There are, at least, four various-artists tribute albums to Kris Kristofferson, all released in the last 11 years. Why him? His air of rebellion and hard-living appeals to musicians, including various sets of country artists who think of themselves as more progressive than the rest. He’s a famous figure representing the time/idea of “outlaw country” who seems less-celebrated than his contemporaries, than Willie or Waylon, probably because as a performer he was less of a superstar.
Perhaps most importantly, he was known as a songwriter before he was known as a singer, and frankly, he’s a better songwriter than singer. He’s written classics that were first performed as, and are best known as, other people’s songs, and has been well-covered by his musician friends over the year. The template for other singers successfully singing Kristofferson songs has been cemented in our brains, through Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee”, Ray Price’s “For the Good Times”, Willie Nelson’s successful 1979 album Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson.
Kristofferson has built up a body of songs that aren’t all tied solely to his singing voice. Yet together they tell one big story of hard-luck, not necessarily kind people, fighting to survive. Those two points seem like big factors in making musicians want to band together in tribute to him. At the same time, since none of these tribute albums were big commercial successes or big news stories, it’s possible these were all going on without awareness of the others. They might all just represent one idea that found its right time to emerge in the last decade. Kristofferson is old enough, our perspective on the world has grown dark/damaged enough or, as musicians have collectively made it through their list of legends to pay tribute to, they’ve come upon his name at the same time.
Four albums have similar formulas to their title, with a Kristofferson song reference placed in front of a descriptor of the compilation itself. The four, in order of release, are Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down: A Tribute to Kris Kristofferson (Jackpine Social Club, 2002), Nothing Left to Lose: A Tribute to Kris Kristofferson (Incidental, 2002), The Pilgrim: A Celebration of Kris Kristofferson (Thirty Tigers, 2006) and The Rising Cost of Livin’ High and Lovin’ Hard: A Tribute to Kris Kristofferson (PIAPTK, 2013). They pull from different musical sets and cliques, but they’re not all that different from one another.
It’s notable that there hasn’t been an all-star tribute by popular country stars that I’m aware of (Tim McGraw naming a song after Kristofferson doesn’t quite count; neither do Jamey Johnson’s on-stage covers of him). Even given the drug references in the lyrics and his public persona as a leftist, country music as an industry usually has their way of finding one story they can tell of their legends, fully true or not, and presenting it. That they haven’t done so with Kristofferson says either that they don’t think of him as a legend in the same way, or that he’s burned enough bridges to be considered too much of a rebel/outsider, even while he’s made a living acting in Hollywood films, including being the voice of cuddly cartoon characters in movies like Snow Buddies and The Land Before Time VI: The Secret of Saurus Rock. Still, I’d be interested to see what they would do with him.
Generally speaking, the musicians collected on these four albums tend towards alt-country, or towards pop and rock musicians with a dose of country/Americana in their sound. No doubt this says something about the types of musicians drawn to his work – or, more precisely, the types of musicians who feel like they share something in common with his work. In other words, if you think of yourself as taking an irreverent or unique approach to the template of a country song – or even just a songwriter who appreciates such an approach – you’re more likely to be drawn to the idea of covering a Kristofferson song.
The tributes themselves, though, can get awfully reverent and serious in tone, which is an unfortunate aspect of many (most?) tribute albums. In paying tribute, it’s easy to scrape away your own willingness to mess around, for the sake of showing how much you respect the original works. The end result can be too purposely faithful to the originals, so enamored with them that you can’t think them anew.
The newest of the four, The Rising Cost of Livin’ High and Lovin’ Hard, contains the most exceptions to that. It’s the wildest, most reckless album, perhaps because its musicians are the least famous, the most used to little DIY statements that the larger music-buying population will never hear about. Its variety may also stem from its length – two LPs give plenty of time to explore Kristofferson’s catalogue beyond the best-known songs. In the process they highlight sides of his music that the others don’t, while also letting the participating musicians make more mistakes. It appeals to my taste for ragged music, while giving a wider view of Kristofferson’s songwriting than many of his own individual albums.
The songs capture the surreal/absurd side of Kristofferson (see Golden Boots’ “Best of All Possible Worlds”, An Experiment’s “The Golden Idol”); the hungover/damaged beauty (“Assateague’s “Josie”, Simon Joyner’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night”); the lowdown-dirty/pessimistic love affairs (RFK Heise’s “Stranger”, R. Stevie Moore’s “Getting By, High and Strange”); a warped/hyperspeed version of the blues (Ohioan’s “Year 2000 + 7&5”) and a minimalist paring-down of “traditional” country to its lonesome-est parts (Southerly’s “Same Old Song”, Great Lakes’ “Nobody Wins”). The covers find sadness and crazy where they might not be evident (Black Swans’ haunting “Moment of Forever”) and pair macho sentiments with brittle/un-macho voices (Little Wings’ “I May Smoke Too Much”). All in all, they let the songs be malleable, which helps pulls out ideas and sentiments from the originals instead of taking them at face value.
In contrast, Nothing Left to Lose seems to take Kristofferson’s songs as telling one story, musically. Gentle and serene, in a persistently bittersweet way, the album is a picture of a late-night or early-morning bleak loveliness. The songs can get awfully lovely (Rebecca Gates and Calexico’s “Nobody Wins”) and awfully lonely (Granfaloon Bus’ “Kiss the World Goodbye”), and are always hovering somewhere in that area. But as a whole they’re also quite serious in tone and careful, even cautious, in their approach. They hold together with one melancholy voice that is alluring but not always revealing.
Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down has a crisp modern-ness to it that speaks of its time. In tone it has a lot of similarities to Nothing Left to Lose, but with a more varied cast of characters which makes it not quite as consistent as an album. There’s sort of a spacey echo to it all which tends to standardize the approach, though there are still some striking moments of sweetness (Kelly Hogan’s “Why Me”) and sad beauty (Hannah Marcus and Mark Kozelek’s “Lights of Magdala”).
The Pilgrim is the closest one to a big-star tribute, with Emmylou Harris starting the tributes and Willie Nelson closing them, before Kristofferson himself shows up for a song. In between, along with a lot of country-folk sophisticates (Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell) you have some unexpected guests like Brian McKnight and Russell Crowe. The album’s secondary title has the word “celebration” in it, and it’s a key one – for much of the album the participants seem so taken with the original that they’re scared to do all that much with it.
Recklessness and irreverence towards “legends” can actually help boost our respect for them by making us see them as human, and therefore as complex. That might be especially true when the legends themselves are supposed to embody those same qualities. Country music, and music period, might be served well by us thinking of classics songs as material we can twist, turn, goad and even stab. If you can do that and something interesting remains, or even thrives with vitality, that’s saying something. In the name of tradition and legacy, country – perhaps even more so than other genres – can be too easily stifled by the desire for control over their own story.
What’s lost is that there’s a difference between dissecting a song, artist or a genre and insulting one; that searching and asking is more important than telling and proclaiming. It seems like Kristofferson and his characters – with their habit of stumbling through the shadows, taking wrong directions with good intentions — might understand that difference well.