By Michael Aushenker
Kris Kristofferson has achieved a storied career and, some would say, led a charmed life.
The 77-year-old has penned and recorded songs — “Me and Bobby McGee,” “For the Good Times,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down” — that became not only hits, but classics. He held his own as an actor with James Coburn and Warren Oates in Sam Peckinpah films, starred opposite Barbara Streisand in “A Star is Born” and enjoyed a late career revival that included the Marvel Comics vampire franchise Blade. He was an Army helicopter pilot and a Rhodes Scholar who broke into the music business working as a janitor at Columbia’s Nashville recording studios. He was married to country starlet Rita Coolidge. His super-group The Highwaymen towered over the 1980s country music scene.
But Kristofferson wasn’t in Santa Monica on Tuesday to talk about any of that.
No, he joined Robert Hilburn for a Writer’s Bloc event at New Roads School to talk about another life—that of his late friend and fellow Highwayman Johnny Cash.
“He was a poet and an artist unlike anyone I have ever known,” Kristofferson said of Cash before a crowd of some 350 people.
With the air of an elder statesman with his silver hair and goatee, tan cowboy boots, and black dress shirt and jeans (a nod to The Man in Black?), Kristofferson brought an affable, humbled presence, especially when discussing Cash.
While still an aspiring musician and still in the military, Kristofferson met Cash through a friend in the late 1960s at Nashville’s legendary Grand Ol’ Opry.
“I was thunderstruck!” Kristofferson recalled. “He shook hands with me and he changed my life. I knew I was right where I belonged.”
Later, as a Columbia Records custodian, Kristofferson broke company rules and slipped the Cash a song he had penned when Cash was recording with good pal Bob Dylan. Kristofferson’s career soon took off.
In the program with former Los Angeles Times music critic Hilburn, who just released the new book “Johnny Cash: A Life,” Kristofferson opened up about what it was to know and work with Cash as a songwriter and band mate.
The Highwaymen, which also featured Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, produced three albums in an era that wasn’t kind to Cash. By the late 1980s he’d fallen off the scene and had trouble commanding an audience. Columbia even dropped him from the label.
“Johnny Cash built Columbia,” Kristofferson said, shaking his head.
It was at his low ebb in the early 1990s that an unlikely player walked into Santa Ana’s now-defunct Rhythm Café, where Cash played before a sparse crowd. It was Rick Rubin — then a young producer behind albums by the likes of the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, L.L. Cool J, Slayer and Red Hot Chili Peppers — who would revive Cash’s career by stripping down his sound and giving Cash the opportunity to write new songs and cover younger artists. For a cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” Cash did for the heroin-addiction ballad what he did with Kristofferson’s melancholy alcohol paean “Sunday Morning Coming Down”: he made it his own. The Rubin period led to three Grammys for Cash.
Kristofferson also spoke of a similar musical debt to Hilburn, recounting how the critic caught him opening for Linda Ronstadt at the Troubadour in 1970 and raved about the performance in print.
It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Kristofferson said “I had never worked the Troubadour before, and I have never stopped working since.”
Just two months after that West Hollywood concert, Cash’s cover of Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” a world-weary composition about a lonely alcoholic, hit the charts on its way to becoming a signature Cash classic.
Although the Writers’ Bloc program was billed as a conversation, Kristofferson couldn’t resist performing. He played four songs: “Me & Bobby McGee,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and both “Pilgrim Chapter 33” and “To Beat the Devil” — which the singer said were inspired by Cash’s internal contradictions and battles with drug and alcohol addiction.
“I spent three years and 700 pages trying to say that,” Hilburn said of his book after Kristofferson played “Pilgrim Chapter 33.”
Despite Cash’s well-documented internal conflicts, Kristofferson’s awe of his mentor-figure never flagged.
“Johnny Cash never disappointed me,” Kristofferson said. “He had some hard times. He was not embarrassed to admit them. He was larger than life, all of the time.”
During his performance there were moments when Kristofferson lost his place in these iconic songs, but the singer laughed it off and chalked it up to age.
Together, Cash and Kristofferson represent a generation of country artists who defy categorization, blending elements of country, rock, blues and gospel. Music-wise, they are their own men.
After the program, a woman in the audience shouted to Hilburn that he should write a book about Kristofferson.
“He’s writing his own book,” Hilburn replied.