An intimate eavesdrop on the restless spirit that changed country music.
Ninian Dunnett 2010-05-04
Sitting on the porch with his wife June in the 1960s, Johnny Cash would amuse himself by hurling into the lake the unheard demo cassettes that were periodically pressed on him by the janitor at Columbia studios in Nashville.
Not all Kris Kristofferson’s tapes ended up underwater, though. This reverent work of musical reclamation reveals just what it was the ex-army pilot and sometime janitor was doing before he finally got Johnny’s attention – landing a National Guard helicopter on the grass between porch and lake – and changed the course of country music.
It was Kristofferson’s second shot at a music career. The son of an Air Force general, he had recorded as Kris Carson in his 20s while on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford, and gone on to temper his literary education with some years of tough living by the time he arrived in Nashville.
To the squares on Music Row he was an oddball, and these 16 demos give an earful of what that meant. It’s a raw and rag-tag collection, tracking the Texan’s imperfect rehearsals of the street language, drifter lore and flower power vibe that would reanimate the traditions of country for a new generation.
Me and Bobby McGee is a typical curio, the superb, hard-won simplicity of its construction doggedly challenged by the wailing harmonies Kristofferson overdubs with fellow sometime-janitor Billy Swan.
There’s a measure of less-than-persuasive roistering on tunes like Slow Down and If You Don’t Like Hank Williams, and one or two compositions that are just plain sketchy. Kristofferson’s voice is rougher than an untipped Lucky Strike, and you may not share his 60s audience’s respect for its authenticity (particularly on the otherwise attractive Come Sundown and Epitaph).
In the end it would be the likes of Cash, Dylan, and Janis Joplin who would carry Kristofferson’s direct, hip songs to the widest audience. But however ragged they may be, there’s still something in these early workouts that commands attention: an intimate connection, not just to the shaping of a talent and the writing of history, but to the heart of a man.