Various Artists: Nothing Left to Lose: A Tribute to Kris Kristofferson

Andrew Gilstrap

Various Artists

Nothing Left to Lose: a Tribute to Kris Kristofferson

Label: Incidental Music
US Release Date: 2002-10-22
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.





'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.