Usually when you talk to musicians you ask them about their music, their inspirations and their ambitions, trying to find common ground in shared experiences. With Kris Kristofferson, whose songs have long been inspirations themselves, the urge is to ask for guidance. When we speak—me in a Manhattan office, him at home in Maui—the conversation goes nowhere near his languorous and awesome new album, Closer to the Bone. Instead, we talk about writing, World War II, Obama and Ahmadinejad and our mutual childhood memories of south Texas. His rusty voice crackling over the line making anecdotes sound like parables, I find myself sitting attentively silent for long stretches, just as I have while his records played all my life, trying to glean some sense of how to live right.
Finally, after realizing I need to at least try to talk shop, I ask him what’s changed from the days when he penned his classic ’70s tales of drinking, loving, drinking again and waking up with the world’s weight on your head, and today, as his mellow country leans more towards fatherhood, marital glow and baring your soul. “My life now, god, when I was writing ‘Sunday Morning, Coming Down,’ I was living by myself in a little slum tenement. I’ve got eight kids now and a bunch of grandkids, and they’re really the best part of my life. At that time, I would’ve never thought that I would be a family man because I had pretty much moved away from my family—or they had moved away from me. I’d been to Oxford, and I’d raised a lot of expectations, in my parents and some other people, and those expectations didn’t include being a songwriter or a janitor in Nashville,” he says. “I feel really lucky that I stuck with it, because it’s what I love to do.”
The last song on Closer to the Bone was Kristofferson’s first. It’s called “I Hate Your Ugly Face,” and the chorus goes I want you to hear I ain’t cryin’ in my beer, this is how it goes with me/ The happiest day of my unhappy life was when you set me free. He was 11 when he wrote it, a precocious little dude with no clue of his future bliss. When I was 11, I wrote anonymous love letters to a girl in my class named Erica until this kid found me out, looked me in the eye and said, “Just tell her.” I didn’t, of course, but the point is, wisdom doesn’t come with age, and though you may gain some in grayer days, always listen to those born with it in their blood.
Stream: Kris Kristofferson, Closer to the Bone