that way anymore. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because more people have been exposed to the same news that I was, and have changed their minds. Or maybe they’re just more tolerant of the old guy up there. They aren’t as rough on me as they used to be.

AD: Actually, that’s something I wanted to ask you. Everyone is aware of the Kristofferson mythos–Rhodes scholar, Army Ranger, janitor, pilot–to the point where, now, it does almost dominate the conversation about you, even sometimes before the work at hand. How do you feel about that?

Kris Kristofferson: The fact that anything is bringing any attention to any of my work is something I’m grateful for–that anybody gives a damn. And I’ll probably piss people off again some time, but they’ve been more respectful or more tolerant as I get older.

AD: You have some credentials to back it up, too.

Kris Kristofferson: [regarding activism] And I was right, of course [laughs]. I hope that they are gonna lighten up and appreciate Barack Obama, and let him work without being criticized from behind, from the other side, so badly.

AD: It’s tough these days to do anything without being criticized from behind.

Kris Kristofferson: Yeah, well, it just seems stupid. I was pleased to see more votes for Obama than I thought he was going to have. And that meant he had a larger base of people who think like he does. And most of them are younger, so that’s all encouraging to me.

AD: Back to the record for a bit, does Closer to the Bone relate at all to To The Bone, from 1981?

Kris Kristofferson: Basically, it means the same kind of thing: getting down to the truth. I was hoping it didn’t sound too much like To The Bone because that was probably one of the lowest points of my life. I was recovering from a marriage that had fallen apart [with Rita Coolidge]. And I was a bachelor father with no experience at raising a kid by myself.

AD: Do you think that at the time, you thought that [experience] cut to the bone, but maybe reflection of a life lived cuts closer to the bone than the actual experience?

Kris Kristofferson: That’s sounds as good as any reason I can think of [laughs].

AD: You’ve said before that you would only write something if you had something to say. After an 11-year hiatus before This Old Road, now you’ve had two records relatively close together. Now, in 2009, a career four decades long, what is that you have to say?

Kris Kristofferson: I’ve always used the songs to explain whatever I was experiencing or explain whatever the world was. But I hope that I’ve got something to say, till they throw dirt on me. I hope that I’ll start writing a little more now. But I also have an autobiography that I’m supposed to start working on, and I better do it while I can still remember my name.

AD: So, this maybe ties into your autobiography–can you explain a little bit about “Good Morning John” [album track about Johnny Cash]?

Kris Kristofferson: Good Morning John” was one of the few songs I’ve ever written on request. June Carter had–John had just completed the last rehab he was ever in, and she had a little get-together for him, and she asked me if I’d write a song for him. And I don’t know whether it embarrassed him more or embarrassed me more. But I had never written on command or by any kind of schedule. I pretty much wait till it hits me. But in this case, I felt obliged to do it because I thought so much of both of them. I don’t know if it stands up as a song on its own, but it’s sincere. And it reminds me of John.

AD: Is that why it was important to include it?

Kris Kristofferson: I don’t know why it was. There are more and more of those faces up on Mt. Rushmore that are leaving us. John was such an important part of my life that I thought it was worth putting in there. I remember I was going to record it back when I wrote it. And some of the Highwaymen were there. Willie [Nelson] was, and he was singing as my backup guy. So, I would sing “Good morning, John,” and they’d sing [singing], “Good morning, John” … you know, echo it. And I got to the line where it says, “I love you, John,” and Willie goes [singing] “He loves you, John.” I started laughing so hard, I couldn’t finish the song. But he just couldn’t quite bring himself to say, “I love you, John.”

AD: How does that feel at this stage in your career? Obviously, it’s been a few years since he passed, and Waylon, as well.

KK: The Highwaymen?

AD: Well, not just the Highwaymen, but close friends of yours and contemporaries and people who have shaped music culture, as you have …

Kris Kristofferson: One of the things that still amazes me is how, through my life, I’ve gotten to be friends, close friends, with a lot of my heroes. Guys like John and Waylon and Roger Miller and Willie Nelson and Muhammad Ali. People who I really respect, I’ve gotten close to. And that’s really been one of the blessings of my life that it’s turned out that way. You know, I know Bob Dylan.

Our heroes and our friends … it’s good.

AD: You wouldn’t have met all of these people had you not left a life you’d already started forming for yourself. How difficult was that, being in a military family, being in the military yourself, having a young family, how difficult was that, embarking on a songwriting career?

Kris Kristofferson: It wasn’t as difficult as it sounds like it would’ve been because it was a totally different way of life. But I was so in love with the whole creative process, and the people like Cowboy Jack Clement and all of these guys who would spend days at a time hanging out and just exchanging songs, you know. It was such a creative experience for me; it never seemed as hard on me as it was, I’m sure, on my family and friends who thought I’d gone straight to the devil. Thought I’d lost my mind and gone to Nashville to be a country writer.

Kris Kristofferson: But it was a point in my life, I made a decision to follow my own instincts and my heart, and it changed my life. And it made it what it is now. I feel very blessed to have been able to do what I love to do for a living, and to have such a close family, which is hard when you’re working on the road and performing all the time. God, I got eight kids and as many grandkids, and they all love each other, so I feel very lucky.

AD: Do you think some personally tumultuous times in your early life and early career, how have they shaped your life from a career perspective, but also personally? You mentioned your family…

Kris Kristofferson: My family now–I’m as close to my family as I ever was. To think, if I had thought that I was going to be as successful, I would have thought I was doing drugs … or insane. Because I couldn’t have ever dreamed all of the awards and all of the songs that people have identified with. It feels like it’s been a successful journey.

AD: Looking back at that journey, what’s your proudest moment?

Kris Kristofferson: There have been so many. I remember the first time I heard John doing “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” I was pretty proud. Just so many things. I feel like I was a very lucky person. And I would advise anybody who ever asked me, “If you had one rule”: Follow your heart if it’s at all possible. And even if it looks like you’re failing–you’ve been a janitor for two years or something, you know–if you really love it, that’s what you should be doing.

AD: Do you think the world is more or less receptive to that mentality these days? Do you thinks it’s easier or harder to follow your heart?

Kris Kristofferson: [Laughs] I don’t know, it’s been so long. That was 50 years ago. I hope that it’s as easy as it was for me. I was really lucky, though. I had so many different lives going on, and opportunities like the Rhodes scholarship … it all seems kind of magical now. Like it happened to somebody else.

AD: So, I have to ask: Did you really land a helicopter in John Cash’s yard?

Kris Kristofferson: [Laughs] Yes! I did! But the difference in the way it’s usually perceived, I already knew John by then. I’d been his janitor at Columbia for a couple years. And I had given him every song I ever wrote. He hadn’t ever recorded anything, but he was always encouraging about them. He [said later] he threw them all in the lake. That was one of the last things I ever heard him say–’cause he lived right on the lake there. But I had known him for a couple years before I landed that helicopter there. It was a National Guard helicopter–I had to fly four hours a month to get paid. I was in the National Guard just for a couple of months. I had flown thousands of hours in the military, when I was in the army. So, I didn’t have any trouble flying. But I probably would’ve gotten in a lot of trouble if I had been caught landing on … it was practically on his roof. Because the grass went out over the top of the house before he built the second story to it. But thing was, John wasn’t even there. He had a very creative memory. He told how I got out of the helicopter with a beer in one hand and a tape in the other. And I said, “John, you’ve got to have both hands and both feet when you’re flying a helicopter.” And I swear to God, I’ve probably answered that question in every interview I’ve ever done.

AD: I’m not shocked, but this the first time I’ve ever interviewed you and it’ll probably be the last, so I have to ask. It’s sort of the requisite Kris Kristofferson question.

Kris Kristofferson: That’s the truth, and I did land it there. But it wasn’t the song that he thought it was.

AD: Which song was it?

Kris Kristofferson: It was a song nobody ever cut. It was called “It No Longer Matters.

AD: Think you’ll put that on the next record?

Kris Kristofferson: [Laughs] I don’t think so. But maybe we’ll do a bonus track. words/ j crosby

Related: Sevens :: Kris Kristofferson: Sunday Morning Coming Down

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35 thoughts on “Kris Kristofferson :: The AD Interview

  1. I love Kris Kristofferson and his songs.
    He is such a great songwriter and a rightous dude.
    The only singer/songwriter/performer that tops Kris on my list is
    My dream is to sit down someday in Charley’s restaurant in Hanna, Hawaii and buy Willie, Kris, and Leon Russell dinner.
    Leon is third on my list and Rita Coolidge is fourth.
    I have been a big fan since 1972 when I heard all four of these GREATS.
    Now that I am retired, I get to travel to hear their concerts.

  2. He was also the coolest Billy The Kid of a ll time in Peckinpah’s beautiful movie (although a bit chubby and old for the part). I wish he would have contributed with Dylan on the Soundtrack (one of my favorite of Bob’s records)

  3. Thank God he is going to write his autobiography, I have been waiting for many years for this. His music has touched me like no other since 1971. I hope I am still around when he writes the book.

  4. I first saw Kris and Rita in 1974 and I was hooked. I also saw him in concert in Kingston,NY and he sang a heartbreaking song about El Salvador. I happened to be with a friend who was from there and I remember her sitting in her seat with tears streaming down her face. I begged her to tell him what she felt but she was too embarrassed. He’s an absolute poet and a genius.

  5. My mama used to spin KK vinyls as I was a kid… I grew up listening to him, knowing the words to all of his songs. I got to see the Highwaymen back in ’93, I believe… I freaking love those guys, together and on their own, and am so jealous you got this interview. Way to go!

  6. I just got his new album for my birthday.
    I had the pleasure of meeting him at his hotel after a show one time, I was staying at the same one.
    I actually helped him carry his bags out to his tour bus. It was one of the best nights of my life.

  7. I have been listening to Kris for years on vinyls, and could sing every word. As scratched as they are they have his character with each scratch,silver tongued devil he is.On his album ME AND BOBBY McGEE Johnny Cash has a poem, look it up its as great as HE. KK, I LOVE YOU MAN! Maybe I,ll meet you someday hell your the first one i have written to or about. Great album keepem coming. DavidS

  8. The man is larger then life … Saw him a couple of times, he brought everyone to tears.
    For me as a singer/ songwriter he’s a huge influence and without a doubt one of the greatest around .
    I just hope there will be another european tour in store .

  9. I hoped I could get my thoughts to you When you performed at Charleston, SC but couldn’t quite get through the crowd. I’m glad I wrote down what I wanted to say: After being in physical pain for 50 years, my doctors often talk about getting to the “other side of the pain.” Pain is pain, I always thought, until one day I lay down with your music near my ear. As I listened to the words I started singing along in my mind. The longer I related to the words, the more the pain moved aside. I became angry when the music stopped and I became aware of the pain creeping back. What a joy to realize that I have found the way to the other side of my pain. Please realize that your music is more than a CD to some of us. We feel it so strongly and I thank you for helping me get to the other side of the pain. I hope someday to get close enough to thank you in person. I am very selfish and want the music to continue.

  10. Been a fan forever {seems like } got every album on my i-pod and got the chance to see Kris last year in Canada greatest show I’ve ever seen was worth the 8 hours of driving would love to meet the man

  11. I saw most of the big rock groups of the ’70s and ’80s in concert. Kris did a show at the Tampa Theater in the early ’80s – probably 1981 – that was the most memorable of all of them. Unlike some groups, he wasn’t fixated on his latest work, he sang all the hits and then some. A great performance. Thanks for the memories Kris.

  12. Kris, from your early days, to Star is Born, to now –You have been in my life! All your albums, all your movies, and I even was blessed one night to met you outside after one of you concerts in Costa Mesa, CA, years ago.

    I have 5 grandkids, who always tease me about you! The oldest will be going to your
    next concert with me in Sept ’10.

    Thank you Kris for being YOU!

  13. I first saw Kris and Rita at the Universal Ampitheater in about 1974. I was given the tickets by a friend who could not go. What a fortunate moment for me. I have seen Kris at least 3 times since and will see him again at the Cerritos Center on Sept. 25, 2010. This man is a genius. The best ever poet in modern history. He combines his poetry with social causes and what an advocate he is. He does not get the radio play he should. This man is, in my opinion and without a doubt, the best of the best of songwriters. And Kris, I love your voice.

  14. Kris is a bad actor and singer, as well as the worst Billy the Kid ever (far too old for the part and couldn’t act worth a damn). I’m so glad that megaflop Heaven’s Gate ended his career as a leading man.

  15. Its a rare talent to combine first rate song writing abilities with musicianship and singing. Kris has always down so – which is why he is still relavant today. Thanks for the interview.

  16. I don’t know why Kris Kristofferson has such a draw, but he truly does. I can’t wait to read his autobiography. I have listened to “Closer to the Bone” over and over and over. It is honest and true.

  17. I’ve been a fan for many years. I also got to see Kris in concert many years ago with
    Rita. I have a picture that a neighbor did for me, from the album cover “Border Lord”.
    It is quite something to see. It got me through a very tough period in my life.
    Thankyou for you’re beautiful words. Don’t ever stop sharing them. We don’t
    always realize the impact words can have on peoples lives. You’re voice is unique
    and no one can ever deliver a song of yours like you do.

  18. grew up listening to his music and watching him act and enjoyed every minute of his work. The last time I had seen Kris was at the Pittsburgh Arts festival last year and it was just him and his harmonica and the crowd loved him. It was his personality that connected with the crowd and it was quite a crowd. All I can say is that me and my wife have always loved the music and the man. thanks Kris! Please get back to Pittsburgh soon!

  19. Had the pleasure of seeing KK live for the first time a couple of weeks ago in North Georgia. I have seen many concerts in my 47 years, including Elvis and most of the big name bands in the 80s and early 90s and KK put on the best show I have been to. Performed for 2 1/2 hours and the emotion he brought to the audience was unbelievable. There was a connection made between the audience and Kris that I have never felt before with other entertainers.
    He is truly one of the best songwriters that has ever lived.
    Thank you KK !

  20. I’ve always liked K,K for many years. There was a time when I had the chance to go to meet him in San Mateo with a friend of his that went to high school with K. At the time I wasn’t in any condition to meet anyone if you know what I mean. But really think about what I missed out on many times in my life. Now I’ve got tickets to go and see thim at 3 stages in Folsom Ca. in Oct. Can’t wait to see him. I know I will enjoy the show. I know his good friend Bucky, so I get a lot of news on him throughout his career. Jack

  21. Just love Kris. Know him from the 70″s. Lots of memories of times then. I remember Rita and understand how everything changes. Would love to say “hello.” Love the new music. AND Love the old tunes and especially the “Willie” ones.

  22. Labor Day Weekend, 1976, Asbury Park, NJ…Kris, Rita & the band played the Casino on the Boardwalk. This was shortly before A Star Is Born was released & Kris was still a cult hero. The Casino was a dank & dusty hole in the wall at the end of the happening world in a town torn up & burned by racial tensions. The audience was die-hard fans. After the initial set, which elicited thundering applause at the first cords of each song, Kris came out on stage & said something to the effect that he had thought his career was over playing this venue & here was the audience going nuts! In his humble way he told us we cheered him up immensely! We all just yelled louder & clapped harder! I went home hoarse that night with sore hands. We all know what happened after the movie came out. I’ve been lucky enough to see him in other concerts too, but hey, Kris, I’ll always remember Asbury Park! It was a magical night!

  23. Kris is and has been for 50 years the most exciting, talented and outspoken artist out there. Have always loved him, his music and his acting. Haven’t seen him perform live for years but am going to see him at Kent Stage in Ohio in July and cannot wait!! He never disappoints

  24. I’ve been a fan for longer than I want to own up to. His talent as a songwriter, musician, performer, and actor is legendary. I respect Kris for his courage to stand up for what he believes in even when his beliefs are not “popular” or “politically correct” with the conservative right-wingers. I can’t remember how many times I have seen him perform, but I’ve enjoyed them all. Looking forward to seeing him in Chattanooga in August…and btw…it’s June 22 here…so, Happy Birthday, Kris!

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