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Rheta Johnson: Kris' birthday coming down

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

 

 

FISHTRAP HOLLOW -- As soon as the heat dropped below 90 degrees one recent late afternoon -- about 7 o'clock, really -- I moved the CD player to the front porch, adjusted the fan just so and put my feet up on a coffee table. I played "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and "The Pilgrim" and "The Captive." 

 

My Georgia friend Sharon Thomason, author of an intimate book about country music, had reminded me that a shared musical hero, Kris Kristofferson, turned 80 in June, same month as the iconic author Larry McMurtry. It was hard to believe. 

 

Kris is the Paul Newman of songwriters, getting better as he ages and never quitting doing what he does. He has a new album out and continues to perform. 

 

I think country musicians may have an advantage over rock musicians in that they don't look ridiculous singing their songs after they reach age 60. Their songs are more sedate and involve less swivel. I have nothing against the Rolling Stones, for instance, but I no longer want to watch the sausage being made. 

 

It's different with Kris. 

 

For one thing, Kris was born old and wise. The first time I heard him sing was "Why Me, Lord?" over an eight-track player. His voice was so slow and quivery I thought the tape was dragging. 

 

That introduction began a love affair that has lasted over 40 years. And Kris did that unfair thing that certain males do. He managed to get better and better looking as the years passed by. His baby face finally matured enough to match his wise voice. 

 

When I hear what passes for country lyrics these days, I wonder if any of the new stars have ever listened to a Kris song. Or a Hank song. Not that just anybody could write like the masters, but one could aspire. One could try to learn. 

 

Kris never used gimmicky language that seems to be so in vogue these days. He told stories. Love stories full of pathos and hurt. He reached into his closet and found his cleanest dirty shirt. We could see him doing it. We could taste that beer he had for breakfast. 

 

Love, after all, is not bouncy and bright. It doesn't always come in pretty packages tied up with ribbons. It's tepid beer, not champagne. And it hurts. How could a teenager plucked from the Mickey Mouse Club and packaged as a superstar know that? No dues, no blues. 

 

I heard Kris live in concert twice. Once when he was young and I was younger. It was in the huge coliseum venue at Auburn University, and Kris and his wife Rita Coolidge were together. She was more stylish at the time and got top billing. 

 

"Rita, Rita, Rita!" the crowd demanded when Kris took the stage as the warm-up act.  

 

I remember feeling bad for Kris, who had written many of the songs Rita Coolidge sang. But it didn't seem to bother Kris, who took a swig of whiskey in front of God and everybody, and kept singing. 

 

I heard him at the Ryman six years ago, just Kris and his harmonica and guitar, singing parts or all of every song he ever knew. It was a brilliant performance, much appreciated by the audience of boomers who knew all the words. 

 

I figured it was some sort of farewell tour, but it wasn't. He's kept right on turning, for the better or the worse, still searching for a shrine he's never found. Happy birthday, Kris. 

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson's most recent book is "Hank Hung the Moon ... And Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts." Comments are welcomed at [email protected]

 

 

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