At the age of 70, Kris Kristofferson has lived enough different lives to fill a full millennium. Best known these days for his film acting, the Texas native had already spent time as a Rhodes Scholar, a published author, a semi-professional boxer and an Army helicopter pilot by the time his songwriting garnered hits for Johnny Cash ("Sunday Morning Coming Down"), Sammi Smith ("Help Me Make it Through the Night") and Janis Joplin ("Me & Bobby McGee") in the early '70s.
A well-earned mythology sprouted up around the book-smart badass, who looked more at home with Hell's Angels than at the Grand Ole Opry. That mix of outlaw and poet has always powered Kristofferson's songs, helping to change notions of what country music could be. This Old Road, his first album of new material since 1995's A Moment of Forever is a sparse, acoustic affair brimming with gravitas and hard-won wisdom. He gave us a blow by blow description of his lifelong battle against complacency.
VH1: You first went to Nashville to pursue songwriting in 1965. Were the songs you wrote early on different from the ones you're known for?
Kristofferson: I was writing from my own experience from the beginning. The first song that I gave to a publisher [in Nashville] was a talking blues thing that I'd written from the point of view of a soldier who'd run into a gang of protesters [ed. "Vietnam Blues," recorded by Dave Dudley], and probably 180 degrees from my way of thinking today. But I was in the army when I wrote it. During the years I wasn't getting anything recorded, I was doing music all the time with songwriters who were at the same place I was -- trying to make it, trying to write songs that mattered, trying to earn respect for country music. Well, it took a while before we earned any respect for ourselves. But I know that back before I'd done my first album there were publishers who'd tell me that I couldn't say certain things and I'd go and say 'em anyway.
VH1: Which songwriters did you initially draw inspiration from?
VH1: Johnny Cash really boosted your career when he recorded "Sunday Morning Coming Down," and kind of introduced you to the world at large at the Newport Folk Festival in '69, right?
Kristofferson: You know, John was not the first guy to cut it. The first guy to cut it was Ray Stevens, and it was a wonderful version of it, but they didn't market it, because they didn't want Ray to do that kind of song. He was known for "Guitarzan" and "The Streak," novelty humor numbers. And it was really sad, because he turned down the opportunity to do the theme for Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." He turned it down because it would have slowed down the release of "Sunday Morning," which he thought was going to be a monster, and I've always felt guilty about it. But Johnny Cash was my inspiration and my hero and for him to do any song and then to make it the Song of the Year [in 1970], was a real kind of a turning point for me in the country music establishment.
VH1: In the late '60s and early '70s you were part of a gang of writers who instigated a major sea change in country songwriting and songwriting in general. What memories stick with you about that period?
Kristofferson: Most of the people that I hung with were people that would hang out at [Nashville publishing house] Combine Music, whether they wrote there or not: Mickey Newbury, Shel Silverstein, Tony Joe White, Billy Swan. It was a very exciting time in Nashville. All of us who were just getting recognized were being helped by the old guys. Mickey Newbury and I were like the mascots of that Johnny Cash TV show; that had a couple of acts a week coming in. Dylan was on it, the first time he'd been on TV I think. And people like James Taylor, people who weren't used to going to Nashville were coming to town and doing the show...Joni Mitchell...and John was telling all of them that Mickey and I were the best writers! [Laughs] So they were blowing our horn back wherever they went home to, and it just sort of took off from there.
VH1: How do you think the larger public's preconceived notions of country music changed at the time?
Kristofferson: Back in those days, people that weren't actually in country music had a tendency to look down on it. They called it sh*t-kicking music, hillbilly music. And I can remember when I was still in the army, reading the back of a Dylan album in which he was defending Hank Williams. He said something like, "don't try and tell me Hank Williams isn't as important as Norman Mailer." And I thought, "right on, here's a guy who's not a country artist, but who's respected by everybody, and who respects it." And then when he started recording in Nashville, I think it brought attention and respect to country music. I'm sure that his influence helped me, because I never worked in the traditional country venues. I was working in the places he'd worked -- The Bitter End, The Troubadour, The Gaslight, folk-rock places.
VH1: Rock and country began cross-pollinating more, and people like Janis doing "Me & Bobby McGee" made for a huge crossover. How did you feel when tons of artists in both rock and country started covering your songs?
Kristofferson: One of the blessings of being a songwriter is getting to see your work interpreted by so many artists that you really admire. You get to hear Ray Charles sing a song, or George Jones, or Jerry Lee Lewis, you know, guys who can really sing.
VH1: You've written so many songs over the years. Do you ever feel hampered by having to play "Bobby McGee," "Help Me Make it Through the Night," all the songs that were hits for other people?
Kristofferson: When I'm performing I've got a mix of all the songs that I've written, but I usually include the ones that were popular. They were all written from the heart and they all make sense together. I like to feel like the show makes sense as it evolves from the beginning to the end, and it involves working [old songs] into different places with the new songs that makes sense. I change it all the time, but it's a slow change.
VH1: It's been a long time between This Old Road and your last album of new songs. Has your writing process changed over the years?
Kristofferson: It's just slower. It always starts out with just me and the guitar, and what would end up being the tag line. You get the central idea of the song, and work it out. I don't write as much as I used to but I'm writing all the time, [and] I have a lot more that we haven't put out yet. Don [Was, producer] wanted me to cut them the way I've been performing for the last couple of years, just with a guitar and a harmonica. I was just afraid it would sound too much like a demo. I'd just been reviewing a bunch of old demos from back in '69-'70 that somebody wants to put out, and that was just me and the guitar. But Don convinced me to do it. And it's been interesting -- it put some kind of a new focus on the songs. I didn't know how it would work on a record, but I've been surprised and pleased by the reaction. I think that maybe people are ready to listen to it now because of stuff that Johnny Cash did [with his '90s acoustic recordings].
VH1: The new songs feel like they're coming from a less restless, more satisfied place. Do you think that's true?
Kristofferson: I don't think they're coming from a different place, but I think maybe the place is different. It's always been my reaction to whatever was going on around me, for as long as I've been recording. For a while I was putting out an album a year, and each one of them is kind of like a photograph album of what went down that year. And this is kind of looking over a longer stand, because you get more reflective as you get older. You're at this end of the race and looking around you at a lot of the guys who were running with you and have fallen. You know, close friends and heroes. It leads you to be reflective, I think. On Dylan's last album, I really thought it was great that he was writing down what it's like to experience being at this end of your life. I was pleased to see that he was bothering to put it down for us.