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Just ol' Kris
December 2, 2009 - Rick Chatenever
‘It’s as hard on you as it is on me,” says Kris Kristofferson with a laugh at the other end of the phone line, as I warn him he’s probably heard these interview questions before.
Audiences flock around the world, from LA’s Walt Disney Hall to concerts in Vienna and Switzerland last month, to see the artist who qualifies as a gen-u-ine icon in two entirely different fields — hall of fame singer-songwriter, and movie actor whose filmography spans four decades.
But when he plays Maui, it’s different. It’s home. It’s a fundraiser for his kids’ high school.
Some journalists are intimidated by the prospect of talking to the 73-year-old legend, mistaking him for some of the gruff, dark-side roles of his late film career, instead of the flawed All-American hero he first brought to the screen in the early ’70s.
But here, it’s different. He’s more like your neighbor across the fence. Just ol’ Kris on the phone, at home in Hana, family noise in the background.
He’s got a new album, “Closer to the Bone,” and a Dec. 11 concert coming up in at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater to benefit Hana High School and Hana athletics.
“We’ve been living out here about 20 years,” he explains. “My last five kids went through the school system here. My last one’s there now.”
He basically hires the hall, takes the stage — just him, his guitar and harmonic — for a couple of hours, the craggy voice intoning the new songs and the older ones that could shrink-wrap big truths into little phrases that will live forever: Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
Fans who want more can bid for memorabilia, or go for the $300 VIP package which includes meeting him at the show. Then he gives the money to Hana High School.
As opposed to Hawaiian stereotypes and myths, his connection to his Hana home is different.
“When I was a kid, I worked for Hawaiian Dredging out on Wake Island,” he says. “I came to appreciate the spirit of the locals. There was a generosity of spirit that always moved me as a kid.”
Now that he’s got his own kids and grandkids, “There’s a very family feeling out here.
“I don’t want to do anything to embarrass anybody,” he adds about the upcoming show.
As on his 2006 album, “The Old Road,” his new “Closer to the Bone” is pared down to the basics. Although he’s backed by Stephen Brutner, Jim Keltner, Rami Jaffee and producer Don Was, he says of the recording sessions, “I had the feeling they were almost like demos. Basically, it’s just the songs. I’ve been grateful for the reception the last couple of albums got. It may have something to do with my age … they don’t look at you so critically now.”
Which might be just a tad modest for the subject of a profile earlier this year in Rolling Stone magazine by actor-director Ethan Hawke, that went on for more than a dozen pages, proclaiming Kristofferson as perhaps the hero of our times, the entertainment world anyway, from the lows as much as the highs of his unique career.
He’s cast as a demigod almost, not just from flying too close to the sun and surviving — but from figuring out how to pick himself off the ground after his wings melted.
More than once.
He admits it’s still “scary” taking the stage by himself, “whether there’s people there or not. It was scarier when it started, it feels real close now. There’s less distance between me and the audience. Fewer people to get in the way. I think it’s what I’m supposed to be doing now. Although I’m repeating myself, it doesn’t feel that way.”
A Rhodes scholar and military officer in his 20s who gave up a teaching post at West Point to become a janitor in Nashville, Kristofferson spent the ensuing decades opposing war and violence from Nicaragua to the Middle East. He takes heart from the 2008 election.
“I hope they give Obama time,” he says. “Nobody’s cutting him any slack, the only people we hear from are the negative people. But I have the feeling he’s going to survive.
“There are many, many years that he’s got to undo, but I think he’s going in the right direction. I was surprised he had so much support, mostly from young people. It’s very promising for the county —he’s the closest thing to the Kennedys, since the Kennedys.”
For all Kristofferson’s charisma, he’s more about the songwriter than the singer.
“For me, I just go back to when I started. Probably the reason Johnny Cash and I both got away with it was that the people who do it the best, like Bob Dylan, made it OK for the rest of us to do it.
“It’s hard to call it ‘country music’ — it was different from the country music of Hank Williams’ day. It’s wasn’t the same pop music, the hit parade. It was its own thing, people like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor were on the same page.”
So it wasn’t country as in hillbillys, but the country that was made for you and me. The eager young geniuses who first made that music now are senior citizens, still in jeans, still singing. Asked about the fleeting nature of youth, he just laughs.
“I can never remember being young,” he says.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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•Who: Kris Kristofferson •What: Benefit concert for Hana High School and Hana athletics •When: Dec. 11, 7:30 p.m. •Where: Maui Arts & Cultural Center Castle Theater. •Tickets: $20, $35, $50, $300 (limited, includes meet and greet and gift bag), plus applicable fees, available for the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org