Contemporary Musicians Pay Tribute to Kris Kristofferson
In 1965, after leaving his position as a literature professor at West Point, Kris Kristofferson moved down South to become a professional songwriter. Success didn’t come easily, however. “I turned 30 as a janitor,” he once told an interviewer, describing his first job in Nashville. But when Johnny Cash cut a version of his song “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, Kristofferson’s situation improved significantly. The single quickly rose to the top of Billboard’s C&W chart, winning the Country Music Association’s 1970 Song of the Year award.
Suddenly on the hot sheet, the songwriter was offered a contract with Monument Records and over the next two years he released three hit-filled albums: Kris Kristofferson, The Silver Tongued Devil and I, and Jesus was a Capricorn. His commercial appeal also aroused Hollywood’s interest. In 1971, for instance, Dennis Hopper hired him to appear in and write music for The Last Movie. A year later, Sam Peckinpah cast Kristofferson to play the lead in his western Pat Garrett And Billy the Kid. And by 1974, because of his performance in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the ex-janitor had become a movie star. The demands placed on him by acting, however, led the musician from the studio and his subsequent output has been erratic, a trend that has hurt both his reputation and his sales.
In 1999, though, Kristofferson rerecorded some of his early, classic songs and released them as The Austin Sessions. With contributions from Jackson Browne, Vince Gill and Alison Krauss, the album reminded critics and musicians, if not the general public, that Kristofferson’s music still matters. Seizing on this renewed interest, a journalist named Nick Tangborn decided to organize a musical project to commemorate the aging performer’s legacy. After two years of “searching for the perfect artist and the perfect song” he found enough material to fill an album. The result is Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down: A Tribute to Kris Kristofferson .
Like The Austin Sessions, many of the tracks that appear here were originally recorded when the songwriter was young and hungry. But their melodies and their ideas easily accept and absorb the contemporary treatments they receive. Oranger’s “Casey’s Last Ride”, for instance, blends surf guitar licks, sitar riffs and shimmering keyboards to create the same sort of swirling sound Indian-pop bands like Kula Shaker and Cornershop popularized in the ‘90s. Similarly, the electronic band Polara takes “Just the Other Side of Nowhere” and turns it into dance music, surrounding Ed Ackerson’s soothing vocals with pulsing beats, synths and samples.
Many of the songs, however, adhere fairly closely to their sources. Tom Heyman’s jazz-stoked cover of “Sugar Man”, for example, still snaps back and forth on the same acoustic guitar part Kristofferson built into the original. Likewise Paul Burch’s “The Pilgrim (Chapter 33)” retains the earlier version’s rock ‘n’ roll swagger. Chuck Prophet’s “Loving her was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)”, despite the presence of synthesizers and Stephanie Finch’s “siren vocals”, sounds just as simple and fragile and clean as its model.
The most successful tracks on the album, perhaps, are the ones that sound darkest. John Doe’s version of “Me and Bobby McGee”, for example, resembles a dirge. On it, the front man for X allows his voice to float above the thick, melancholy rhythms of Sean Coleman’s guitar and the drip-drop beats of Dave Kostiner’s drums. Keeping the pace slow and the arrangement simple, Doe creates an intensely stark sound. Freed from the manic hysteria Janis Joplin packed into it, and the earnestness that characterizes Kristofferson’s version, the song acquires a frightening aspect. As Doe describes the lover he allowed to “slip away” and says, “I’ll trade all my tomorrows / For a single yesterday” and “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”, he makes the phrases so sorrowful, so hopeless and so literal, they resonate like sentences in a suicide note.
Tom Verlaine’s treatment of “The Hawk”, which Kristofferson wrote for his 1986 album Repossessed, also sounds alarmingly sad. Following an introductory line of whispery guitar notes, the singer’s wobbly voice creeps in and warns, “The dreams that possess you / Can blossom and bless you / Or run you insane.” Verlaine enriches the song with constantly evolving harmonies. Then, about halfway through, a drumbeat enters and the main melody pushes itself into the foreground. The song finishes with a huge, throbbing succession of chords and the lines “Will you remember / Way down the road / Somebody loves you / More than you know?” The singer, however, sounds as lonely as the person he’s trying to reassure and help.
Remaking masterpieces always entails risk. Handled poorly, the effort can embarrass the composer and annoy his or her followers. More often than not, though, the songs collected on Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down reveal an understanding of and reverence for the traits that made the songs so strong in the first place. Because of this, the album succeeds as both a tribute and a work of art.