Kris Kristofferson isn’t just a singer. He’s also a songwriter, actor and activist.
The 73-year-old has a military background, with his father an Air Force colonel and his paternal grandfather in the Swedish army. He joined the Army and trained as a helicopter pilot at Fort Rucker, Ala., and also won his Ranger tab at Fort Benning.
He was a Rhodes Scholar who was offered a position teaching at West Point, the United States Army Military Academy, but refused — opting to go to Nashville to try his hand at writing songs.
Once in Nashville, his first job was sweeping floors at Columbia Studios, where he met Johnny Cash, who later recorded several of his songs.
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His songs include such country classics like “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” “For the Good Times,” “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.”
In 1971, he made his debut as an actor in “The Last Movie,” and has continued to work in movies and television. Last year, he starred as Jennifer Aniston’s father in “He’s Just Not That Into You.”
Kristofferson continues to tour. He will be in concert Tuesday at the Bill Heard Theatre.
The Army connection
In 1964, Kristofferson was stationed in Germany with retired Maj. Gen. Jerry White, president and chairman of the National Infantry Foundation.
“We were both captains. I was the aide to a two-star general, and he was the general’s helicopter pilot. He is probably the finest helicopter pilot I’ve ever seen. We traveled together a lot with the general; he flying and me in the seat next to him.”
White remembers a band that Kristofferson had formed. “He wrote the music, and he was not the best singer,” he said with a laugh.
White calls Kristofferson a good soldier who was very smart.
Though they haven’t kept in contact since Kristofferson’s military days, White still respects the singer.
“I might have seen him one time since,” White said. “It was a long time ago. I have a lot of respect for him as a soldier. I’ve done a lot and so has he. I’d like to see him again.”
White may go to see the concert Tuesday.
Michael Burks, who is the executive director of the Lafayette Society for Performing Arts in LaGrange, met Kristofferson around 1965. His older brother, Archie Harrell, served in Germany with Kristofferson. Harrell was stationed at Fort Rucker, where both men were trained as helicopter pilots.
“He (Harrell) said he had this friend who was going to Nashville to become a country singer,” Burks said. “What is his name, I asked. Archie said, ‘Kris Kristofferson.’ I said, ‘Good luck with that name in country music.’”
Harrell, now retired from both the Army and his real estate career in the Tacoma, Wash., area, remembers a time when Kristofferson wasn’t with the rest of the platoon.
“I asked where Kris was, and I was told that he went back to the unit to write the division (Eighth Infantry Division) history,” Harrell said. “I said I could do that. Then the guy said, ‘Are you a Rhodes Scholar? Well, Kris is a Rhodes Scholar in English literature.”
Later at an American embassy function, Harrell remembers that he, Kristofferson and another officer, were talking to some young women. One of the women asked the soldiers what they did, and Harrell said he remembers Kristofferson saying, “‘Archie is the sergeant and we are his privates. But I used to be a school teacher.’ ”
The woman said she was a teacher and started asking him questions and he answered every one with a quote.
“His grammar was not any better than anyone else’s,” Harrell said. “I told one of the others that when they got home to tell her that he was a Rhodes Scholar.”
Even though Harrell has not seen Kristofferson in 45 years, he’s happy for his success and likes to think that he would be remembered.
‘The real deal’
To Paul Pierce, the artistic director of the Springer Opera House, Kristofferson is multi-talented.
“Man, I’ve always loved Kris Kristofferson,” Pierce said. “But it’s impossible to separate the actor from the singer-songwriter because we like his music and his movie characters for the same reason. He’s the real deal. This isn’t a guy that was cranked out of some Hollywood or Nashville star machine. That voice and that face come from life experience and no actor that ever lived can fake that.
“This is a guy that worked as a janitor and in the oil patch — all the while writing songs and sniffing out opportunities in the music business.
“I enjoyed meeting him and talking with him some in Houston in 1985 when the Highwaymen were big. He was playing with Waylon (Jennings), Willie (Nelson) and Johnny Cash at a New Years Eve party — at the Astrodome! Mickey Rafael (Willie’s longtime harmonica player) invited us to the ongoing backstage party and that’s where we spent most of the evening, hanging out with Kris and all of these music legends. Like I said, he’s the real deal.”
What local singer/songwriters think
Kristofferson is a founding member of the Nashville Songwriters Association International.
Nona Christie, a lyricist, is president of the Columbus chapter of NSAI.
“I can hardly wait for the show,” she said. I think he’ll be remembered as being very important as a songwriter. He is one of the best ever. All other songwriters admire him.”
Sam Phillips, a musician, composer and producer, said “He is an elder of songwriting. He is the voice of the working man in our culture. He has shown the vulnerable side of American citizenship. I respect him as a songwriter, but I’m not a huge fan of his type of music. I have immense respect for him.”
Alek Ansley, the owner of JudyBug’s Books on Broadway, thinks Kristofferson is a great songwriter and actor.
“As he’s aged, he’s become a character actor and he’s enjoyable to watch. When he pops up, I always say, ‘Hey, it’s Kris Kristofferson. OK. Cool.’”
Columbus singer/songwriter Brent Lindley admires Kristofferson’s courage to give up everything to go for his dream.
“He was a renegade in Nashville,” Lindley said. “As a writer, he broke all the rules. He was very out of the box. He changed the way songwriters are viewed. He came to Nashville as an outsider and made his own rules and carved out his own path. I think he’s got courage. If he can do it, then everyone can do it.”
Lindley calls Kristofferson an “everyday guy.”
“I’m going to go to the show,” Lindley said. “You know it. I’ll be there. You called the right guy about him. I’m very passionate about him.”
Riley Yielding is another local musician and luthier who lives in Beulah.
“He is one of the best,” Yielding said. “He is a great songwriter.
“In terms of ‘Me and Bobby McGee,’ I think he did it better than Janis Joplin, who ‘made’ that song. But I think he performed it better.”