Kris Kristofferson: The Fighter

ARTS, Music
img_kriskristofferson-nataliadeyrAt 77, the iconic country musician and actor is still struggling for a better America. Plus, a Steve Earle review.

A major reason for Kris’s enduring popularity is that he’s always been very honest and open about revealing his inner life,” his producer Don Was said last year, releasing Feeling Mortal, Kris Kristofferson’s 28th record. Kristofferson’s candour has extended beyond chart-topping classics like ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’, ‘For the Good Times’, and ‘Me and Bobby McGee’. The man who turned down Rambo gives lasting performances in such socially conscious films as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Lone Star, I’m Not There, and Fast Food Nation. Via email, ahead of his New Zealand wide tour, Kristofferson is a concise, engaging interviewee. Illustration by Natalia Deyr.

“He who is organized by the divine for spiritual communion, if he refuses and buries his talent in the earth, sorrow and desperation will pursue him for life, and after death shame and confusion of face to eternity,” William Blake. How does Blake still inspire your committed creative philosophy, putting out Feeling Mortal and touring Australasia at 77?

William Blake expressed for me the duty and desire of the creative artist I want to be.

Johnny Cash believed if you have a talent, you have an obligation to work as hard as you can on it until you die?

Well, there you go.

“Kris Kristofferson made me want to write better songs,” Johnny Cash once said. How did that make you feel?

To be respected by the artist that you most admire is as good as it gets.

Your Hawaii (and Highwayman) golfmate Willie Nelson says you brought country music from the dark ages into the present, with really profound writing. What’s a change you made to country music that you’re proud of?

I am proudest that Willie said that. He was—and still is—the hero of Country songwriters.

During the last decade—following on from Lone Star (and turning down Rambo)—you’ve compelled in socially conscious roles in Silver City, I’m Not There (as The Narrator), and Fast Food Nation. What do you hope people take away from these films?

I hope they are moved by the same feelings that I am. I hope they take away with them the honesty of the performances and respect for the material.

There’s a great feeling of mortality in Martin Scorsese films, like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which you vividly impressed in. How is Feeling Mortal Scorseseian?

Scorsese is an intelligent, creative artist, well aware of everyone’s mortality.

Freedom Road is a scandalously underseen film about slavery and politics starring you and your close friend Muhammad Ali. It led the way for 12 Years a Slave. As with your revisionist (and career toxic) western Heaven’s Gate, you believe American right-wingers wanted to suppress it because it wasn’t a rosy-eyed view of American history?

I don’t think they did; I know they did.

Tell me a personal story that shows how the Greatest was a beautiful human being?

Muhammad still is the greatest and a beautiful human being. At the peak of his power his first concern was other human beings and he will never change.

As well as learning about English literature, you won a prestigious Blue for boxing as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University’s Merton College. With vital fresh songs such as 2013’s ‘Bread for the Body, you’re still fighting for a better America?

(“I built my own chains in the land of the free
A slave to a job that meant nothing to me…
And I knew that my savings of silver and gold
Would mean not a thing when my body was cold”):

Is America spiritually broken?

America hasn’t recovered from the murder of the Kennedys, and money is still what matters most.

How do our Maori and Polynesia cultures attract you to touring New Zealand?

I’ve lived in Hawaii for 23 years. I worked with Polynesians on Wake Island when I was 17 for Hawaiian Dredging, and it changed my life forever. I respect their values and treatment of people.

© Natalia Deyr 2014. All Rights Reserved. More illustration at

Kris Kristofferson’s seven-centre New Zealand tour begins at Auckland’s Civic Theatre on April 30.

*   *   *

img_steveearleSteve Earle pays extensive tribute to Kristofferson’s inspiration here, and he’s keeping that te ahi kaa (spirit) aflame. Performing in Wellington, Earle’s set was led by his burningly good 2013 album The Low Highway, beginning with redolent trio ‘The Low Highway’ (“And a cry for justice and a call for peace. Force of reason in the roar of the beast”), ’21st Century Blues’, and ‘Calico County’.

‘Calico County’ is even more scorching live, pithily evoking America’s meth epidemic, Winter’s Bone style: “Friday night, dog fight/Suckin’ on that meth pipe.”

The proud socialist who played Bubbles’s friend Walon through The Wire knows about hard times in a hard land. Earle’s power is freighted by tough, meaty lyrics; heightened live by his grizzled voice and earthy presence; leavened by humorous, poetic, and hopeful observations, during and between songs. The solidarity between Earle, his dynamic four-piece band, and the Dukes crew adds to the charm.

The man who’s been married seven times announced, “We’ve been playing this song a lot lately, because I’m single,” before a red-hot, rousing version of love song ‘I Thought You Should Know’. “If you’re thinkin’ ‘bout breakin’ my heart/You might as well just pick up your little black dress and go.”

‘Invisible’ (about Greenwich Village’s poverty problem, despite all the energy and inspiration his neighbourhood still gives him) and ‘Pocket Full of Rain’ were grounded in sharp personal introductions. He said the latter, ruminating on his former Texan alcoholism, is the first time he’s done a piano song. “You try hitchhiking with these fuckers [gestures at keyboard].”

Earle paid his respects to New Orleans (“the birthplace of American music”) and his work on Treme (“one of the best jobs I’ve ever had”), and delivered enjoyable Treme tracks ‘Love’s Gonna Blow My Way’, ‘That All You Got?’ and ‘After Mardi Gras’. (Like Mavis Staples, Earle also paid tribute to his Woodstock neighbour Levon Holm.)

After praising our environment ahead of Tongariro trout fishing (post this last gig of a long tour), Earle returned to The Revolution Starts Now with a political message for New Zealand. “There are some frightening American things happening here,” he said, before playing the 2004 record’s title track.

Following her Sydney Opera House gig, the James Cabaret wasn’t up to scratch for Neko Case. Earle rightly got the atmospheric, well lit St James Theatre last night, swathed in primal red for stomping audience favourite ‘Copperhead Rd’.

‘Billy Austin’ (from 1990’s The Hard Way, the first album Earle toured New Zealand with) is a masterpiece live, an unusually haunting statement against the death penalty, Earle’s lived-in lyrical observation transcending tired lefty clichés, firing his compassion:

I ain’t about to tell you
That I don’t deserve to die
But there’s twenty-seven men here
Mostly black, brown and poor
Most of ‘em are guilty
Who are you to say for sure?
So when the preacher comes to get me
And they shave off all my hair
Could you take that long walk with me?
Knowing hell is waitin’ there
Could you pull that switch yourself sir?

Steve Earle & The Dukes performed concerts in Auckland and Wellington on April 26 and 27 respectively.

When on assignment in Auckland, The Lumière Reader stays at the five-star Pullman Auckland.

Filed under: ARTS, Music


Alexander Bisley is an editor-at-large who has contributed in-depth interviews and more to The Lumière Reader since 2004. He’s written extensively on culture (and sport) for all of New Zealand’s leading outlets, and also makes his living freelancing for international publications including The Guardian, Slate, and The AV Club. He’s published by The Independent, BBC, Vice, The Sydney Morning Herald, Playboy, and Slate France, and has been paid once by The New Yorker.