No retrospective about Kris Kristofferson can begin without mentioning the incredible amount of different lives he has seemed to have lived.
He’s been a Golden Gloves boxer.
A captain and Ranger in the Army.
A Golden Globe award-winning actor.
A Rhodes scholar, professor, commercial helicopter pilot, college football player, drunk and Grammy-award winner. That’s not to mention the host of other gigs that kept him going, like sweeping floors for a living.
It was sweeping floors that led Kristofferson to meet Johnny Cash in the halls of Columbia Records. Kristofferson badgered Cash with tapes of demos and Cash would pocket them, only to arrive home and toss them into Old Hickory Lake. But Kristofferson wasn’t taking no for an answer from Cash. In 1969, the then-janitor got into a helicopter he was flying as a second job and took off for Cash’s house. He landed on the front lawn and handed Cash a demo, basically forcing Cash to listen to him.
That demo? “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
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Cash cut the song and it became a No. 1 single and CMA Song of the Year in 1970. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the only Song of the Year Award a Kristofferson track would win in 1970. “For the Good Times,” recorded by Ray Price, would win the ACM Song of the Year award and three out of the five nominations for the best country song Grammy were penned by Kristofferson.
It was a good year.
It has been over 45 years since one of Kris Kristofferson’s song first reached No. 1 and the man who seemed to have lived several lifetimes even before that has reinvented himself several times since. But his heart was always in music and songwriting, and he never stopped.
“Sunday Morning Coming Down” was recorded at a crucial moment in country music history, when artists were fed up with the formulaic Nashville sound and ready for a break from tradition. They had seen what their rock and folk counterparts had accomplished in the 1960s and demanded more from their own genre. “Sunday Morning Coming Down” charted the course for what would become the Outlaw Country movement.
But by no means was “Sunday Morning Coming Down” Kristofferson’s only hit song. “Me and Bobby McGee” was a hit for many artists, most notably Roger Miller and Janis Joplin, with whom Kristofferson shared a tumultuous relationship. Rolling Stone has ranked it as the 148th best song of all time. “Help Me Make It Through the Night” was a number one hit for both Willie Nelson and Sammi Smith. “Why Me” sat at number one for 16 weeks, Kristofferson’s lone hit both written and performed by himself.
By the time the 1980s rolled around, over 450 artists had recorded Kristofferson songs. By now, the number is immeasurable. The list is a veritable who’s who of musical legends, unbound by genre or era. Of course all the Outlaws recorded Kristofferson, but other names are more surprising: Elvis Presley, Gladys Knight, the Grateful Dead, Barbara Streisand, Jerry Lee Lewis and Frank Sinatra to name a few.
Kristofferson also took to acting in the 70s and 80s. Like his songwriting cohort, Shel Silverstein, Kristofferson wasn’t content to confine himself to songwriting.
In 1985, Kristofferson was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2004 he made it into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Among his numerous awards he has won the Songwriters Hall of Fame Johnny Mercer Award (2006) and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2014).
But he isn’t looking backwards.
Kristofferson hasn’t slowed down much since the 70s. His 2009 release Closer to the Bone has been hailed as one of the best of his career. Meanwhile, he is currently on tour, promoting his most recent release Feeling Mortal.
The legend and influence of Kris Kristofferson reaches far beyond country music. Kristofferson changed musical culture with the Outlaws and penned some of the greatest songs in history, songs that will live forever, that you can sing around a campfire, even if you’re not sure who wrote them. This is the man who Willie Nelson called “the best songwriter I know.”
This is Kris Kristofferson.