At 82, his singing voice is little more than a raspy whisper. He’s the first to admit he doesn’t remember stuff the way he used to. But no matter how often I listen to Kris Kristofferson work through the songbook that has landed him in at least two songwriting halls of fame, I hear something new. He reminds me what it means to be a poet. He reminds me what a hero looks like.
Backed by musicians calling themselves The Strangers, Kris did a concert Thursday in Tucson, Ariz., my home away from home these days. He played to an appreciative full house in the historic Fox Theatre, that opened in 1930 as a vaudeville/movie palace and has been lovingly restored in deco splendor as a live-show venue.
The lyrics are always the stars of the show for this iconic artist whose half-century career has been a balancing act between making music and making movies. Sharing the stage with Scott Joss on fiddle, Doug Colosio on keyboards and Jeff Ingraham on drums added wonderful musicality to his words.
Joss’ lyrical violin and his backup vocal harmonies with keyboardist Colosio gave Kris’ poetry room to breathe. The Strangers were the backup band for Merle Haggard, who toured with Kris before his death in 2016. They added some honky-tonk classics, including Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee,” to the song list, lightening and livening things up.
Joss played the Sam Elliott role next to the guy who won a Golden Globe when he starred in the last “A Star Is Born” in 1976. Country music is one field where guys with white hair still have a future. There was plenty of charisma emanating from the Fox stage last Thursday.
Distilling the most complex emotions and relationships into short lines of one-syllable words, Kris’ songs are stories — of loneliness, longing and love along the songwriter’s odyssey. Now in the twilight years, the songs are about facing his own fragile mortality. The melodies are so similar as to feel like different verses of the same song.
From the coal mines of Kentucky to the California sun, Kris’ version of country music doesn’t belong to a region, but a country. Righteous politics and a search for religious salvation fill the spaces between the words in “A Simple Song of Freedom” and his other war correspondent’s notes from the front lines of injustice.
A wacky, Roger Miller-John Prine sense of humor runs through other songs. After four months in Tucson, I’ll never listen to “The Best of All Possible Worlds” the same again.
The intimacy of his love ballads instantly encompasses an auditorium of strangers. “Was it wonderful for you, was it holy as it was for me?” he sang at the end of the concert, sharing “A Moment of Forever.” Now when he sings “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” he’s addressing the audience.
I’ve long shared the belief that failure was the source of Kris’ success. His career has knocked him to the floor, more than once. The courageous part was getting back up. As an actor, he’ll never be mistaken for a great thespian. I once asked him what guided him in his film career. Just being honest, he answered.
“Me and Bobby McGee” will always be the song he’s remembered for. But now, after a reckless youth and years of being a musical “outlaw,” he’s facing “that old man in the mirror with his shaky self-esteem” with the backbone that’s been there from the start.
“God Almighty here I am
Am I where I ought to be
I’ve begun to soon descend
Like the sun into the sea
And I thank my lucky stars
From here to eternity
For the artist that you are
And the man you made of me.”
The chance to spend a little time with Kris and his wife, Lisa, on their home turf has provided the excuse for many memorable drives to Hana over the years. It’s rare these days to get to hang out with a natural-born hero, the kind of hero the neighbor kids call “Uncle.”
A huge mahalo to all of you who responded to last week’s column about my recent heart attack, and — knock on wood — its happy outcome, thanks to Dr. Constantin Boiangiu and the crack cardio staff at Tucson Medical Center.
I don’t know if it was the brush with mortality or the acknowledgment of denial as my previous remedy of choice that struck such a nerve with readers. But I am deeply touched by your outpouring of love, and the bell it rang for some of you to start taking better care of yourselves.
* Rick Chatenever, award-winning columnist and former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist and documentary scriptwriter/producer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.