September 13, 2014, for the fourth time since 1977, I saw Kris Kristofferson in concert. Truly a man who needs no introduction, he walked on stage with his guitar over his shoulder, smiled at the thunderous applause reverberating through the Ryman Auditorium and began singing Shipwrecked in the Eighties. The song, from the 1986 album Repossessed, may not have been as familiar to the audience as Help Me Make it Through the Night, which he performed later, but Kristofferson doesn’t need to play the hits to be a hit on stage. With no band, this man and his guitar delivered the well-known and obscure products of his pen throughout the two set show.
He sang up all the songs
The number of songs Kristofferson was able to get in during the concert astounded me. But he sang each one all the way through, digging deep into his catalogue with songs from his first album up to present day material. I was especially happy to hear Duvalier’s Dream, To Beat the Devil and Casey’s Last Ride from his first album and Feeling Mortal, the title song of his 2013 release. He sang Me and Bobby McGee early in the first set, bringing down the house with the line, “Feeling good was good enough for me,” inserting “and Janis,” at just the right moment. For the Good Times, Sunday Morning Coming Down, and Jody and the Kid all brought great crowd response, but then so did everything else.
In light of recent personal events, I heard Loving Her was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again) in a way I never had before. It brought me to tears and reminded me that the meaning of a song you’ve heard one way for years can change as life unfolds.
From an 8-track in a driveway to the Ryman in ‘14
Kris Kristofferson was one of the reasons I started writing songs. My first memory of hearing his music is from my high school days in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Around our junior year, my friend Phil Howell said, “I have something you need to hear.” We sat in his Ford parked in his driveway and listened to Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee album on the eight-track player. I remember that we listened to every song and how impressed I was that Kristofferson had written them all and how deep they were. So before long, I was buying Kristofferson records and learning the songs, including The Pilgrim: Chapter 33, from his second album, The Silver Tongued Devil. It’s a gritty, flawlessly written chronicle of, “a poet and a picker and a problem when he’s stoned.” I look back now and wonder how I must have appeared, a clean cut, short-haired middle-class kid who had never been without anything, singing about someone so down on his luck. I couldn’t help but go back to that eight-track moment in my mind as I watched the seventy-eight year old balladeer weave his magic at the former home of the Grand Ole Opry.
The first three
During the time I was in college at the University of Mississippi, I spent many days and nights in Memphis. My grade point average reflected that, as my parents pointed out when they got my grade reports from Ole Miss. One such moment occurred during the 1977 summer semester when Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge appeared at the Mid-South Coliseum. Some friends of mine and I bought tickets and drove up to see the show. Kristofferson was still enjoying the success of the movie A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand, and his then-wife Rita Coolidge’s recent hit records included Higher and Higher and The Way You Do the Things You Do. She did the first set, he, with full band, did the second set and they did several songs together to close the show. That was my first time to see this songwriting inspiration and he did not disappoint.
By 2000, I had lived in Nashville thirteen years and was plying my trade as a singer/songwriter and bandleader. A benefit for the W.O. Smith School of Music was scheduled for the Ryman Auditorium featuring Willie Nelson. As part of the show, Kristofferson, Willie and another legendary songwriter, Billy Joe Shaver, did about thirty minutes together. It was a magic moment.
In 2006, my wife Gail and I went to see Kristofferson’s solo concert at the Ryman. As was the most recent performance, it was completely acoustic and mesmerizing. We bought the Hatch Show Print commemorating it and, just last year, had it framed along with two others as presents for ourselves on our twentieth anniversary. Those posters are still proudly displayed on the wall above the living room sofa.
I believe performers should perform as long as they feel like it and can draw a crowd. It was gratifying to see Kristofferson in such good form, gravelly voice a little “gravelly-er,” perhaps, but his spirit soared and he held the audience in the palm of his hand. It was obvious why he’s a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and why no matter how sad or serious the subject matter of his songs may be, we will remember him for the good times.
Text and photos copyright 2014 by Les Kerr