10 Badass Kris Kristofferson Moments
Kris Kristofferson may have never shot anyone or spent time in prison, but when you look at his life and accomplishments, it is an absolute marvel of the American experience. From starting off as a Rhodes Scholar, to becoming a helicopter pilot in the Army, to being responsible for a Hall of Fame career in country, to becoming a Hollywood superstar and dating singers and actors to making daring moves to further his career, Kris Kristofferson is not just a country music badass, he’s one of the most badass Americans to ever be born.
More in this series:
- 10 Badass Waylon Jennings Moments
- 10 Badass Merle Haggard Moments
- 10 Badass Wanda Jackson Moments
- 10 Badass Marty Stuart Moments
- 10 Badass George Jones Moments
- 10 Badass Hank3 Moments
- 10 Badass Billy Joe Shaver Moments
1. Becoming a Rhodes Scholar
Kris Kristofferson is a smart one to say the least. The Rhodes Scholarship is an Oxford University postgraduate distinction that is considered the world’s most prestigious academic scholarship and scholastic accolade. Created in 1902, and the first international scholarship program of its kind, Rhodes Scholars are considered to have any job available to them throughout their lives, and many have gone on to be Presidents, Prime Ministers, and prominent business leaders. Only about 80 scholars are selected each year from around the world, and Kris Kristofferson was one of them to be bestowed with the Rhodes Scholar honor in 1958. While at Oxford, Kristofferson studied literature at Merton College—the same college J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor at during the period. Kristofferson also earned his “Blue” in boxing as a collegiate athlete.
It was at Oxford that Kristofferson first tried his hand in the music business. He recorded for a label called Top Rank Records under the name Kris Carson, and was dubbed the “Yank at Oxford”. But the pursuit didn’t go anywhere after a record company in the United States claimed they owned Kristofferson’s rights.
2. Flying Helicopters as a Captain in the Army
Possibly country music’s most well-known veteran, Kris Kristofferson came from a strong military family. After college at Oxford, his parents pushed him to enlist and Kristofferson went into the United States Army as an officer, attending Ranger school and achieving the rank of Captain as a helicopter pilot. Kristofferson received his training at Fort Rucker, Alabama before being deployed to West Germany as part of the 8th Infantry Division. After serving out his tour of duty, Kristofferson was scheduled to become an English Literature professor at West Point, but decided to pursue a career in songwriting instead. The American Veterans Awards named Kris Kristofferson “Veteran of the Year” in 2003. His first successful songwriting hit was called “Viet Nam Blues” originally recorded by Dave Dudley.
Kristofferson later flew helicopters commercially, especially in Louisiana, traveling back to Nashville to pitch songs. He wrote “Help Me Make It Through The Night” on an oil platform in the gulf, and “Me & Bobby McGee” also while in Louisiana.
3. Taking a Janitor Position to Help Become a Songwriter
Being from a proud military family, Kris Kristofferson was not only expected to do his duty to his country during his youth, but to follow a military career throughout his life. Flying helicopters and spending five years in the military apparently wasn’t enough, and when Kris relayed his plans to move to Nashville and become a songwriter, Kristofferson’s family officially disowned him. They never completely reconciled.
Cut off from his support network, Kris Kristofferson struggled. This Rhodes Scholar and Oxford graduate that could fly helicopters resorted to taking a janitorial position at the studios of Columbia Records simply to be one step closer to his dream of becoming a songwriter. Kristofferson was in the studio when Bob Dylan was cutting his album Blonde on Blonde, but was too bashful to approach him. He did get the courage to befriend Johnny Cash, who was warm to Kristofferson and considered some of his songs, but never took the young songwriter seriously until….
4. Landing a Helicopter on Johnny Cash’s Lawn to Deliver Demos
At the time, Kristofferson was working as a janitor at the offices of Columbia Records where Johnny Cash was signed. Kristofferson had met Cash a number of times, in the studio and backstage at The Grand Ole Opry, but Cash wouldn’t show any attention to young Kristofferson’s songwriting aspirations. Kris would slip Cash demos of his work, or give them to June Carter or Luther Perkins when he had a chance, but according to Cash, he would take them home to the Hendersonville house and toss them into Old Hickory Lake.
Kristofferson took part-time work with the National Guard to help pay bills, and desperate to get Johnny Cash’s attention, decided to deviate from his flight plan while on a training run and land his helicopter in the Hendersonville property’s front yard. What happened next depends on who you ask. According to Cash, Kristofferson came sauntering out of the helicopter with a beer in one hand, and his demo tapes in another, demanding to be heard. But Kristofferson paints a more subdued picture. “Y’know, John had a very creative imagination,” Kristofferson recalled. “I’ve never flown with a beer in my life. Believe me, you need two hands to fly those things.” In fact Kristofferson doesn’t even remember Cash being at the house at the time, though he does say, “I still think I was lucky he didn’t shoot me that day!”
What was the result of Kris Kristofferson’s aeronautical attention grab? It got Johnny Cash to invite him up on stage at the Newport Folk Festival later that year, which put Kris Kristofferson on the country music map.
5. Writing “Sunday Morning Coming Down”
There are songs that are hits, and then there are songs that change the whole course of music. “Sunday Morning Coming Down” was one of those songs, and it cemented Kris Kristofferson’s place in history. Simply about the lonliness of a Sunday morning when you have no friends or family and the bars don’t open until 1 PM, the song touched a nerve and in a poetic way country music had never done before.
Ray Stevens was the first to cut the song in 1969, but it stalled at #55 on the charts. Kristofferson’s own version didn’t chart at all. It was Johnny Cash’s take on “Sunday Morning Coming Down” that took it all the way to #1 in 1970, and eventually to becoming the Song of the Year by the Country Music Association. Johnny Cash had the credibility and undying loyalty of the country music community to sing what was a controversial song at the time, and have people listen through the controversy to the heart of the story that Kristoffersoon had so eloquently captured.
6. Opening Up Country Music To More Risque Themes
Where Kris Kristofferson played a seminal role in the history of country music, and specifically in the Outlaw movement of the early 70’s was by opening up the music to new themes that previously had been considered risque in the family friendly environment of country. Though country had contained risque and adult themes previously, the Countrypolitan movement taking over Nashville at the time looked to appeal to the opposite crowd of the counterculture, and anything suggestive was regularly written out of country songs, if they even got cut at all when they including something thought to be objectionable.
It wasn’t just the “stoned” word in the song “Sunday Morning Coming Down” that Johnny Cash helped Kristofferson normalize in country music when Cash performed the song on his The Johnny Cash Show. Other suggestive lyrics like “Lay your warm and tender body close to mine” from the song “For The Good Times” stretched the boundaries of country music, and allowed other songwriters and performers to tackle subjects previously off limits.
Many of Kristofferson’s songs were banned from country radio early on. But as his performance career suffered, his peers continued to push to be able to cut Kristofferson songs until the rules keeping Kristofferson’s songs down had been completely broken.
7. Dating Janis Joplin and “Me & Bobby McGee”
We all know Janis was the one to make Kris Kristofferson’s “Me & Bobby McGee” into an American standard, but their relationship went much deeper than songwriter and performer. Before Kristofferson fell in love with Rita Coolidge, and right before Janis would eventually die of a heroin overdose, the two Texas natives engaged in a wild relationship with “Me & Bobby McGee” as the backdrop.
Kris and Janis were introduced by songwriter and performer Bobby Neuwirth. Kristofferson had just played in Greenwich Village, and Neuwirth suggested they fly out to Larkspur, California where Janis was currently staying. The three ended up residing there for weeks, and Kristofferson immediately became the apple of Joplin’s eye. “I’d a split there,” Kris recalls. “I dug her, but I had itchy feet. I’d get up intending to get out, and in she comes with the early morning drinks and pretty soon you’re wasted enough and you don’t care about leaving. She’d definitely let ya know when she was being abused, and she thought so a lot. She was always jangling around talking about how everybody was living off of her, but she had people she’d bring into the house and then she’d bitch because she was giving them bed and board.”
It was 1970, and Kristofferson was finally beginning to make it as a songwriter. He wanted Joplin to cut “Me & Bobby McGee” to help pay bills, but sources close to the steamy couple insist Kristofferson didn’t shack up with Janis simply to convince her to record the song. Joplin truly loved the song, and decided to release it on her next album, which ended up being her last. After Kristofferson left, Janis fell back into heroin use. Kristofferson tried to come to her aid, but Joplin’s demons ran much deeper than her short-term relationship with Kris. “You won’t be around,” Janis retorted to Kris. “None of ’em will be.”
Joplin recorded “Me & Bobby McGee only a few days before her death in October of 1970. When her final album Pearl came out in January of 1971, and “Me & Bobby McGee” became Joplin’s only #1 hit.
8. Winning a Golden Globe for Best Actor
There are a lot of actors who have become musicians, and musicians who have become actors. But few have excelled at both disciplines to the point where they’re awarded some of the highest distinctions the respective industries can bestow. Already a decorated Captain in the Army, already a Rhodes Scholar, already a winner for the CMA’s Song of the Year, Kristofferson gets into acting, and eventually is given the Golden Globe of Best Actor to put on his mantle.
Kristofferson’s acting credits are too numerous to list, and depending on who you talk to, they rival if not exceed his musical contributions. But in 1976, Kristofferson delivered the performance of his lifetime across from Barbara Streisand in A Star Is Born. Though the film was a remake and had been released two times previous, it became a blockbuster and made $80 million, partly from the savvy casting right as Kristofferson was coming into his prime as a Hollywood heartthrob. The movie sent his hunk status into hyperdrive, and Kris became ‘A’ list material. The film also won four other Golden Globes, and an Academy Award.
Kristofferson loved receiving the distinction, but he hated making the movie. He later expressed it was “worse than boot camp.”
Overall Kris Kristofferson has acted in over 100 films.
9. Playing The Very Top Mob Boss in the Movie Payback
In the 1999 movie Payback starring Mel Gibson, Mel’s character Porter is looking to get the $70,000 owed to him after an underling of a criminal syndicate does him wrong in a deal. As the movie transpires, Mel keeps killing off underlings and bosses in the syndicate, working higher hand higher up the chain looking for his payback. “One man. You go high enough, you always come to one man,” Porter keeps saying throughout the movie. Eventually Porter does get to the very top, and who does he find? None other than Kris Kristofferson, playing the role of Bronson, the very top mob boss.
What makes the role work and the scene where the top boss is finally revealed so powerful is because of the weight that the simple sight of Kris Kristofferson holds.
10. Having Over 450 Artists Cover His Songs
Just think about that. When you talk about imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, it doesn’t get any more flattering than that. Some of the most notable artists that have covered Kris Kristofferson songs include:
Dave Dudley, Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Faron Young, Roger Miller, Ray Stevens, Ray Price, Waylon Jennings, Sammi Smith, Bobby Bare, Joe Simon, Patty Page, O.C. Smith, and pretty much any other performing artist who has any taste in music.
“The great thing about being a songwriter is you can hear your baby interpreted by so many people that have creative talents vocally that I don’t have,” Kris once said.
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July 12, 2014 @ 9:22 am
July 12, 2014 @ 4:29 pm
Nicely pulled together, man. Plus which: I’ve been telling aspiring writers for 40 years to study Kristofferson when they’re looking for models. Anybody who can pack a 100,000-word novel into a 16-line song knows something about good writing, and he’s been doing just that forever.
July 12, 2014 @ 4:35 pm
That’s a really good way of putting it Parky.
When I was writing this, I was thinking of all the effort Kristofferson had to put out in high school, then college, then Oxford for a masters, were talking years and years of literature and writing classes … and then he decides to implement that training in arguably one of the simplest written forms: country music. That’s a skill all to itself, and speaks to the strength of his calling to country.
July 16, 2014 @ 6:31 am
Though I don’t know of other Rhodes Scholars, but writing music is not that far from writing in other forms. Nashville country would be much better if the writers picked up a book now and again. Some of country/Americana’s best writers were/are voracious readers even if they do not have the formal coursework. Apparently Townes, like Dylan, read a lot of poetry and there is a story of him handing Steve Earle a copy of War and Peace, telling him he needed to read to improve his writing. JTE has said that one piece of advice he took from Steve is that what comes out in your music is a reflection of the reading that goes into it, even though neither of them got further than 9th grade. I know that Jason Isbell almost has a BA degree in creative writing (almost because he still needs a Phys Ed credit to graduate) and Amanda Shires is working on an master’s degree in literature. I don’t know his educational background, but Sturgill Simpson certainly reads extensively. You could not write the songs he does without reading. These are teh first artists to come to my mind, but I expect that if you scratch the surface, you would find many more.
July 16, 2014 @ 7:58 am
Like Ray Wylie Hubbard says, “Don’t just listen to The Ghost of Tom Joad, read The Grapes of Wrath.”
July 16, 2014 @ 8:13 am
Yep – RWH is another writer who talks about the importance of literature to songwriting.
July 12, 2014 @ 4:36 pm
I knew he just seemed like one of the coolest people.
July 12, 2014 @ 4:47 pm
Thanks for the KK education , Trigger .
I thought Kristofferson’s last couple of albums , by the way , were songwriting clinics , as we might expect.
July 13, 2014 @ 2:25 am
July 13, 2014 @ 2:23 pm
I’m not a fan of his music, but I did like him in Convoy, Semi-Tough, and Convoy…
July 13, 2014 @ 2:24 pm
Whoops, meant to say “and the Last Days of Frank and Jesse James…”
July 13, 2014 @ 3:27 pm
July 13, 2014 @ 8:42 pm
Kristofferson is one of the Holy Trinity of 20th Century Songwriters/Musicians, the other two being Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, IMO. Kristofferson is the whole package. His songwriting AND music is top notch, full of depth, and extremely well written; he has written timeless songs, and is well respected by his peers and fans. He has also transcended genres with his music as well. And as you mentioned, he is a true Renaissance Man, having a successful acting career in addition. The man has done it all.
He is also superb live. I saw him about five years ago, and he was fantastic. Just him, his guitar, his harmonica, and a catalogue of exceptional songs that would (and probably have) made most songwriters green with envy. He managed to sing every single song of his that you would want to hear, plus more. His banter with the audience was also great.
If you ever get a chance, go see him live, and see one of the greatest (and most underrated, sadly) songwriters and performers of our time. He may be getting on in age and his voice is not as strong as it used to be, but the pure excellence of the songs surpasses any of that.
July 13, 2014 @ 10:32 pm
Nice to see another one of these articles pop up. I was just about to ask you what happened to them, Trigger. We both know you’re busy as usual, but how come Kristofferson’s last couple of albums haven’t gotten reviews? Closer to the Bone from 2009 and Feeling Mortal from 2013 seemed to deserve a bit of recognition. Even This Old Road from 2006 is considered one of his best albums by many fans (but that was before you started the site so the exclusion of that review is obvious).
July 14, 2014 @ 7:48 am
I don’t truly ‘get’ the music of Kris Kristofferson just like I don’t really ‘get’ the movie The Godfather. I suspect those two character defects are somehow deeply related.
He’s cooler than Steve McQueen, though. That much I know, and would probably resign myself to an ass-whupping in a bar fight, for stating it emphatically to the wrong dude.
July 14, 2014 @ 9:31 am
A little off topic, but if you get a chance, I’d like your opinion. The 1980’s, specifically the mid to late 80’s seems to be the heyday of the “Supergroup.” The Highwaymen, in country circles, and The Traveling Wilbury’s in rock, were in my mind the greatest supergroups of any genre. But you also had Asia, Damn Yankees, The Firm, and numerous other combinations of stars. What was it about the music industry and/or fan tastes that led to such collaboration?
July 14, 2014 @ 9:38 am
Oh, and I forgot to add, the Traveling Wilbury’s albums showed significant rockabilly and country influences. The late 80’s was also the era where the British invasion rockers (including Harrison and Lynn) were jamming with Carl Perkins.
July 14, 2014 @ 1:08 pm
That’s a good question. There are some supergroups out there these days like Them Crooked Vultures and a few others. The reason for The Highwaymen was to combine the star power of the four guys who were being forgotten by country at the time. The Traveling Wilburys were more about George Harrison wanting to get a bunch of his friends together in one place and the thing taking on a life of its own. Tom Petty was doing pretty good at the time, and Roy Orbison was getting big because of the revitalization of “Pretty Woman.” So I think they’re two completely different case studies.
It would be good to see more supergroups. For a long time there’s been the rumor of an album involving Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Kris Kirstofferson called “The Three Musketeers”, but I’m not sure if we’ll ever get to hear it.
Toby in AK
July 14, 2014 @ 5:27 pm
I can’t think of many super-groups in country music outside of the highwaymen. Dolly, Linda, and Emmylou collaborated on one album called “Trio” in 1987 and then in 1993 Dolly, Loretta and Tammy collaborated on “Honky Tonk Angels”. I don’t know if these qualify as supergroups since they were only single albums.
In rock, the supergroup has been around since at least the late 60s. I think John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers could be called a supergroup. I’ve heard Cream called a supergroup. Lennon, Clapton, and Richards collaborated in ’68 in a group called “supermac”. Bad Company is probably my favorite supergroup of all time.
The 90s had some interesting supergroups like Temple of the Dog and Mad Season.
July 14, 2014 @ 5:38 pm
Good stuff, Toby. The first Traveling Wilbury’s album is amazing. The depth of the song structure and the multiple parts, harmonies, etc. are amazing. I think that a really interesting “supergroup” or project could be formed around the Red Dirt scene. The Red Dirt scene is ripe for a project of this type. It seems to me that some combination of Robert Earl Keen, Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, Billy Joe Shaver, Charlie Robison, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Stoney Larue, James McMurtry, Joe Ely, etc. could form an interesting project.
July 15, 2014 @ 9:39 pm
I love both Temple Of The Dog & Mad Season. Love The Highwaymen. & Traveling Wilburys too. Outside of Audioslave & Velvet Revolver I’m hVing trouble thinking of an actual supergroup from this century that hasn’t been mentioned.
Toby in AK
July 14, 2014 @ 12:21 pm
“Loving her was easier” is one of my favorite songs of all time. Kristofferson is a modern renaissance man.
July 14, 2014 @ 2:04 pm
I would add his work in Alien as #11.
July 14, 2014 @ 2:05 pm
Thanks for this, I didn’t realize what a high achieving person he is.
July 15, 2014 @ 9:39 pm
Heck, he made Blade into a watchable movie.
August 18, 2017 @ 2:05 am
I don’t know where you got your information on Bobby McGee, but Kris didn’t know Janis had recorded it until after she died. Bobby Newirth taught it to her.