Full name Kristoffer Kristofferson; born June 22, 1936, in Brownsville, Tex.; son of U.S. Air Force major general; married Fran Beir, 1960 (divorced); married Rita Coolidge (a singer), August 19, 1973 (divorced, 1979); married Lisa Meyers (an attorney), February 18, 1983; children: (first marriage) Tracy, Kris; (second marriage) Casey; (third marriage) two. Education: Pomona College, B.A., 1958; attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, 1959. Addresses: 3179 Sumacridge Dr., Malibu, Calif. 90265.
Kris Kristofferson's success in movies and on television tends to obscure his considerable accomplishments as a songwriter and vocal performer. In fact, the lanky Texas native established his career by writing and singing country music; his mournful lyrics and deceptively simple melodies helped to define the "progressive" Nashville sound in the late 1960s. Esquire contributor Tom Burke notes that Kristofferson is "one of the most respected, and his work among the most often performed, of contemporary songwriters. He is highly paid not only for the writing of songs but for the singing of them." In Best of the Music Makers, George T. Simon calls Kristofferson "a balladeer of the dispossessed, the troubadour of losing and losers," who has brought "a gentle intensity to his portraits of frustration, defeat, and lost romance."
Kristofferson emerged in Nashville at the time when performers such as Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson were beginning to challenge the clean-cut, all-American image expected of country performers. It is no surprise that the scruffy, hard-living Kristofferson forged close friendships with these stars and has since performed with them on stage and on television. Indeed, Kristofferson's songs--many of them celebrations of drifting in the wrong direction--have established him as one of country music's "outlaws." TV Guide correspondent Neil Hickey finds the artist a leading member of "a new breed of Nashville songwriters who [are] more literary, more poetic, less insular in their approaches."
Kristofferson's "outlaw" image is a product of his adult years. As a young man he was every American family's model son: a Golden Gloves boxer who earned Phi Beta Kappa grades in college, winner of a prestigious Atlantic Monthly collegiate short-story contest, and recipient of the coveted Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. The son of a career major general in the U.S. Air Force, Kristofferson seemed to be destined for the same sort of conservative success. The golden youth had one Achilles heel, however. He was passionately fond of country music, especially Hank Williams, and he liked to sing folk songs and accompany himself on guitar. While studying literature at Oxford he managed to sing and tour as Kris Carson, even appearing on British television.
Never particularly fond of academic life, Kristofferson eventually became disillusioned with Oxford. In 1960 he returned to the United States and joined the army. For a time it appeared that he might follow in his father's footsteps, as he moved through ranger school, parachute-jump school, and pilot training, eventually becoming an able helicopter pilot. When his first tour of duty ended he reenlisted for another three years and was sent to Germany. There a friend persuaded him to send a few songs to a Nashville agent. In 1965 Kristofferson was on the verge of accepting a teaching position at West Point when he decided to move to Nashville instead. Against the wishes of his parents and his wife, he embarked for the South with little to sustain him but a handful of songs he had written.
The following four years became "a struggle just to stay alive and write," according to Paul Hemphill in a New York Times Magazine feature. Kristofferson's struggle was the classic sort--he tended bar and even worked as the night janitor at a Columbia Records studio in order to make ends meet while he peddled his songs to the reigning country stars. Eventually two performers responded to Kristofferson's talent and persistence--Johnny Cash and Roger Miller. Miller was the first to record a Kristofferson song, the winsome "Me and Bobby McGee." Cash accepted Kristofferson's "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" and turned it into a Number 1 hit. No one was more surprised than Kristofferson when the Country Music Association named "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" the 1970 song of the year. In a vision of country music's future, the long-haired Kristofferson ambled to the stage and shyly accepted his prize.
By that time Cash and Kristofferson had become fast friends. Cash persuaded Kristofferson to perform his own music, and the artist signed with Monument Records. From the outset Kristofferson's music had its roots squarely in folk and country, but he found fans in the pop-rock arena as well. Even though every live concert became a battle with stage fright, Kristofferson achieved great popularity. He earned two gold singles on his own for "Silver Tongued Devil and I" and "Why Me, Lord?," and he watched with satisfaction as Janis Joplin made "Me and Bobby McGee" into a major rock classic.
Hollywood discovered Kristofferson in the early 1970s, and he added film appearances to his already-busy schedule of touring and recording. In 1973 he married singer Rita Coolidge, and they performed as a country-pop duo, earning a number of Grammy nominations and awards together. Nevertheless, as Cheryl McCall notes in a People magazine article, Kristofferson's "peculiar insecurity led to near panic in the face of adulation and stardom." Between 1973 and 1977 Kristofferson took roles in more than a half-dozen feature films, some of which--particularly A Star Is Born --became major embarrassments for him. Plagued with drug and alcohol abuse, he divorced Coolidge and tried to set his life straight. The process took almost five years.
Kristofferson told Roger Ebert: "Getting high was supposed to be a method of opening the doors of perception for me, and what it was doing was shutting them.... It took me thirty years to admit I had a problem." With his newfound sobriety, Kristofferson remarried and gravitated back to country music, where he found his friends Cash, Nelson, and Jennings undergoing similar dryouts. In 1987 Kristofferson released a new album, Repossessed, that earned widespread praise. Once again he found himself in demand for live performances, and he also made several well-received films, including Amerika and Trouble In Mind. Hickey described the resurgent Kristofferson as "a middle-aged gent who's dead serious about his fathering, husbanding, songwriting, acting, record-making, and concert-giving."
In 1990 Kristofferson teamed with Cash, Nelson, and Jennings for a tour to promote the Highwayman II album. Kristofferson is indeed in his element as a member of that foursome of road-weary troubadours. His songs address familiar themes in country music--lost love, loneliness, aimless wandering, and maverick lawlessness--but they do so with a degree of sensitivity and sophistication one might expect from a Rhodes Scholar who wanted to be a novelist. Like his fellow "outlaws," Kristofferson has gained a measure of respect from his well-publicized struggle for sobriety as well as for his artistic integrity. The bashful singer told TV Guide that he now looks at life "like an old alcoholic" who "is trying to take it one day at a time."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Kris Kristofferson's Career
Helicopter pilot for United States Army, 1960-65. Songwriter, singer, and composer, 1965--; actor, 1970--. Signed with Monument Records, 1969. Author of numerous songs, including "Me and Bobby McGee," "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," "Help Me Make It Through the Night," "Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)," "For the Good Times," and "Why Me, Lord?" Has worked as a solo performer, a duet performer with former wife, Rita Coolidge, and part of an ensemble with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson. Actor in feature films, including Cisco Pike, 1971, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, 1975, A Star Is Born, 1976, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, 1976, Semi-Tough, 1977, Heaven's Gate, 1980, Trouble in Mind, 1986, and Amerika, 1987.
Kris Kristofferson's Awards
Song of the year citation from Country Music Association, 1970, for "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down"; Grammy Award nominations for best song, both 1971, for "Help Me Make It through the Night" and "Me and Bobby McGee"; Grammy Award nominations for best country song, 1971, for "For the Good Times," and 1973, for "Why Me, Lord?"; Grammy Award for best vocal performance by a duo (with Rita Coolidge), 1973; Grammy Awards for songwriting, 1973, for "From the Bottle to the Bottom," and 1975, for "Lover Please." Honorary doctorate awarded by Pomona College, 1974.
- "Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)," Monument, 1971.
- "Why Me, Lord?," Monument, 1973.
- (With Rita Coolidge) "From the Bottle to the Bottom," Monument, 1973.
- (With Coolidge) "Lover Please," Monument, 1975.
- Kristofferson Monument, 1970, rereleased as Me and Bobby McGee 1988.
- The Silver Tongued Devil and I Monument, 1971, rereleased, 1988.
- Border Lord Monument, 1974.
- Jesus Was a Capricorn Monument, 1974.
- Spooky Lady's Sideshow Monument, 1974.
- (With Rita Coolidge) Full Moon A & M, 1975.
- (With Barbra Streisand) A Star Is Born Columbia, 1977.
- Surreal Thing Monument, 1978.
- Big Sur Festival Monument, 1978.
- Songs of Kristofferson Monument, 1978, rereleased, 1988.
- Easter Island Monument, 1978.
- Who's To Bless and Who's To Blame Monument, 1978.
- Shake Hands with the Devil Monument, 1979.
- (With Coolidge) Breakaway Monument.
- To The Bone Monument, 1981.
- My Songs Monument, 1986.
- Repossessed Mercury, 1987.
- (With Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson) Highwayman Columbia.
- (With Jennings, Cash, and Nelson) Highwayman II Columbia, 1990.
November 2004: Kristofferson was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Source: CMT.com, www.cmt.com/news/articles/1493714/20041112/kristofferson_kris.jhtml?headlines=true, November 18, 2004.
December 8, 2004: Kristofferson starred in Blade: Trinity, which was released by New Line Cinema. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, December 13, 2004.
March 4, 2005: Kristofferson starred in The Jacket, which was released by Warner Independent Pictures. Source: New York Times, http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=291813, April 1, 2005.
October 21, 2005: Kristofferson starred in Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story, which was released by Hyde Park Entertainment. Source: New York Times, http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=314428, October 31, 2005.
June 15, 2006: Kristofferson received the Johnny Mercer Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Source: Songwriters Hall of Fame, www.songwritershalloffame.org/ceremony_main_page.asp, June 15, 2006.
- Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 5, Gale, 1989.
- Ebert, Roger, A Kiss Is Still a Kiss, Andrews & McMeel, 1984.
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
- Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1974.
- Simon, George T., Best of the Music Makers, Doubleday, 1979.
- Esquire, December 1976; November 1981.
- Globe & Mail (Toronto), January 31, 1972.
- Newsday, September 11, 1971.
- New York Times, July 26, 1970; June 3, 1973.
- New York Times Magazine, December 6, 1970.
- Saturday Review, February 3, 1973.
- TV Guide, October 12, 1985.