It’s easy to remember single pieces of Kris Kristofferson’s career: his role in the Highwaymen, his work as a grizzled character actor, “Me and Bobby McGee”, the album cover of A Star is Born that’s seared into our collective memory. But when you start putting the pieces together, the results are startling, painting a portrait of a modern-day Renaissance man. Kristofferson’s had a successful film career and a wildly successful songwriting career, but the road he took to get there—Rhodes Scholar, short story writer, janitor, soldier, helicopter pilot, English teacher at West Point—sounds like it gathered enough experience, wild oats, and heartbreak to fill five life stories. Hidden by the public idea, the persona, of Kris Kristofferson is a man of formidable intelligence and talent.
That’s no surprise to anyone who knows he wrote songs like “Me & Bobby McGee”, “Help Me Make It Through the Night”, or “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”—but how many people know he’s responsible for those ‘70s country standards? Like many a Nashville songwriter, he’s best represented by the success of those who interpreted his songs, but Kristofferson had his own recording career that was for a time quite successful. Still, he’s had more than 100 songs covered by more than 500 artists, so it’s a good bet that songwriting royalties did their fair share to keep his helicopter in the air.
Nothing Left to Lose pays tribute to Kristofferson in fairly impressive fashion, with Incidental Music throwing down a gauntlet in the liner notes. This album, they contend, is not so much for the existing Kristofferson fan as it is for those who have no idea who the hell he is, who might say, “The old dude from Blade made music?” To that end, they’ve assembled a strong collection of artists who exist on the more accessible fringes of this whole Americana/alt-country stylistic shindig that’s doing so well these days.
The “bigger” names—Calexico, Richard Buckner, Handsome Family—are tailormade for Kristofferson’s songs and hand in the expected gems (although to be honest, Calexico and Buckner both seemed to find a touch more spark on Real: The Tom T. Hall Project). Handsome Family’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” finds the right mix of plaintive, plainspoken poetry and hungover shuffle. Calexico’s take on “Casey’s Last Ride” turns poignant and Leonard Cohen-like with the introduction of French-accented female vocals. Buckner’s “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)” maintains the feel of his recent Impasse album, only a bit warmer and fuller.
Surprises come from the lesser known acts. Souled American drapes “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” in plinking toy piano and lethargic chords. Califone shifts hard from dirge to bizarro-world border cacophony and back again on “Border Lord” (although it’s unclear what the shifts accomplish), and join with Rebecca Gates for a luscious, slinky version of “Nobody Wins”. Virgil Shaw takes “Just the Other Side of Nowhere” to the verge of Jimmy Buffett territory (and it works), while Crooked Jades go for an all-out violin-driven hoedown approach on “Shipwrecked in the Eighties”.
All in all, most of the artists here seemed compelled to go in one of two directions: depressing and rustic, or heavy with club beats. Overall, each approach works with only a few cuts in either camp turning out undistinguished, and it’s fascinating to see Kristofferson’s songs bent into such unlikely shapes. Probably the only failure on Nothing Left to Lose is Zmrzlina’s and Milk Chopper’s “Me & Bobby McGee”. To be fair, covering this song is a thankless task to start with. It’s already well-known in several renditions, not the least of which is Janis Joplin’s. The version here is overcooked with electronic beats and a meandering pace, and only reminds you of what an utterly fantastic job Joplin did with the song (essentially making it hers and hers alone). The strongest, and least utilized approach on the album seems to be singing the songs from a straightforward singer-songwriter perspective. Diana Darby’s “Jesus Was a Capricorn” and Howe Gelb’s “The Pilgrim (Chapter 33)” rightly place the emphasis on incredible lyrics, letting a natural beauty fill the songs’ empty spaces.
Whatever the approach, though, the artists on Nothing Left to Lose do their jobs—they showcase Kristofferson’s impressive songwriting abilities. Sure, in some cases there’s no substitute for the original, but Nothing Left to Lose shows that Kristofferson’s songs could work in any genre, and shouldn’t be dismissed just because they represent a supposedly uncool niche of country music. Folks like Kris Kristofferson wrote good songs, and it feels good to be reminded of that fact.