Highwayman Kristofferson still on the road
WANT TO GO?
Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson
WHERE: Big Sandy Superstore Arena, Huntington
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
TICKETS: $29.75 and $49.75
INFO: 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.comCHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After almost half a century in music, country music legend Kris Kristofferson tends to tells the same stories over and over, but that's because people keep asking him the same questions -- like the one about a helicopter and Johnny Cash, for instance.
"I probably have answered that question more than any other question anybody has ever asked me," the 76-year-old singer/songwriter and occasional movie star explained.
But, Kristofferson, who performs Saturday at Huntington's Big Sandy Superstore Arena with the equally renowned Merle Haggard, doesn't mind telling it again and separating some of the fact from some of the fiction.
According to legend, Kristofferson got his big break in music by piloting a helicopter onto Johnny Cash's property to bring him a song. Cash was so impressed by the brash, young songwriter, he recorded the song; it became a hit and Kris Kristofferson's career in country music took off.
Kristofferson would later go on to write a vast catalog of songs, including "Me and Bobbie McGee," which became Janis Joplin's signature tune, and "Help Me Make it Through the Night," which was a hit for country singers Sammi Smith and Willie Nelson. Some of the songs were for him, too.
And the music led Kristofferson to acting. Through four decades, he's starred in dozens of films, including the Sam Peckinpah western "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," "A Star is Born" with Barbra Streisand, the vampire trilogy "Blade" and 2011's "Dolphin Tale."
Kristofferson said the story about the helicopter is a good story. It's just not entirely true.
"John would tell it," he laughed. "And I went along with it. I never contradicted him."
Cash and Kristofferson were great friends and performed together, notably as members of country super group The Highwaymen, but they didn't meet on Cash's lawn. They met at Columbia Studios in Nashville, where Cash recorded songs and Kristofferson had a job sweeping floors.
"I loved that job," Kristofferson said. "I only had it for a couple of years, but it was a good way for a soldier to get accustom to the music business."
In 1965, Kristofferson was a 29 year-old Army captain with a degree from Oxford who'd just turned down an appointment at West Point to go to Nashville.
His family thought he was crazy. He wasn't some backwoods "Okie from Muskogee." Kristofferson was a Rhodes scholar from a prominent military family.
"Old friends and relatives thought I'd lost my mind," he acknowledged. "I know my parents thought country music was a real step down."
He took the job anyway. Emptying ashtrays and sweeping floors had its advantages. While working, he met dozens of artists, including Cash, who he occasionally tried to slip songs to. He was also there, cleaning up, while Bob Dylan recorded portions of his landmark record, "Blonde on Blonde."
Kristofferson still remembers those sessions as startling and unusual. He explained that, at the time, most recording sessions more or less worked through a song an hour.
"For a three hour session, you should get three songs."
Dylan, crouched over a piano and wearing sunglasses, wrote songs all night long while the studio musicians waited around, shooting pool and playing ping pong.
Kristofferson said. "Then about seven o'clock in the morning, he'd get them all in there and cut a masterpiece."
He was always impressed with Dylan, but it still must have made strange for him to go from emptying Dylan's wastepaper baskets to, a few years later, being asked to help him get a job.
Kristofferson was signed on to star in director Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." Dylan wanted to know if there was a part in there for him.
Kristofferson thought there was, but Peckinpah didn't really want him.
"Why don't we get Roger Miller?" Peckinpah told Krisofferson, before eventually agreeing to give Dylan a very small role in the film.
Dylan would also write songs for the film, but his relationship with Peckinpah got off to a rocky start.
Every day, at the end of filming, Peckinpah would review what had been shot. Sometimes members of the crew and cast would watch him. Kristofferson remembered Dylan's first day on the set and the review that followed.
"Sam was a little drunk, and one of the scenes was out of focus." Kristofferson laughed. "He got up on a chair and pissed on the screen -- on Bob's first take."
Then he looked back at Kristofferson as if to say, "What have you gotten me into?"
The movie worked out, more or less, and the music, Kristofferson said, was remarkable. Among the songs, Dylan wrote for the film was the classic "Knocking on Heaven's Door," recorded with musicians who Kristofferson said were members of his own band at the time.
He'd come a pretty far piece from being the guy who changed the paper towels.
Of course, even though he said he loved being a janitor at Columbia Studios, Kristofferson wasn't a janitor for very long. He signed a publishing deal and wrote songs in between flying helicopters (just like he'd done when he was stationed in Germany). He continued to fly even as his songs were getting picked up and recorded by artists like Roger Miller, Ray Stevens and Johnny Cash.
"My last paid job as a pilot, I think, was in 1969," he said. "I flew some band by helicopter. I don't even remember who they are anymore."
And just once, he took a helicopter out and flew to Johnny Cash's house.
"I almost landed on his roof," Kristofferson said. "Back in those days, his lawn came out over his roof. His house was on a cliff overlooking a lake."
But Cash wasn't home.
Instead, he gave a tape with his song to Cash's groundskeeper.
"John never even recorded it," Kristofferson laughed.
Reach Bill Lynch at email@example.com or 304-348-5195.