By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
If nothing else, Kristoffer-son thinks his brand-new record The Austin Sessions, containing a dozen of his best-known songs as performed by the man himself and a handful of crack guest stars (among them Vince Gill, Jackson Browne, Steve Earle, Alison Krauss, and Mark Knopfler), will change that. Maybe people will buy the record or come out and see him perform during his mini-tour in support of the release and discover the man behind the footnotes. He wouldn't mind that happening. After all, once he's gone, these will be his contributions -- the children he fathered 30 years ago, only to watch them grow up and move out on their own.
"There seems to be a lot of interest in the music again," Kristofferson says, with not a little gratitude in his voice. "For a while, they weren't connected to me somehow. People are coming up to me going, 'Jeez, I didn't know you wrote 'Me and Bobby McGee' or 'Help Me Make It Through the Night,' and there's no reason they should know that. It's interesting to see the respect that the songs are getting now. My only problem is, I have a hell of a time selecting what I am going to do in the show, which is three times as long as the album. And all the songs sound good to me, ya know?" He laughs. "I think there are some pretty good ones out there.
"It's just interesting to see different songs from different periods, and there are really some good ones I had forgotten about. It's so much like your children. That's why it's so difficult for me to decide which 25 songs to do during the show, because there are maybe 100 out there I'm real close to. And as they live on the road with ya there for 30 years, they become their own people. They pick up little different flavors from what you learned and from other people who sing 'em. By the time they're as old as these songs are, they carry a lot of weight."
The Austin Sessions began as something of a sequel to Jimmy Webb's 1996 release Ten Easy Pieces, which featured the man who wrote such songs as "Wichita Lineman" and "MacArthur Park" performing his best-known tunes for the first time on a single disc. Producer Fred Mollin wanted to do something similar with Kristofferson, if only so the man could reclaim a little lost glory after so many years spent without a label to call his own. When Guardian Records folded, Mollin took The Austin Sessions to Atlantic Records. It marks the first time since 1990 that Kristofferson has been associated with a major label -- and even then, it has been nearly 20 years since the music business has given him much of a thought.
Four years ago, Kristofferson released what ranked among the finest albums of his career, A Moment of Forever, produced by Don Was. But the Houston-based Justice Records promoted it as though Kristofferson owed the label money; copies have been spotted in cutout bins, marked down for pennies on the dollar. Kristofferson was so disappointed and so burned out that he withdrew from the business, refusing to tour since 1996.
"I think I got tired of beating my head against the wall," he says of his retirement. "For many years, I was working without the support of a record company and losing money, and that gets depressing. And then you're going to places where they don't even know you're comin', and that gets depressing. Then I put out a record that was probably the best record I ever made, A Moment of Forever. I thought it was great, and Billboard said it was transcendent, and nothing happened with it. So I thought, 'Shit, if I gave it my best shot and nothing happens, then maybe I'm doin' something wrong.' This record sort of pulled me back into it, the fact Fred Mollin wanted my signature songs, which sounds egotistical, I guess, but the goddamned things lived, and they're still valid today, 30 years after the fact."
Kristofferson likes to talk about how his style of songwriting has never changed, how all he's ever done is try to write from deep within the most vulnerable spot. He talks of how a songwriter should be honest, painfully so; he even says he's been too revelatory at moments, refusing to point out those songs because he is, frankly, too embarrassed.
He was 11 years old when he wrote his first song, something titled "I Hate Your Ugly Face." It was, he recounts, about a guy who had not a single regret about dumping his girlfriend. Of course, Kristofferson back then had never been in a relationship, had never been in love. Years later, he would write "For the Good Times," a toast to parted love. Only a man who has seen so much and been so much could have written words so honest, so visceral that you would swear on a good (or really bad) day that you wrote those songs.
"I think so far what I've had to contribute has been a certain way to look at things, at emotions," Kristofferson says of his work. "And I think in general my work has been human and made people respond to the things I like to respond to. That's the way my brain responds to my experience. It works it out in lines when it's working the best. It doesn't always work it out like that, but it works it out in lines that make sense. It makes more sense than you think it would. But I do think you can wear your heart on your sleeve, and mistakes I've made in that direction have usually been when I was under the influence of something that made me more confident of my surroundings than I deserved.