Kris Kristofferson's return to the stage at Newport Folk Festival last weekend was a landmark in the country music legend's career. It was there in 1969 that he made his debut as a guitarist for Johnny Cash, who had just discovered Kristofferson after hearing his demos.
Forty-seven years later, Kristofferson returned to play for the first time — and this time, he was backed up by a band from Dallas.
On Saturday afternoon, Kristofferson — who has been recently battling severe health issues in recent years — welcomed the Dallas-based collective the Texas Gentlemen to perform one of his most iconic songs together, "Me and Bobby McGee."
"It's incredible what he can do at his age, and I pray to god I look as cool as he does at 80 years old," says Texas Gentlemen member Beau Bedford, with a laugh. "I mean, shaking his hand, he's still got so much strength."
The Texas Gentlemen wound up playing the festival, most famous for being the location of Bob Dylan's divisive first electric performance in 1965, thanks to their relationship with Dallas' Belmont Hotel. Beaumont and band mate Jeffrey Saenz run a recording studio called Modern Electric Sound Studios, with whom the Belmont offers special rates to artists visiting town to record. Recently, the Belmont has also started a live residency with the Texas Gentlemen.
"Those guys gave me call, I want to say two weeks ago," Bedford says. The Belmont was a sponsor with Newport and a spot on the bill had opened up last minute. "We all started working on the back end to see who we could get to fill in on the guest spots. I really got to give a ton of credit to the Belmont guys, Jeff Burns and Jordan Ford; they were able to get us locked in on Kris Kristofferson, Terry Allen and Joe Ely."
Kristofferson was scheduled to play a one-song acoustic performance on Friday night, but spur of the moment he wound up playing a set that Beaumont estimates stretched to 19 songs.
"It was such an emotional set, too. We were playing with him the following day and for all of us to see that first set — you know, he was starting to cry as he was singing these poignant lyrics, and they've really started ringing home in his life," Bedford says. "It was the most powerful music set I've heard in my entire life."
The Texas Gentlemen, which started as the studio band for Modern Electric, make a habit of bringing guests up on stage to play with them at their shows. As such, Bedford says they've never rehearsed a song beforehand with any of their guests — and Kristofferson was no exception.
"Being a studio band, all of us are trained to be in the moment, to able to get that first take," he says. Re-imagining familiar songs in a new context is the whole point. "When we get up there with Kris Kristofferson, we're going to do whatever key he wants to do, whatever speed he happens to start at, and if he skips a bridge, we're skipping a bridge," he says."It's what we love to do most."
Bedford says that sharing the stage with the man who wrote "Sunday Morning Coming Down" was a true bucket list experience. "I'm hopeful we get to do it with him again, but it's probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play with somebody of his stature," he says.
The band also got a chance to ask Kristofferson about a famous story of how Cash discovered Kristofferson. Kristofferson, then flying for the ROTC, had landed a helicopter on the front lawn of Cash's home in Tennessee in order to hand deliver his demos. Cash immediately hired him to join his band, and threatened to drop off the bill at Newport, RI that year if the promoter wouldn't cut a half-hour out of his own set to allow Kristofferson to perform.
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"The only nuance that was completely different than any of the folklore stories we've heard was Kris told us nobody was home when he landed on Johnny Cash's front lawn," Bedford says. "He was like, 'The damnedest thing was he wasn't even home!'”
That was by no means the only highlight of the Newport weekend for the Texas Gentlemen, though, as they also performed the Flatlanders' classic song "Dallas" with Ely, one of the band's former members. "I listened to Joe's stuff on the trip out and was like, 'That would be kind of fun. Most of us are from Dallas and it's a great tune,'" Bedford says. "That was a morning-of decision where we were on the tour bus trying to make sure we had the guitar licks down."
The Texas Gentlemen wound up making a big impression with their all-star jam session, which Rolling Stone even lauded as "one of the weekend's most exciting sets." Chances are good it could help open doors to the band down the road, but Bedford is keeping his feet on the ground.
"I still feel like I'm coming down a bit and grasping the significance of [it]," he says. "I think we're going to have a ton of opportunities for festivals because of what we've done here. We're just having fun playing music, man."