On his tombstone, Kris Kristofferson has requested the first three lines of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire” to be engraved: Like a bird on a wire/Like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried in my way to be free.
The words speak to the free-spirited nature of the singer-songwriter. As a hillbilly poet, few can match his intelligence, his eloquence and his ability to capture a mood and a moment with each verse. He has created a legend as a songwriter, but also gained fame and acclaim as a singer, actor and musician.
Born in Brownsville, Texas, Kristofferson’s parents were Mary Ann and Lars Henry Kristofferson, a U.S. Air Force major general. During his childhood, his father pushed his Kristofferson toward a military career, and he would join the U.S. Army (and later rise to the status of captain) in the early 1960s. Throughout his younger years, Kristofferson’s family moved frequently, but eventually settled down in California. Kristofferson enrolled in Pomona College in 1954, and graduated in 1958 with a degree in Literature. During his time at Pomona, the future songwriter was originally known as much for his sporting conquests as his academic endeavors. He was nationally noted for his achievements in collegiate rugby, football and track and field.
Kristofferson earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, and it was there that he started writing songs, eventually earning a Master’s degree in 1960. He followed in his father’s footsteps, joining the U.S. Army and eventually receiving an offer to serve as an English literature instructor at West Point. But after sending a few songs to his cousin, Nashville songwriter-publisher Marijohn Wilkin, he was vigilant in his dream to make it as a successful songwriter. His masterful pen exposed the turbulent, troubled times of the 1960s, connecting with an audience that sought the same comforts of freedom and peace of mind that Kristofferson espoused in his songs.
He was hired as a janitor at Columbia Records in the late 1960s soon after arriving in Nashville. There, he struck up a friendship with Johnny Cash, who gave him the advice and encouragement to support his songwriting skills. After months of pitching songs to the Nashville’s elite, it was Cash himself who jumpstarted Kristofferson’s career with his release of “Sunday Morning Coming Down”. Other releases by artists such as Faron Young and Jerry Lee Lewis marked Kristofferson’s arrival as a rising songwriter in Nashville.
The singular achievement in his career came in 1971, when three of his compositions were nominated for Best Country Song at the Grammys. “For the Good Times” by Ray Price and Johnny Cash’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” succumbed to Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night”, a song that also won the 1971 CMA Single of the Year honors. The previous year, Price’s masterpiece won the ACM award for Song of the Year, while the Cash classic earned the CMA prize. Kristofferson’s acceptance speech at the CMA Awards is infamous due to the shy, almost painfully ineloquent way that he appeared on stage.
Other hits in this prolific time were the wistful “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)” and the desolate “To Beat the Devil”. The impact of these honest songs, often about heartache and hardships, was resounded due to the fact that they failed to shy away from real-life emotion. However, following these great triumphs came a great tragedy. Although he recorded his own rendition of the self-penned “Me and Bobby McGee”, it was immortalized by good friend Janis Joplin. Unfortunately, Joplin died of a drug overdose in 1970, months before her version became a big hit. During this time, Kristofferson expanded his horizons through his new projects as both a recording artist and an actor.
Kristofferson released his second album, The Silver Tongued Devil and I , in 1971 and helped him to establish his identity as a recording artist. In 1972, he also scored his first musical hit with “Why Me”. His recordings with then-wife Rita Coolidge won the pair two Grammy awards. In 1973, “From the Bottle to the Bottom” was named best country vocal performance by a duo or group, and “Love Please” earned the same honor in 1975.
Kristofferson both wrote the soundtrack for, and appeared, in The Last Movie in 1971, as well as starring opposite Gene Hackman in Cisco Pike the following year. Another movie success occurred in 1974 with his role in Martin Scorcese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Kristofferson secured a breakthrough hit with his Golden Globe-winning role opposite Barbra Streisand, in 1976’s A Star is Born, and he was nominated for an Academy Award (Best Original Score) for the movie Songwriter in 1984.
But after a few years of scattered success in the world of film, he returned to his country music roots. In the mid-80s, he joined Cash, Nelson and Waylon Jennings to form the Highwaymen. The supergroup’s single, a cover of Webb Pierce’s “Highwayman,” won the prize for the ACM’s Single of the Year in 1985.
Kristofferson was named to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977, followed that with a Songwriters Hall of Fame induction in 1985, and in 2004, he earned a spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Although he has put an indelible stamp on a number of entertainment endeavors, it is his songwriting that continues to be his calling card, and his poetic, passionate lyrics still mark country music with the bottomless depth and inexistinguishable truth that few songwriters can provide.
The Kris Kristofferson Songbook
- “Come Sundown” – Bobby Bare
- “For the Good Times” – Ray Price
- “Help Me Make it Through the Night” – Sammi Smith
- “I Won’t Mention it Again” – Ray Price
- “I’d Rather Be Sorry” – Ray Price
- “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)” – Kris Kristofferson; Tompall & The Glaser Brothers
- “Me and Bobby McGee” – Janis Joplin; Roger Miller
- “Nobody Wins” – Brenda Lee
- “One Day at a Time” – Cristy Lane; Marilyn Sellars
- “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” – Bobby Bare; Willie Nelson
- “Sunday Morning Coming Down” – Johnny Cash
- “The Taker” – Waylon Jennings
- “Why Me” – Kris Kristofferson
- “Your Time’s Comin’” – Faron Young