Our guest is singer-songwriter, actor and counter-culture icon, Kris Kristofferson. He wrote “Me and Bobby McGee” sitting on an offshore oilrig in the Gulf of Mexico 1969. Before the song turned his life around, Kristofferson struggled to make ends meet in Nashville. Whether it was a love song like “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” or the rueful regret of “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” Kris Kristofferson’s straightforward lyrics later reached listeners and other songwriters.
Kris Kristofferson: Well, the thing is, with country music, most performers were songwriters. But the song was the important thing. The song was the basis of it all. People like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash were great performers and everything, but it was the songs that moved people. It was all from the heart and the soul. It wasn’t like something off of Tin Pan Alley, where you’re writing songs that somebody’s going to make a hit of. It was serious art for those of us that were doing it. We thought we were artists.
Nick Spitzer: Kris Kristofferson was born in 1936, Brownsville, Texas, on the Mexican border at its southernmost tip. The border radio stations across the Rio Grande played singing cowboys and then honky-tonk heroes: Ernest Tubb & Hank Williams. He was also drawn to the Norteño music and songs of Mexico and South Texas.
KK: I think it was the strongest influence in my life. I spent about 11 years down there – my first 11– and the border music, the Mexican music, it was just heart music, and the country music was the same. I always felt that it was the Rio Grande Valley that got the music going in my brain.
NS: At what point do you move from being moved by, say, hearing rancheras and corridos and the country songs and feel like you’re somebody who could write words of significance, or sing them?
KK: Well, I think it just came naturally to me. I think the first whole song that I wrote, I was about 11–I didn’t write it, I made it up–and I’ve been doing it all of my life since then.
NS: What was that song? Do you remember it, or…
KK: It was called “I Hate Your Ugly Face.” It was as close as I was comfortable getting to a love song. It says:
You’ve heard the country singers, singing of the loves they lost
But they’re always true to their long lost dear, no matter what the cost
I want you to hear, I ain’t crying in my beer. This is how it goes with me
The happiest day of my unhappy life was when you set me free.
KK: I was singing way beyond my experience.
NS: Wow. No kidding.
KK: Well, I hadn’t ever drunk any beer, but I knew you were supposed to.
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.