Kris Kristofferson, Outlaw Pioneer, Turns 80

Outlaw country remains one of the most revolutionary movements in the annals of popular music. It’s a rebellion against Nashville-sound homogeneity that turned country music on its head and spawned new subgenres, such as alternative country and Americana, in its wake.

The man who turned down teaching at West Point worked a variety of odd jobs just to get by.

The stellar career of Kris Kristofferson, who celebrates his 80th birthday on Wednesday, is remarkable for many reasons.

The outlaw country pioneer, born in Texas but mostly raised in California, capitalized on his recording career to become a popular actor for master filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, and Tim Burton, along with starring and supporting roles in dozens of more mainstream movies.

His own recordings sold well in the prime of his career, but Kristofferson-penned songs recorded by other artists often became much bigger hits, among them “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “For the Good Times,” and “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.”

But perhaps the most intriguing thing about Kristofferson’s astonishingly prolific songwriting, recording, and acting career is how multifaceted his life was long before he cut a single song. Kristofferson’s best songs are drenched in empathy and vulnerability, but he was never just the stereotypical, sensitive-artist type.

A collegian in the mid-1950s, he was a star athlete, even garnering a mention in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” segment for his successes in football, rugby, and track and field.

He was awarded a prestigious Rhodes scholarship to Oxford in England, but even as he earned a master's degree in English, he was recognized for his boxing achievements by the Golden Gloves and Oxford's "Blue" award for competition at the highest level.

And after all that, Kristofferson joined the U.S. Army. He served as a helicopter pilot in West Germany and completed Ranger School, and when his tour of duty was up, he was invited to teach English literature at West Point. Instead, he chose to move to Nashville and pursue songwriting. In 2003, he received the "Veteran of the Year" award from the American Veterans Center.

Given all those achievements and what we now know of Kristofferson's musical talents, one might assume he rocketed straight to stardom in Nashville. Instead, the man who turned down teaching at West Point worked a variety of odd jobs just to get by, including janitorial work at Columbia Recording Studios.

He was sweeping floors when he first heard a song he wrote on the radio: "Jody and the Kid," recorded by Roy Drusky. Kristofferson got back to cleaning. He was still working as a janitor when he became friends with his future Highwaymen band mate Johnny Cash, who was already a superstar. He was still a janitor there when Bob Dylan, with whom Kristofferson would eventually partner in both music and film projects, recorded Dylan's landmark album "Blonde on Blonde." Kristofferson got back to cleaning.

"I was fortunate to be the janitor," Kristofferson recalled in a later interview. But while Kristofferson remained humble and hardworking as ever during his mid-'60s Nashville days, his rebellious spirit emerged in other ways.

"Nothing could kill me," he said in an interview posted on his official website. "I was rolling cars and wrecking motorcycles, drinking and doing everything I could to die early. But it didn't work."

In one of the most amazing stories of this period, Kristofferson, who was flying a helicopter for U.S. National Guard part-time to make ends meet, was feeling frustrated that Cash wouldn't listen to demos Kristofferson had recorded. (Cash claimed he'd toss the demo tapes, unheard, into a lake next to his property.)

So Kristofferson deviated from his training flight plan one day, landing his helicopter on Cash's front yard to personally deliver a new set of demos. That got the country legend's attention and earned his respect.

Just a few years later, songs Kristofferson had written would be all over country radio. In 1970, "For the Good Times" (recorded by Ray Price) won Song of the Year from the Academy of Country Music. The same year, "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" (recorded by Cash) won the same award from the Country Music Association. No other songwriter has achieved that feat in the same year for two different songs.

Kristofferson kept writing, recording, and acting virtually nonstop for many years, with key roles in movies such as the vampire/superhero mashup "Blade" (and its two sequels) and Burton's "Planet of the Apes" remake introducing him to a new generation of moviegoers.

The past few years have been much quieter for Kristofferson. That's obviously to be expected for anyone of his age, but there's another reason: He has suffered from debilitating memory loss for several years, a truly sad development for someone whose achievements couldn't be replicated by most people in several lifetimes.

However, there might be a silver lining to the story. Kristofferson and his family had originally presumed the condition to be dementia or Alzheimer's disease, likely exacerbated from repeated blows to the head during his years of boxing, football, and rugby. (Concussions were rarely diagnosed and never monitored in those days.)

In an interview earlier this month with "Rolling Stone," Kristofferson and his wife of 36 years, Lisa, said a doctor recently decided to test the ailing superstar for Lyme disease, and the test came back positive.

After completely changing the course of Kristofferson's treatment based on the diagnosis, "all of a sudden he was back," Lisa said. Although challenges remain, she said, "some days he's perfectly normal and it's easy to forget that he is even battling anything."

And for a man who was once happy to risk his life on a regular basis, Kristofferson has no plans on taking it easy in his golden years.

He's added to his more than 100 IMDb movie and TV acting credits with roles in three independent films this year, and a new album, "The Cedar Creek Sessions," was released last Friday. The album features new recordings of 25 treasured Kristofferson compositions, a breathtaking reminder of his indelible mark on musical history.

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