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The Great Story Behind ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’

Wikimedia Commons, Hulton Archvive

On Oct. 10, 1970, Johnny Cash took the Kris Kristofferson-penned song “Sunday Morning Coming Down” to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles Charts. Cash’s recording of the song forever solidified it as one of the great entries in the American songbook. The tale of how it caught Cash‘s attention is also one of country music’s greatest stories.

In 1969, the now legendary songwriter Kris Kristofferson was sweeping the floors at Columbia Records’ offices in Nashville.

Anyone who knew Kristofferson’s background may have scoffed at his new role. He was an Oxford graduate, a Rhodes Scholar, a former Captain in the Army and a helicopter pilot. Despite his impressive resume, Kristofferson wanted nothing more than to be a songwriter, and he did anything to make that happen.

His janitor gig at Columbia was one step closer to achieving that goal. He watched Bob Dylan record Blonde on Blonde, but never mustered the courage to say hello. He did, however, meet another one of his idols: Johnny Cash.

Kristofferson would watch Cash in the hallways and through the glass windows when he was recording. They met a few times in passing, but Cash only knew him as the man pushing the broom. At this point, Kristofferson was already a prolific songwriter. He was desperate to give Cash tapes of his songs, but knew that he’d get fired if his employers caught him. So he tried a different angle.

He befriended Johnny’s wife, June Carter. June liked Kristofferson, and would often sneak demo tapes of his songs in her purse to bring home to Johnny. At night, she’d play the tapes for him in their bedroom above Old Hickory Lake in Tennessee. Every night Cash would listen, and chuck them out the bedroom window into the lake below.

At the time, Kristofferson was living on a shoestring budget in a rundown Nashville apartment. His parents were furious that he had chosen this path and eventually they disowned him, never to repair their ties.

You can imagine how lonely he must have felt at this point. He would walk the streets of Nashville, young and broke, pondering life and observing the world around him. What was he doing with his life? Where was it all going? How did he fit into this place he was trying so desperately to be a part of? Those questions and experiences became the seeds of “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”

He knew he had many great songs, “Sunday Morning” being just one of them. Persistence —  on the part of both Kristofferson and June — and a little bit of bravado proved to be the key to getting Cash to hear them.

Kristofferson continued to give June his demo tapes. One night, June played a mix tape of his songs while they sat in their bedroom like many nights before.

“The lights were being turned out and I was just listening to all the songs of the night in my mind and June kept the tape recorder running,” Cash once wrote. “When the last song was over, we went into bed. ‘”‘Sunday Morning Coming Down” is a good song,’ I said.”

For all Kristofferson knew, Cash was never going to listen to it, so he resorted to a more drastic delivery method.

At the time, Kristofferson was also working part time as a helicopter pilot for the Army Reserve. On a routine flight training mission, Kristofferson veered off his course and headed for Cash’s home on Old Hickory Lake. After landing the chopper on Cash’s lawn, he walked up to the home with the demo of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” in hand.

What happened next varies, depending on who you ask.

Cash said he heard the chopper land and walked out to find Kristofferson walking up to him.

“As I approached, out stepped Kris Kristofferson, with a beer in one hand and a tape in the other,” Cash said. “I stopped, dumbfounded. He grabbed my hand, put the tape in it, grinned and got back into the helicopter and was gone, a bit wobbly, but almost straight up, then out high above the lake where all his songs lay on the bottom. He disappeared through the clouds. I looked at the tape of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Me And Bobby McGee”.

Kristofferson has a different version of the story.

“Y’know, John had a very creative imagination,” Kristofferson told UnCut. “I’ve never flown with a beer in my life. Believe me, you need two hands to fly those things.”

Kristofferson also said he doesn’t even think Cash was even home that day, adding he was lucky Johnny didn’t shoot him on the spot.

READ MORE: Watch Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings Perform “Folsom Prison Blues”

Whatever actually happened, the stunt was enough to get Cash’s attention. The following Thursday, Cash taped his weekly television program. “Here’s a song written by Kris Kristofferson,” Johnny told a national television audience. “Don’t forget that name.”

Soon after, the Man in Black invited Kristofferson to perform with him onstage at the Newport Folk Festival later that year.

As you know, Kristofferson went on to become one of the world’s greatest songwriters. He and Cash became close friends, even performing together for years in the supergroup The Highwaymen.

The rest is history.

“Sunday Morning Coming Down” Lyrics

Well I woke up Sunday mornin’, with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad, so I had one more, for dessert
Then I fumbled through my closet, for my clothes and found my cleanest dirty shirt
And I shaved my face and combed my hair and, stumbled down the stairs to meet the day

I’d smoked my brain the night before on, cigarettes and songs that I’d been pickin’
But I lit my first and watched a small kid cussin’ at a can, that he was kickin’
Then I crossed the empty street and caught the Sunday smell of someone fryin’ chicken
And it took me back to somethin’, that I’d lost somehow somewhere along the way

On the Sunday morning sidewalks, wishin’ Lord, that I was stoned
‘Cause there’s something in a Sunday, makes a body feel alone
And there’s nothin’ short of dyin’, half as lonesome as the sound
On the sleepin’ city side walks, Sunday mornin’ comin’ down

In the park I saw a daddy, with a laughing little girl who he was swingin’
And I stopped beside a Sunday school and listened to the song that they were singin’
Then I headed back for home and somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringin’
And it echoed through the canyons like the disappearing dreams of yesterday

On the Sunday morning sidewalks, wishin’ Lord, that I was stoned
‘Cause there’s something in a Sunday, makes a body feel alone
And there’s nothin’ short of dyin’, half as lonesome as the sound
On the sleepin’ city side walks, Sunday mornin’ comin’ down

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The Great Story Behind ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’