By Scott Schinder

(March/April 2013/vol. 6 – Issue 2)

At 76, Kris Kristofferson is currently making some of the best music of his career. The veteran troubadour is in the midst of a creative resurgence that began with 2006’s politically charged This Old Road (his first album of new material in more than a decade), continued with 2009’s musically and emotionally raw Closer to the Bone, and reaches new levels of intimacy and immediacy with this year’s Feeling Mortal.

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

As its title suggests, Feeling Mortal — Kristofferson’s first release on his own KK label — finds the artist confronting the inevitable while looking back on his own reckless youth with typically unflinching insight. But the album’s tone is more celebratory than fatalistic, surveying its subject matter with gratitude and appreciation rather than dread or regret. Like its two predecessors, Feeling Mortal was produced by Don Was (who first worked with Kristofferson on 1995’s A Moment of Forever), and features stark, stripped-down arrangements that showcase Kristofferson’s rough-edged yet expressive voice and his matter-of-factly eloquent songs.

Kristofferson’s singular resume — Golden Gloves boxer, Rhodes scholar, military officer, helicopter pilot, movie star and outlaw icon — would have been worthy of examination even if his songwriting hadn’t permanently changed the face of country music in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The Brownsville, Texas-born son of an Air Force major general, he attended high school and college in California, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1958 with a Rhodes scholarship to continue his education at Oxford University in England. He began writing and performing his own songs while at Oxford, launching a brief, abortive rock ’n’ roll career as Kris Carson, although his goal at the time was to become a novelist. After earning a master’s degree in English literature, he joined the U.S. Army and became a captain and helicopter pilot — composing songs and performing with a band on the side. In 1965, he abandoned his military career and moved to Nashville to pursue a life as a professional songwriter, supplementing his income by tending bar, flying helicopters to oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and working as a janitor at Columbia Studios. It was in the latter capacity that he first met future friend and collaborator Johnny Cash, upon whose lawn Kristofferson once landed a helicopter in an attempt to get him to listen to his songs.

Although early Nashville efforts yielded limited results, by the end of the decade, Kristofferson’s songs — whose vivid forthrightness and unsparing self-examination had little precedent in mainstream country — had made him a hot property in Music City. His compositions became hits in the hands of such performers as Cash (“Sunday Morning Comin’ Down”), Ray Price (“For the Good Times”), Waylon Jennings (“The Taker”), Sammi Smith (“Help Me Make It Through the Night”), Bobby Bare (“Come Sundown”), Roger Miller (“Loving Her Was Easier”), Faron Young (“Your Time’s Comin’”), Brenda Lee (“Nobody Wins”) and Jerry Lee Lewis (“Once More with Feeling”).

Kristofferson began releasing his own albums in 1970, the same year that Janis Joplin’s reading of his “Me and Bobby McGee” introduced him to rock audiences. Soon after, he launched a prolific acting career, which he balanced with a steady stream of LP releases through the remainder of the decade. After that, he continued acting prolifically, but his recorded output slowed in the ’80s and ’90s — although his status as a musical icon was underlined by his membership in the country supergroup the Highwaymen, alongside fellow iconoclasts Cash, Jennings and Willie Nelson.

Now in his fifth decade as a recording artist and his eighth decade on the planet, Kristofferson remains a vital lyrical and musical force, as his current renaissance demonstrates.

Your album is titled Feeling Mortal, but the general vibe of these songs conveys more gratitude than any sense of dread.

That’s how I feel. Being 76 is older than I ever thought I’d be. I didn’t ever think I was gonna live longer than Hank Williams, to be honest, and he died at 29. So from then on, I felt like I was gettin’ away with something. I did everything I could do to die young, but it didn’t work.

I’m grateful for having the life that I’ve had and that I have, and having the love of my eight kids and my wife. I feel very lucky at this point. I’ve used the albums that I’ve made as kind of an autobiography, and the songs are whatever I’m going through at the time. And I guess that right now’s a more reflective time than some other periods.

This Old Road, Closer to the Bone and Feeling Mortal all feature spare, stripped-down arrangements and emphasize the immediacy of a performance, rather than attempting to create a perfect track. One of my favorite moments on Feeling Mortal is on “The One You Chose,” where you laugh a couple of times in mid-vocal. It’s a really compelling performance, yet most producers would have yelled “cut” right there.

Don left it in there. He’s good with that kind of thing, and he’s good at putting together just enough good musicians to fill up the right amount of space. I really love Mark Goldenberg’s guitar work on this one, and I like that Don’s production doesn’t call attention to itself. I’ll probably continue recording with him until they throw dirt on me.

The approach of the last three albums also seems related to the fact that you’ve been playing solo acoustic shows for the last decade or so, rather than touring with a band.

That happened because I was overseas working on a film, and I got an offer to go out and play in Ireland and couldn’t get the band together in time. So I did it on my own, and I enjoyed it so much that I just continued with it. There’s a freedom being by myself up there, because I don’t have to worry about what anybody else is doing. There’s a real good communication between me and the audience, and people keep coming out to the shows, so it made sense to continue doing it that way. Once I get past the initial nervousness of being in front of people, it’s always an enjoyable experience. I like it when Dylan does that, and I liked it when Johnny Cash did it towards the end of his life. I actually find it less stressful to do it this way, to be honest, because when I go out on the road, it’s just my family with me. My daughter Kelly is now singing some songs with me onstage, and my wife Lisa does all the hard work and runs the monitor, so it makes it very easy. So I think I’ll do it this way until I quit doing it.

Several songs on Feeling Mortal, like “Bread for the Body,” concern characters who make conscious decisions to take their lives in a different direction. Which is obviously something that applies to you, considering where you started and where you ended up after deciding to pursue songwriting as a career.

“Bread for the Body” is from back when I had made the decision to change direction and write songs. It was a pretty radical break when I decided that I wasn’t gonna go in the direction everybody thought I was going in, from all the college education I’d had and my years in the Army. Fortunately for me, I never questioned it and never looked back. But some of the songs that I was writing, like “Bread for the Body,” were sort of expressing my feelings about the direction I was taking.

A drastic life decision like that is still pretty daring by today’s standards, but I’d imagine that it must have been even more radical in the mid-60s.

It was. I was kind of disowned by my mother, who really was embarrassed to say that her son was writing country music, which she very much looked down on at the time. She came around eventually, after she saw me singing with Johnny Cash. I remember seeing my mother embraced by John and thinking “She’ll never forget that.” I think she respected John enough that it reflected well on me.

“Ramblin’ Jack” is another song on Feeling Mortal that concerns a character choosing to risk everything in order to pursue his muse. Is that song about Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, or is it about you?

I think that everything you write is kind of autobiographical, even if you don’t realize it at the time. I guess most of the characters in the songs are me to one degree or another. “Ramblin’ Jack” is supposed to be about Ramblin’ Jack, but it’s also about me. To me, it’s a lot like “The Pilgrim (Chapter 33).” I started writing that about (songwriter) Chris Gantry and a bunch of other people, including Ramblin’ Jack, but I was also writing about myself. I felt like we all had something in common, which is that the most important thing in our lives was our work, or our art, or whatever you want to call it. The songwriting was what mattered, not the stardom or whatever.

Has songwriting changed much for you over the years? I get the impression that when you started, it was an all-consuming pursuit. Did that change once you began recording, touring and doing movies?

Actually, it hasn’t changed at all, except that it’s gotten slower. When I went to Nashville, the songs just came pouring out of me, and just about anything could inspire a song. I’ve never been able to be disciplined enough to sit down and make myself write every day. I know Tom T. Hall used to have a schedule where he’d get up and make himself write every day, and I could never do that. I always just waited until the inspiration hit me, and it hits me a lot slower today than it did then. I just trust in it to come, and it eventually does. If I’m in a place where I can fool with the guitar for awhile, I’ll stay with it longer, but usually I just wait until an idea develops itself. It wouldn’t break my heart if I never finished another song.

I enjoy going back and revisiting the old ones, which I do a lot of now. As my memory gets worse as I get older, sometimes they feel like they’re new songs. The good thing about singing the old songs is that I always lose myself in the song. If I’m singing “Bobby McGee,” it still feels like it did when I first wrote it, and the thoughts that go through my head are the same ones that inspired the original lines. It’s like a scrapbook, but it’s in my head.

On Feeling Mortal, you revisit your song “My Heart Was the Last One to Know,” which Connie Smith originally recorded in 1967. What made you include it on this album?

I think I was just trying to visit some of the places that I’ve gone with my songs. That was a time of my life that I’m not in anymore, and haven’t been in for 30 years, but to me it’s like an authentic country song — the kind of country music that I listen to, anyway.

I’m never sure of how to get songs to work together to make an album, so I just tell Don to figure out which songs go together. For this one, we cut about twice as many songs as we put on the record, and I trusted his judgment on which ones to put on there.

Where does acting fit in for you at this point? Do you approach making films as artistic expression, or as a day job?

It depends on the film. Just as performing onstage can be a creative act, the acting can be, too. It’s definitely best when you have a great director and a great piece of work, but that doesn’t always happen. I don’t think I’ll have to worry about doing too much acting anymore; they don’t hire many old guys. But I’ll keep doing it as long as it feels like a good experience.

I definitely think I’ll be singing my songs longer than I’ll be acting. I never thought that I’d be this old, and I never thought that I would feel as happy about being this old as I do. It’s a pleasant surprise.