Legendary songwriter Kris Kristofferson is honored with a GRAMMY nomination for The Cedar Creek Sessions, a double CD set released for his 80th birthday in June, 2016. The album was recorded live in a three-day impromptu jam session at Cedar Creek Recording in Austin, Texas. With Shawn Camp on lead guitar, Kevin Smith on bass, Michael Ramos on keyboard, and Mike Meadows on drums, the group ran through twenty-five of Kristofferson’s best-loved songs. On the final day, Kris’s dear friend Sheryl Crow came in to sing a duet of “The Loving Gift,” a song made famous by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash that Kris had never recorded.
At eighty years old, few songwriters can look back and see that they have transformed an entire American musical art form. In a single line, Kristofferson turned modern music into viable contemporary literature: “Freedom’s just another word,” he wrote, “for nothing left to lose.” For years, those words from his song “Me and Bobby McGee” served as the hippie generation’s most resonant mantra. Today, songwriters from Belfast to Belleville replay the classic when seeking inspiration. Kristofferson’s first recording of the song as a demo, while working as a janitor at Columbia Records in 1968, signaled only the beginning of his lasting contributions to the creative arts.
As his most famous lyric suggests, Kristofferson has lived a Renaissance man’s life. The Brownsville, Texas native served as an Army Ranger and helicopter pilot as a young man. He earned early prestige as a Rhodes Scholar who won an Atlantic Monthly short story competition. Fans know that Kristofferson fought as a Golden Glove boxer. Of course, many simply know him as a movie star (Cisco Pike, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Heaven’s Gate, Blade and more than 50 others). Kristofferson solidified marquee status in a blink when Barbra Streisand cast him in her hit remake of A Star Is Born (1976). For nearly four decades since then, he’s defined diversity as an actor with roles in films as varied as Songwriter (1984), Big Top Pee-wee (1988), Paper Hearts (1993), Lone Star (1996) the critically acclaimed Fast Food Nation (2006), and the hit family story Dolphin Tale (2011, 2014).
A Star Is Born made Kristofferson a sex symbol, but he had more substantial plans from Day One. “I always felt that I was going to be some kind of writer,” he told The Guardian in 2010. For more than four decades, Kristofferson’s deep-browed craftsmanship has had broad influence on peers and followers. “There’s no better songwriter alive than Kris Kristofferson,” legendary country songwriter Willie Nelson told the Associated Press in 2009. “Everything he writes is a standard, and we’re just going to have to live with that.”
As a key figure in the 1970s Outlaw Country movement, Kristofferson’s early albums Kristofferson (1970) and The Silver Tongued Devil (1971) immediately established him as a top-tier songwriter whose tunes were recorded by Johnny Cash (“Sunday Morning Coming Down”), Janis Joplin (“Me and Bobby McGee”), Ray Price (“For the Good Times”), Sammi Smith (“Help Me Make It Through the Night”) and several other prominent artists. Plainspoken poetry forever unites him with kindred spirits such as Cash, Merle Haggard and Nelson who stood head and shoulders above others as progressive musicians.
As music critic Peter Cooper wrote in the liner notes to The Pilgrim (2006), a Kristofferson tribute album released upon the songwriter’s 70th birthday, in his hands “Nashville-based country songs became literate, layered and respectable.” Consider Kristofferson’s daring “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” “Take the ribbon from your hair, shake it loose and let it fall,” Kristofferson sang. “Laying soft upon my skin like shadows on the wall.” Few writers as fluidly convey human kinetics.
“Forty years ago, Kris single-handedly changed the way people write songs,” Don Was, who produced several Kristofferson albums, told the Austin American-Statesman in 2009. “He combined the simplicity and directness of Hank Williams with the emotional intelligence of a Rhodes Scholar. There isn’t a songwriter out there today who hasn’t been influenced by Kris. He’s a giant.”
By nature an outsider, Kristofferson frequently centers lyrical themes on better days for the down-and-out (“Shipwrecked in the Eighties”) and disenfranchised (“Sandinista”). In fact, he consistently has addressed social, political, cultural and personal issues largely taboo in country music at the time that he began writing professionally. That pioneering approach came at a price. For a time, Kristofferson was persona non grata in the music world for exploring political concerns in albums such as Repossessed (1986), which addressed widespread tragedy (“They Killed Him,” “Anthem ’84”) and turmoil specifically in that era’s war in El Salvador (“What About Me”).
As those songs show, Kristofferson speaks his mind. He always has, always will. His concern isn’t popular opinion – or who agrees with his. He seeks truths. He listens. He asks difficult questions. His album Third World Warrior (1990), which includes his song “The Eagle and the Bear,” alone proves that. “And I’ll say until the day we free Mandela,” he wrote, “all the world will be in chains.” He later declared support for Nicaraguan rebels. “[Kris Kristofferson] and Jackson Browne were out there talking all of the shit in the 1980s when the US was behaving really badly all over the Southern Hemisphere,” renegade songwriter Steve Earle recalls. “I admired that.”
Kris Kristofferson has been recognized several times for dedication to human rights activism through songwriting. In 2002, he received the American Veteran Awards Veteran of the Year award. The First Amendment Center and The Americana Music Association honored his contributions with the “Freedom of Americana Free Speech Award” in 2003. Kristofferson was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2004, the Songwriter Hall of Fame in 2005 and the Texas Film Hall of Fame in 2006. Additionally, BMI honored him with their Icon Award in 2009. He received the Frances Preston Music Industry Award from the T.J. Martell Foundation in 2012. In 2014, Kristofferson was honored with a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award and the PEN Song Lyrics of Literacy Excellence Award.
Kristofferson realized a personal highlight while anchoring the Highwaymen, an all-star collective with fellow Outlaw Country legends Cash, Waylon Jennings and Nelson, throughout the 1980s. Many would have hung their hat after that run. Instead, Kristofferson barely has paused for breath since. He’s released several recent high watermarks including the increasingly intimate A Moment of Forever (1995), The Austin Sessions (1999) and This Old Road (2006), and he produced some of his finest work with the deeply personal Closer to the Bone (2009) and Feeling Mortal (2013). Now, at eighty years old, Kristofferson tours worldwide as a solo and acoustic troubadour, supplying singer-songwriters worldwide with a role model for legitimacy and longevity.
The Cedar Creek Sessions collection is a snapshot of the legendary songwriter in the twilight of his life.