The Essential Kris Kristofferson
Pros: two lengthy discs of very enjoyable music
Cons: “Why Me, Lord?” irritates me
When I look at the name Kris Kristofferson, it seems like the pretty name of a celebrity. Maybe his real name is Christopher, but the rest is made up, you know? Yet I haven’t read of his changing his name. It’s his movie roles that drew my attention because usually I listen to classic rock, blues, and pop.
I never bought a real country album until my purchase of 2004’s The Essential Kris Kristofferson. I really didn’t know what to expect. I couldn’t remember hearing the early Kristofferson (first album 1970), especially when he was covered by 500 artists from Elvis to Dylan, and his famous, Grammy-winning gospel song, probably heard on a televised Billy Graham crusade, was a vague memory.
This two-disc set comes with an interesting booklet sporting an essay that explains how the well-educated, working man Kristofferson brought something unique to country music, a greater sensibility and sensitivity to the art of songwriting that broadened his audience. His inclusion in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame is what piqued my interest when I read his biography in the extras. I’m having a kick listening to the discs. My delighted adopted grandmother said Kristofferson sounds just like Hank Williams with a drawl in his voice and his storytelling lyrics. He sure doesn’t sound like his gruff voice of today.
I‘d say he‘s a non-nasally Willie Nelson, a more hip Johnny Cash, a subdued Waylon Jennings.(who sang the Dukes of Hazard song). Those three, also called the Highwaymen with Kris, are featured in a song, Nelson one other and another by Rita Coolidge (his wife at time). I wish another duet with her had been included, especially since they won awards for a couple songs at least.
Kristofferson grew up in Texas, graduated high and with high honors in California, then got an English degree in Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. Instead of going to Vietnam he was stationed in West Germany as an army pilot.. As the essayist points out, Kristofferson’s music career didn’t take off as it could have if he had made music videos rather than movies like A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand.
I recognized only a few of the thirty-seven songs, namely “Me and Bobby McGee” covered by Janis Joplin, “For the Good Times” covered by Ray Price and “Help Me Make It Through The Night” covered by back-up singer Sammi Smith. Speaking of back-up singers, Coolidge, Gary Busey and Larry Gatlin were a few. Quite a few wonderful instruments were used throughout The Essential Kris Kristofferson besides the usual, managing to highlight his always-intriguing voice for a country music treat. His voice really is unpredictable, as well, never content to be pretty and smooth like an American Idol singer, but more like American Raw. Oh yeah. He’s singing about his life, putting himself right out there for us, singing philosophically about a failed relationship, in admiration of others, about the grittiness of the American West or after a hangover. Johnny Cash is credited before a song with helping him beat the devil.
Nearly all these songs were written by Kristofferson early in his career, a few co-written by him. If I have any new favorites I’d say “Loving Her Is The Easiest Thing I’ll Ever Do Again,” “Sunday Morning Come Down” (covered by Cash), “Just The Other Side of Nowhere,” and “If You Don’t Like Hank Williams,” but I’ve been enjoying them all. It’s surprising to me, but this is country music you just won’t hear produced today. I feel like I’m in some friendly saloon having a good time with friends and not in an impersonal stadium among strangers.
Both discs are each a little over an hour and are presented crisply. I hope you’ll check out The Essential Kris Kristofferson.
“Just once more with feelin’, honey, and let’s call it a day.”