Kris Kristofferson performs Oct. 16 at the Palladium at St. Petersburg College.
ST. PETERSBURG – In support of his latest album “Feeling Mortal,” country music icon Kris Kristofferson will make his only Tampa Bay appearance Wednesday, Oct. 16, 7:30 p.m., at the Palladium at St. Petersburg College, 253 Fifth Ave. N., St. Petersburg.
Presented as part of the Ruth Eckerd Hall on the Road series, tickets start at $45. Call 791-7400 or visit www.rutheckerdhall.com.
Kristofferson is a Country Music Hall of Famer who ranks among the most versatile of American talents. He’s been a Golden Gloves boxer, a Rhodes scholar, a college football player, an acclaimed actor, a military officer, a helicopter pilot, a Grammy-winner, a screw-up and an icon, and now he finds himself releasing the third Don Was-produced album in a twilight years trilogy. “Feeling Mortal” follows 2009’s “Closer To The Bone” and 2006’s “This Old Road” in examining hard-won grace.
Born in 1936, Kristofferson took a tortuous path toward country stardom. An award-winning short story writer as well as a Golden Gloves boxer, he graduated from Pomona College in 1958 with a degree in creative writing. From there, he attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. While in England, he began performing as Kris Carson, playing country and folk music.
In 1960, Kristofferson joined the United States Army, serving as a helicopter pilot in Germany. He was offered a teaching position at West Point. He turned it down in order to pursue his dream of becoming a successful songwriter.
At first, Kristofferson struggled. He took whatever work he could find to pay the bills, including working as a janitor at Columbia Records.
Dave Dudley – best remembered for his country hit “Six Days on the Road” – recorded Kristofferson’s “Viet Nam Blues” in 1966. This single helped establish Kristofferson as an emerging songwriter and, over the next few years, more of his original songs reached the charts, recorded by musicians such as Billy Walker & the Tennessee Walkers, Ray Stevens, Jerry Lee Lewis and Faron Young.
In 1969, Roger Miller recorded Kristofferson’s song “Me and Bobby McGee.” The song reached No. 12 on the U.S. Country chart. Gordon Lightfoot also had success with the song in 1970. Janis Joplin covered the song on her 1971 album “Pearl.” Her version reached No. 1 on the U.S. Hot 100 chart.
Kristofferson released his own debut album on Monument Records in 1970. “Kristofferson” featured both new songs and previous hits. His second album, “The Silver Tongued Devil and I,” reached No. 4 on the U.S. Country charts in 1971 and was followed by “Border Lord” in 1972. Kristofferson’s fourth album, “Jesus Was a Capricorn,” was released in 1972 and featured the No. 1 hit “Why Me.”
Kristofferson also spends part of his time focusing on an acting career which began in 1971 in “The Last Movie,” directed by Dennis Hopper. Over the years, he has appeared in dozens of films, including roles in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “Convoy,” “Heaven’s Gate,” “Blade” and “Payback.” He won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Musical or Comedy for his role in “A Star Is Born” in 1976. More recently, he portrayed Reed Haskett, father of Clay Haskett, in the film “Dolphin Tale” about Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s best-known dolphin resident, Winter.
Kris Kristofferson remembers immortality.
“Nothing could kill me,” he says, recalling his 1960s days in Nashville, when he roared for years on end, somehow finding time amidst the chaos to change the language of country music. In a biography provided by his publicist, he reflects on his wild days. “I was rolling cars and wrecking motorcycles, drinking and doing everything I could to die early. But it didn’t work.”
In fact, Kristofferson is 76 now and on his 28th album – the aptly titled “Feeling Mortal.”
“Going back to the beginning, the songs have been reflections of where I was at that point in my life,” he says. “I always try to be as honest as I can in the songwriting, otherwise there’s no point in doing it: I might as well be doing an advertising job or something. And what I’m finding, to my pleasant surprise at this age, is that I’m more inclined to laughter than tears. I hope I’ll feel this creative and this grateful until they throw dirt over me.”
Kristofferson did not always imagine this would be so.
“If I look like a mean old man, that’s what I am,” he sang, back when he was still immortal and when he was sometimes a mean-feeling younger man. But now he’s mostly truthful and thankful, as he sings, “For the laughter and the loving. That I’m living with today.”
That doesn’t mean “Feeling Mortal” works as anyone’s greeting card of soft-peddled feelings.
“Just Suppose” is another look in the mirror, a negotiation with shame’s reflection. “Castaway” is a cry of the heart, and a memory of a long-ago scene Kristofferson witnessed from the air, when he was flying helicopters over the Gulf of Mexico. And “My Heart Was The Last One To Know” is a harrowing old song, written by Kristofferson and genius poet, author, cartoonist, songwriter Shel Silverstein and previously recorded by Connie Smith.
“Shel was the only person I consistently wrote songs with,” Kristofferson says. “He was a fantastic writer. We did about a dozen songs, and usually he’d write down some titles and a description of what he was thinking about, and I’d go off and come back with a song.”
The album ends with “Ramblin’ Jack,” a song ostensibly about Kristofferson’s folk-singing friend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Kristofferson approached the song as something of a self-penned co-write, inspired and begun by his younger self and finished in the present and mortal day. The second verse is the new one: “And if he knew how good he’d done. Every song he ever sung. I believe he’d truly be surprised.”
“Ramblin’ Jack’s one of those people whose whole life was music,” Kristofferson says. “He’s like William Blake and Bob Dylan and other people who just believed and lived for whatever poetry they could come up with. That’s probably the thing I was trying to be.”
In his Nashville beginning, Kristofferson turned his back on a promising military career in favor of life as what he sometimes calls “a songwriting bum.”
By that time, he had excelled at most everything he’d ever tried, save for singing and songwriting, but it was the singing and the writing that called to him. He wound up penning classics including “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “For The Good Times,” as well as a slew of other empathetic, incisive gems. Kristofferson – along with contemporaries Tom T. Hall, Mickey Newbury, Willie Nelson and John Prine – enhanced the scope of country music songwriting, focusing on layering, nuance, empathy and emotional truth.
“A major reason for Kris’ enduring popularity is that he’s always been very honest and open about revealing his inner life,” says producer Don Was, who has worked with Kristofferson for the past 17 years. “‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ is a brutally frank, first-person narrative that just happens to hit a common nerve among millions of people, and that’s why Kris is such a great artist. I suspect a whole lot of folks will be able to relate to Feeling Mortal, now and for years to come. It’s totally in keeping with the body of Kris’ oeuvre.”
Kristofferson and Was spent three days recording “Feeling Mortal,” cutting 20 songs and picking 10, then bolstering the basic tracks with stellar instrumental work from guitarist Mark Goldenberg, pedal steel master Greg Leisz, keyboardist Matt Rollins, violinist and vocalist Sara Watkins, bassist Sean Hurley and drummer Aaron Sterling.
Above all, Kristofferson is happy to be happy, grateful to be grateful, and wholly unwilling to take the credit for the wondrous way it’s all worked out. In the end, “Feeling Mortal” is a melodic note of gratitude.