BRADENTON, Fla. - Kris Kristofferson still talks about The Letter.
Early in his Nashville days, before the hits started coming for one of America’s most accomplished songwriters, Kristofferson received a stern epistle from his mother. It was cleanly typed, single-spaced, and to the point. She was admonishing her son, no less than a Rhodes scholar, for scrapping a promising military career to write songs in Music City. Somewhere in the body of the letter was a reference to Johnny Cash that was not the least bit flattering.
“My mother was telling me I had been excommunicated,” Kristofferson recalled recently in a phone conversation from his home in Hawaii, his voice still as gravelly as a highway shoulder.
Kristofferson had come to Nashville in 1965 after resigning his commission in the Army, where he flew helicopters. He found work as a janitor at Columbia Records and was known at the time by few beyond a circle of songwriters that included Cowboy Jack Clement, who howled that day in his office when Kristofferson read the letter to him. Clement, always in the middle of a good joke, made sure the letter found its way into Cash’s hands.
“I was in the old studio at Columbia one day,” Kristofferson said, “and there was Johnny Cash, coming up to me. And he said, `Always nice to get a letter from home, isn’t it, Kris?’”
A legendary hell-raiser who always seemed to wind up the main character in his songs about drinking, heartache and wreckless living, Kristofferson can look back now and smile. Lyrics to the contrary, the bottle didn’t leave him at the bottom. Sunday morning has come and gone, and look who’s still standing.
How long has it been since Kristofferson had a beer for breakfast? “Hah,” he replied. “I don’t know. Long enough that I can’t remember when.”
Kristofferson, who will turn 71 in June, is more than a leather-skinned survivor. He is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and an actor with more film credits than Paul Newman. He is married, with eight children and “a bunch” of grandchildren. And while today he places great value on the time he has with his family, he is not ready to surrender his life as a poet and grizzled troubador. Far from it.
It may seem both ironic and prophetic, or perhaps neither, that Kristofferson will be on the same stage with Rosanne Cash, daughter of his old buddy and fellow Highwayman, during the Florida leg of his tour. The artists will perform separately, both on the heels of critically acclaimed 2006 albums that reminded those who weren’t paying attention: These two can still bring it.
Cash’s Grammy-nominated “Black Cadillac” found her exploring death on profoundly personal terms (she lost her father, mother and stepmother within a two-year period), while Kristofferson’s “This Old Road” was fueled by introspection and layered with rich lyrics about life coming full circle.
Kristofferson’s ambitious tour, which began Feb. 16 in California, includes six dates in Florida, one stop in Atlanta and then 24 shows in Europe, concluding April 3 in the Faroe Islands of Scotland.
In Kristofferson lore, it’s not always easy to separate fact from fantasy. Like one of his favorite songs, “The Pilgrim,” Kristofferson’s career may have seemed “a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.”
One thing is indisputable: Johnny Cash did more than take Kristofferson under his wing. In 1969, he literally cast him onto the stage and into mainstream American music culture at the Newport Folk Festival, where Kristofferson made a rousing impression performing “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
Talk about a double-barreled debut.
Roger Miller had taken “Bobby McGee” to No. 12 on the country charts earlier that year, but the show at Newport changed everything for Kristofferson, immediately and forever.
“That was it,” recalled Kristofferson. “Was I scared? Absolutely. One of the people in Johnny’s TV show was there, and she made sure that I couldn’t have any whiskey. I’d have probably gotten really drunk because I was scared to death.” The following year Cash turned “Sunday Morning” into a No. 1 hit, and a year later “Bobby McGee” was a posthumous No. 1 for Janis Joplin. Kristofferson, the former copter pilot, was the hottest songwriter going.
To think that it all started to click with The Letter.
“I’m amazed I had the audacity to go to Nashville and, you know, just stick around long enough to make it,” Kristofferson said.
Mellowed by age and life’s peculiar experiences, Kristofferson sounds genuinely happy to still be working at the career he was willing to turn his life upside down for: writing songs, recording - “This Old Road” was his first studio effort in 11 years - and touring.
“I feel really blessed to be where I am at this end of the race,” Kristofferson said. “You start looking, and, well, I’ve been at this 30, almost 40 years. I hope I can keep making work that I believe in.”
The world’s troubles are well chronicled in “This Old Road,” but, as Kristofferson sings, “heroes happen when you need `em.” Poets need to be there, too, he believes.
“I feel (songwriting’s) as important as it’s been at any time that I’ve been on this planet,” Kristofferson said, “because there’s so much bad information that goes out. If you can move people’s hearts in the right direction, you know, you’ve got to at least try to do it.”
Kristofferson, who is touring without a band, admits he has a bit of anxiety performing with only a guitar and a mouth harp. “When you’re by yourself you haven’t got a band to hide behind. I’m not the greatest guitar player in the world, but this puts a focus on the songs that’s really working.”
Then he added: “If they don’t like me, they can like Rosanne.”
And to that, Johnny Cash would no doubt sing “Amen.”