The Pilgrim Returns
It could be argued that there are three types of "Austin" musicians: those who live and work here, those who live here and work elsewhere, and those who don't live here but represent Austin to the world nonetheless. More than anyone except perhaps for Lyle Lovett, Kris Kristofferson feels like the last one, which is why it's not altogether surprising that he recently re-recorded some of his best-known songs here, and titled the collection The Austin Sessions. Since the early Seventies, Kristofferson has been no stranger to Austin. Having close friends and collaborators in locals such as Willie Nelson and Stephen Bruton, on top of Austin's eternal interest in left-field troubadours, makes this seem like home turf for the Brownsville native. In fact, his local roots are such that 18 years ago this month, he was the cover story of the Chronicle's third issue ever, under the now-regrettable headline "Kris Kristofferson: A Renaissance Man and One Macho Muchacho."
Back then, in an interview with Mark McKinnon, now a media advisor for current Texas Governor/presidential hopeful George W. Bush, the discussion focused on songwriting, bandleading, and acting -- the same three disciplines that drive Kristofferson today. Yet there are subtle differences between the singer at 45 and his current age of 62. While a good portion of that first Chronicle interview focused on his struggle with the bottle, 20 years of sobriety is far less an issue today than his recent triple bypass. Add the fact that Kristofferson is 15 years into his third marriage and raising five young children on a deserted Hawaiian island, and you might think he'd be one mellow muchacho. Think again.
Beginning with across-the-board raves for his performance as Sheriff Charlie Wade in John Sayles' 1996 Lone Star, Kristofferson has been riding an acting resurgence of late, one that's led to roles in Payback, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, Dance With Me, and Sayles' most recent film, Limbo. In town so he and Bruton can rehearse for a 10-city tour promoting The Austin Sessions, Kristofferson's current plans call on him to embark on his first tour in more than three years. Somewhat apprehensive about performing live, he says it doesn't take a Rhodes scholar to figure out why he agreed to talk with the Chronicle nearly two decades after that initial interview: "I may not know much about the state of the road in 1999, but I know it's always nice when they know you're coming. And that's what we're doing right now, isn't it?"
Austin Chronicle: Was making this record in Austin born out of circumstance or significance?
Kris Kristofferson: The whole thing was circumstance. I was contacted by some people in Canada who wanted to do a songwriter series for Angel Records. They had already done one with Jimmy Webb, so I said I'd do it, and Fred Mollin, the producer, figured Austin was a good place for him and I to get together to do it. I was in Austin working on Two for Texas, a historical piece for Turner Television, so we went in on the evenings I was rehearsing for the film and cut the record in three nights.
AC: You hadn't been in a studio for a while, right?
KK: I had recorded with Don Was for Justice in 1996, but I had taken some time off to do a couple of movies and hadn't been on the road since I ended that 1996 tour.
AC: What was interesting about the Angel offer?
KK: Just that it was a series of respected songwriters. I just got a record from Norway that has collected a bunch of my songs, and I was the third in that series: It was Leonard Cohen, Hank Williams, and me. That's good company.
AC: It was also a chance to work with Stephen Bruton again, wasn't it?
KK: Fred brought in the musicians and also brought in Stephen. I didn't actually bring Stephen in, but I wanted him in. He's the only one I'd worked with before. He was a baby when we started. Stephen's mutual friend Jim Meeker introduced us years before I even hired him. Stephen picked me up from the airport in Fort Worth back around 1970. Later on, I ran into him on the road when he was living up in Woodstock and getting his chops down with those guys from The Band. That had to be like '71 or maybe late '70. He came and jammed with my guitar player after a gig I did in New York, and it happened that Billy Swan was quitting my band. So I asked Stephen if he'd like to come along. Billy was supposed to stay with us the whole summer until Stephen learned the songs. But Billy quit a week later, and Stephen was stuck there.
AC: Apparently he's been stuck there ever since. Is he your longest-running association?
KK: He and Donny Prince and Billy Swan. Stephen has always been my right-hand man. In the process, he turned into my favorite guitar player. I love the way he plays. I don't know, I just like the groove he sets on songs. There's something about the way he plays that just fits my brain.
AC: Bruton tells a story about the rehearsals for A Star Is Born where he's making suggestions and arguing a bit when Streisand walks in and gives you hell about allowing the sideman to talk back.
KK: [Laughs] I don't remember that, but God knows it could have happened. I know the way I approach music was vastly different than the way Barbra did. But over the years, I have come to really appreciate the opportunity she gave me to be in that thing, and would hesitate to attach any bad memories to it.
AC: But doesn't a bandleader's approach sort of say something about the man?
KK: I wanted everyone to feel the same sort of passion for the music that I do, and to be as committed to doing a good gig as I am. Over the years, you find people like that, and I want them to feel like they're having fun so they're creative. When I first started out and tried to work with a band, I jumped into the water without testing it. I was trying to do everything; I tried to figure out the harmonies and the very notes they should play. I finally realized it was like trying to get everyone to act like you on a football team. You have to have the freedom to be creative.
The people I admire, like Don Was or directors Alan Rudolph or John Sayles, they're good leaders. They would have been good platoon leaders. Somehow, they get everybody that comes to the project to feel like they're contributing. Everybody feels like they have a stake in it. And that seemed to happen even now on The Austin Sessions. We all respected each other and we had to work fast. Everybody was on the same page and laughing at the same jokes. It was quite an experience for me. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed music, and how different it was from the enjoyment I get out of a film. It's totally different.
AC: Is music simply more interactive?
KK: Much more. We're all vibrating to the same music and working very consciously in regard to what everyone else is doing. Acting is more piecemeal. I haven't done enough plays, but in the movies, it's all cut up and spliced. It's hard to have a feeling of any continuity. That's not to say it doesn't happen, though -- especially working with someone like John Sayles: You have every actor and every carpenter committed to the script, so you're working off each other's energy like musicians. But for the most part, music is a different thing. And with The Austin Sessions, I felt like an old dog returning to comfortable ground.
AC: Is Austin itself comfortable ground?
KK: Definitely. Austin is a very good music town that way. You feel like people care about songs. From the time I'd first gone to visit Willie, it's felt that way to me. Even in Nashville, I fell in with the Texas crowd. Coming from Brownsville, I've always felt like a Texan, but I cut my teeth as a songwriter in Nashville. That's where I paid my dues.
Then again, I never really did work a club in Nashville. They didn't have clubs in those days for people of my non-fame. I worked in a restaurant where a guy used to sing. I filled in for him one night and got fired on the spot. It was a while before I worked in Nashville again.
When I started paying my dues as a performer, it was in places like the Troubadour and Bitter End, more folksy clubs like the clubs in Austin. To me, what was nice about Austin was the way the music blends -- black, Mexican, country, rock, whatever. They feed off each other, not against each other.
AC: Other than Nashville, you probably spent as many calendar days in Austin as any place.
KK: Well, there's places for what I do. And hanging out with Willie is always a pleasure. I remember the first time I ever heard of Willie was in the Army, on the Armed Forces Network radio. There was a deejay there that was a Willie Nelson fan before the rest of the world was. He'd play some of Willie's songs and then I found out he was the same guy that wrote "Crazy."
When I got to Nashville, I found that the people who considered themselves serious songwriters like I did -- the underground guys that weren't really selling their music -- had two heroes: Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. Usually, they'd be in one camp or another. I happened to like both of them. I never really got to know either of them there, though. I was John's janitor for several years in a recording studio, but I got to know their bands first. With Willie, Jimmy Day was the connection. It wasn't until working on the road that we got to be very close friends.
AC: Does that seem like a great accomplishment: going from a guy who listened to them on Armed Forces radio to becoming a Highwayman decades later?
KK: Listen, with my life, I feel like Muhammad Ali sometimes, like I just dreamed it up. To end up not just knowing these people, but to be real close friends -- with Muhammad Ali, too -- feels like a real treasure at this point in my life. I used to pinch myself every night. Now I do it every day. And I'll probably see Willie while I'm in Austin. We played golf out here a couple of months ago. You know, Willie plays every day. By the time he got me to play, I was already 50 years old. I'll never get good. But he knocks the hell out of the ball.
AC: You've said that Dennis Hopper playing golf is "one of the first signs of the apocalypse." What about you and Willie?
KK: [Laughs] Listen, we're both signs of the apocalypse, golf or no.
AC: Is the lack of soul in modern country music a potential sign too?
KK: I don't know. We were fighting for respect for country music when I went to Nashville. My relatives and my peers from college regarded it as hick music. It didn't have the respect that it came to have thanks to Johnny Cash and Willie and the relationship that John had with Bob Dylan, plus the stuff that Roger Miller did. I think that anytime anything gets more popular or marketed more widely it gets watered down. It happened with the blues. But I think it's nice that country records sell to so many people now. And there are guys I like; I was lucky to have a couple of them sing on my Austin album. I think the good stuff always emerges.
AC: But even now, Texans that head out to Nashville say they find resistance. Do you think getting the good stuff to emerge has always been a more difficult task for Texans?
KK: I don't know that it was tougher for Texans. A lot of talented Texans didn't get attention simply because Nashville was looking for something different. When Willie was recording back when I came to town for RCA, they didn't consider him a vocalist. They were letting him make records, because he was such a valuable songwriter. They didn't think Roger Miller was a vocalist. I swear to God, that's what I would hear from the people in power. God knows they thought the same about me.
I was lucky to have someone like Fred Foster to want me to make a record. Guys like us or Townes [Van Zandt] weren't what they were looking for. They were looking for guys that could sing like Faron Young or George Jones. If you were just a singer-songwriter, they didn't know what to do. They respected Bob Dylan because he was such a big star, but they didn't understand him at all.
AC: Nashville's interests aside, do you consider yourself a country songwriter or a singer-songwriter?
KK: I think I've always been a singer-songwriter. I never really had my songs marketed to a country market. When there was a time that they sold, they sold to everybody. The songs themselves, like the ones on The Austin Sessions, that's who I am. I think ever since Monument Records sank, people haven't known what bin to put me in. Up until that point, I had my own bin. And when I started looking for a new label, and they started trying to market me to the country market, it was very difficult.
AC: Wasn't Austin one of the first places to embrace the fact that the line between country songwriters and singer-songwriters blurs so easily?
KK: There certainly were a lot of those type around Austin. Look at guys like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, or even like Doug Sahm. Doug Sahm is one of my true heroes. He's a musician to the bone. I've always been pleased to hang out in Austin with all those guys.
AC: Yet you've chosen to settle down in Hawaii and not Austin. Why?
KK: That was really the closest atmosphere I could find to Texas. I have five little kids and didn't want to raise them in the city. I've been coming to Hawaii for 30 years, bought property about 20 years ago. It's a small town, and it reminded me of the way I remember the Lower Rio Grande Valley. It's small, the weather is the same, and the kids can go to school barefoot if they want to. Most of the people are brown-skinned people, they're locals out here. It's nice. It's a great place for bringing up kids.
AC: Does the isolation lead to more or less songwriting?
KK: I write all the time. And the more I focus on music, the more writing I do. I've been working out here with a chainsaw, hauling rocks and clearing land. It gives me time to think. It's the way my brain works -- the songs I'm writing aren't always songs you can do anything with, but I can't help it. They just come to me. Time to think means time to write songs.
AC: Then again, The Austin Sessions is really a glorified greatest hits set. Is 62 years old the time to start thinking about a legacy?
KK: Nah. I'm hoping it opens the door for me, and I'm hoping it brings attention to the other songs I have. My show will have far more songs that the ones on the album, and Atlantic wants to do another record already. I have a lot of old stuff and new stuff I'd like to explore. And you know, I haven't had a label behind me in 20 years. I'm so pleased by the support this record's getting by Atlantic. I hadn't gotten that kind of treatment in so long, I'd forgotten what it's like. I'm real pleased that it's being so well-received. It's gonna get me back on the road for a little bit to see how it feels.
AC: Is Kris Kristofferson back on a label the size of Atlantic a sign that the outlaw has become establishment?
KK: I still feel like an outlaw. I have a big empty horizon out front of me. I'm not near anybody. I live on the edge of a mountain by myself with my own people. Is that outlaw? It's out of the race anyway. And as far as every time I start talking about what I believe in -- what our government is or isn't doing -- I manage to piss off a lot of people, whether I'm arguing for Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, the United Farm Workers, or Sandinistas. There's no end.
AC: Are you getting more leftist in old age?
KK: Yes, maybe because I'm less apt to be confused by the media.
AC: Have you looked at George W. Bush?
KK: I haven't looked at him real hard, but there isn't a left wing in American politics anymore, so anything to the right of Clinton is going in the direction of Genghis Khan. Everybody is right-wing. We didn't have any opposition at all to the war in Iraq. That's scary to me. We're talking about bombing people.
Maybe it's just because Americans have been lucky enough to have never been bombed. But something like Oklahoma City ought to wake us up the fact of how much damage a bomb can do. And we should be a little reluctant to bomb other people back into the stone age like we did in Baghdad. That scares me, but hell, I'm still bitching about the Warren Report and the Kennedy assassination. Is that leftist or outlaw? I don't know.
Kris Kristofferson plays Stubb's, Sunday, October 17.