“It was only the real songwriters and pickers that went in there,” Kris Kristofferson says of The Professional Club, his favorite watering hole on Music Row back in the ‘60s. “It was never any civilians. Two [new] guys came in once and I guess they wanted to crack the music business or something. They were so uncomfortable they left after 15 minutes … Those were great days, though. Everybody was living for the song. You didn’t care about fame or fortune or whatever. The old guys who were playing on the Opry they would come in, too. I was in heaven.”
Kris Kristofferson is back in Nashville, chatting with me at his manager’s office on Music Row. He’s here to perform at a tribute concert for his friend Cowboy Jack Clement, and to promote his new album, Feeling Mortal. It’s a stirring collection of songs produced by his long-time compadre Don Was, the man he credits with rescuing his career – and life – from a pit of despair in the early ‘80s, when he was still reeling from his divorce from Rita Coolidge, as well as the fusillage of negative criticism that had been hurled toward Michael Cimino’s film Heaven’s Gate (in which he starred), widely considered one of the biggest cinematic flops in history.
As an actor, Rhodes scholar, athlete, etc., Kristofferson boasts Renaissance man credentials, but it’s as a songwriter that he really shines. His body of work, which includes “Me And Bobby McGee,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” occupies an august and substantial niche in the American songbook. But despite his hall-of-fame success, Kristofferson is not one to rest on his laurels, and, at age 76, he’s turned in an impressive new album, full of songs as vital as those he was writing as a young man in his 30s.
Sitting here in an office building on Music Row, he appears to get a twinkle in his eye when our talk drifts to the subject of the old days. He says the scenes in “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” are set on the same street we’re now on. “I wrote that about Music Row because they closed the bars on Sunday,” he says. “I think it hit a lot of people who drank as much as I did … You couldn’t buy liquor by the drink back then … you were supposed to bring your own bottle and drink it.”
When he performs the “Sunday Morning Coming Down” for us, which you can hear on Americansongwriter.com, he accidentally sings the original version, which contains a line that he says he was forced to take out. “I’d smoked so much the night before my mouth was like an ashtray that I’d been licking.”
Music Row was certainly a wilder place in the ‘60s, to hear Kristofferson tell it, and few vestiges of that less-commodified world remain today, with the possible exception of Bobby’s Idle Hour, a smoke-filled den just down the streets that serves cheap beer and hosts weekly songwriter nights for “knowns and unknowns.”
Kristofferson himself was an unknown when he first showed up in Music City, and, after kicking around for a few years, working stints as a janitor, bartender and commercial helicopter pilot, the former Army brat began to make a name for himself, and started palling around with simpatico songwriters like Mickey Newbury, Shel Silverstein and, of course, Willie Nelson. As far as Nashville songwriters, he says Willie was the one they all looked up to.
“We thought he’d never be famous because he was too deep for the average music audience and he had his own style and his own way of singing. I never met him the first four years I was here. But we all kind of idolized him. And he hasn’t changed a bit; he is the exact same guy that he was then.”
Kristofferson doesn’t appear to be exact same guy from yesteryear. Feeling Mortal reveals a more contented man than the one whose voice we heard in all those early classics. But in a sense he is the same kind of artist, making music that he believes in, still living for the song.