When Kris Kristofferson comes to the Lobero Theatre Thursday night, not only will he be offering up songs as personal as any you are likely to encounter, but they will be wrapped in a musical legacy quite unlike any other country artist’s. A Rhodes scholar who studied literature at Oxford, Kristofferson once intended to teach at West Point. Instead, he headed for Nashville. With the likes of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, he embraced the Outlaw Country movement, but his literary approach to songwriting also brought a more personal sound to the Nashville scene. Few stars shine brighter or more passionately than Kristofferson, a veteran of some two dozen albums and more than 50 films.
Your most recent album, This Old Road, is a very intimate affair, and a lot of that comes through in your more reserved use of instrumentation. Why strip down your sound? That’s pretty much the way I am doing the shows now. It’s pretty bare, just me and my guitar and harmonica on most of the stuff.
What sparked this approach? I have been doing it for about three or four years now. I was over in England making a film and got [offered] a job in Ireland. I didn’t have time to mobilize all the troops, so I went over by myself. It was a little scary at first-there were a couple thousand people each night, and I didn’t have a band to hide behind, but it put a focus on songs that worked, and so I kept doing it that way and it’s just working.
The approach serves the songs on this album particularly well, given their personal nature. Is songwriting a cathartic experience for you? Every album that I have made has been sort of like a journal of what’s going down in my life right then and trying to make sense out of my experience. This album is the view from this end of the road. I notice that Bob Dylan has been doing that. I have always used my songs to make sense out of whatever I’m going through, or whatever the world is going through, at the time.
One of the most compelling songs on the album is “Burden of Freedom.” How has freedom changed since the era of Bobby McGee? Personal freedom was what I was talking about there; the burden of freedom and the freedom to be who you feel it’s your responsibility to be. In my case, it was being a creative artist. I felt I was going against a lot of people’s expectations in order to do that. I think that your own personal freedom is important. And it’s a reflection of the need for freedom for other people in the same way. It comes from believing in political freedom and freedom to live and breathe and grow.
Freedom is a theme that comes up a lot in your work. What is freedom for you? Freedom is used a lot to justify things that I think it doesn’t have anything to do with. It’s used to justify wars and to say that America stands for freedom and that’s why we are bombing Iraq. It needs to be examined closely because freedom for the individual has to expand to freedom for every individual.
And freedom of speech? It’s really upsetting for me to see in the news today that people were all upset about the president of Iran speaking on 9/11. They were all upset because he was invited to speak at Columbia [University] and, to me, we are supposed to stand for freedom of speech. So if we can’t hear people speaking their own ideas, the only choice we then have is to take someone else’s word for what they said. We’re in a country that’s supposed to stand for freedom of speech, so we should be able to listen and make our own decisions. But certainly we should be able to talk with people before they become our military enemies.
You are refreshingly liberal in your views. How does that work out back in your home state? It’s probably cost me some sales. I know that back when I was starting [to get] vocal about what was going on in Nicaragua and El Salvador, it made me unmarketable, according to some of the people in the music business, because they felt that my market is a little more conservative than that. I know that years ago I really pissed some people off enough to not want to buy tickets, or to want their money back. But I’ve found today the audience is really open to what I am saying. And that’s probably why I am still going out.
This year you added the Johnny Cash Visionary Award to an armory of accolades you have already received. What did that one in particular mean to you? It was really an emotional thing for me because John was my hero before I ever went to Nashville. He never got smaller in my eyes and even though we got to be good friends, he was always larger than life to me. He stood up for underdogs; he stood up for Native Americans before that was a hip thing to do, and for people behind bars. And he stood up for me when I was getting criticized by everybody in country music for some of the things I was standing up for. It was the same thing he did for Dylan [in the] early days, so getting something in his name means more to me than anything else.
I believe you first met him when you were a janitor at Columbia Records? I was there for almost two years and got to know him a little. In fact, he kept me from getting fired. They never wanted people pitching songs at his sessions, but a couple of songwriters got into a session and had John cornered in a stairway trying to pitch him a song. Some folks thought I had let them in and tried to get me fired. The president decided not to fire me but told me to stay away from the next session. So I was down in the basement demagnetizing tapes or something, and John came down and asked if I was coming up. I told him I was really busy. He knew that I had got in trouble, and he wasn’t going to start singing until I got up there. I thought that was really something.
Square Peg Converts presents Kris Kristofferson at the Lobero Theatre on Thursday, October 25, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35. Visit lobero.com or call 966-4946.