Words will never quite do justice in describing the type of man Kris Kristofferson is, or the breadth of the impact his career has had. But, today (June 22) on his 81st birthday, the least we can do is try to honor what Kristofferson has grown to stand for over the four scores of his life.
The truth is, it’s not enough to merely appreciate Kristofferson’s amazing musical successes — his three Grammy’s (and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award), his 18 records, his Songwriter of the Year awards, his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. It’s not even the fact that he accomplished all of that while also becoming a celebrated actor with over 50 releases and a Golden Globe for Best Actor to his name.
To truly honor Kristofferson, you have to recognize the heart, compassion and conviction with which he established his storied career.
Kristofferson is about as close to a modern-day Renaissance Man as you can get. Few people realize just how gifted he is beyond songwriting. He excelled at football, rugby, boxing, track and field, even appearing in an issue of Sports Illustrated. He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and studied at Oxford University, ultimately earning a master’s in English with aspirations of becoming a novelist.
Then, he followed in the footsteps of his father (and many other family members) and joined the military, quickly becoming an Army Ranger Captain and skilled helicopter pilot. Not surprisingly, his experiences in the military during the Vietnam War would later inspire him to become a fierce advocate for peace. When he left the military, it caused a rift in his family that never quite settled, but he continued on his own path.
After becoming a voice for peace, Kristofferson was an unlikely recipient for the Veteran of the Year award a few years back. His tear-filled acceptance speech, in which he reconciles his military service with his strong anti-war activism and his family, speaks volumes to Kristofferson’s passion and humility.
And yet, after a decorated military career, athletic success and a master’s degree from one of the world’s most distinguished university’s, Kristofferson followed his passion to Nashville, where to he took a job as a janitor at Columbia Recording Studios just to get closer to the world of country music.
A shining example of grit and determination, Kristofferson never let his pride get in the way of his promise. Even as he struggled with a sick child and poverty, which ultimately led to his first divorce.
Kristofferson, in the vein of a John Prine or Bob Dylan, always felt more like a poet or storyteller with a guitar than a simple singer-songwriter. The cadence of his soft-spoken voice often alternates between sing-song and narration, lending to his classic interpretation of his own songs often made famous by other artists.
He somehow made his tales of desperation, addiction and dealing with the devil feel as oddly comforting as his songs of love, peace and social justice.
It was Kristofferson’s deft pen and trustworthy heart that led him to be one fourth of The Highwaymen along with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson — all writers who had much more success as artists but looked to Kristofferson as a true visionary behind the lyric sheets.
And while Kristofferson first made a name for himself in acting playing ruthless roles like Billy The Kid, it’s no surprise that he soon fell comfortably into the soothing, wise elder statesman trope of film. Even when he was killing vampires as the wise elder statesman mentor in the Blade trilogy.
Sadly, in 2013 he began suffering from memory loss. But, never taking the obvious route, Kristofferson eventually revealed his memory had been affected not by the popular theories of Alzheimer’s or dementia, but Lyme disease — a much more treatable condition. As he recovers and his memories return, Kristofferson said the one thing he never forgets is his family or his song lyrics.
Athlete, scholar, Ranger, pilot, janitor, songwriter, artist, actor, father, husband, activist. Kristofferson is able to occupy so much space in the world and yet it feels like the world can never have enough of his talents. And the world is an unquestionably better place for having seen them.
Happy birthday, Kris. Here’s to many more.