'Being near the end of my life isn't a sad thing to me," singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson says. "I have so much to be grateful for." Kristofferson is only 76, and by no account is he unwell.
But musicians age faster than regular folks -- Johnny Cash, his longtime friend and former bandmate in the outlaw country supergroup the Highwaymen, was ancient at 62 -- and these days, aging is very much on Kristofferson's mind. Call him on the phone, and the conversation starts like this: "Hello, sir. How are you?" "Old." Kristofferson's new album, "Feeling Mortal," takes an unsparing look at the icon in winter. The title track is packed with death signifiers ("I've begun to soon descend / Like the sun into the sea"), but "I don't feel like it's a sad song," Kristofferson insists. "I feel like it's a realistic look at something you don't think about till you get to the end of the road, you know? I think people who are my age can probably identify with it. But it's not a sad song to me."
Forgetting some things
Kristofferson's memory is going, a possible legacy of his years as a college football star and Golden Gloves boxer. "I think that's because of all the concussions I had," he says. "It doesn't bother me, but I can't remember names at all anymore. I wish I'd known the damage it did back when we were doing it."
He can still remember his song lyrics and has easy recall of events from his past, which make for one of the best back stories in music history: The well-born son of an Air Force major general, he was a Rhodes Scholar and star athlete who graduated from the rigorous Army Ranger school. He gave up a career in the military for life as an aspiring (read: starving) Nashville songwriter in the '60s, and was soon in demand as a writer. "Me and Bobby McGee" became an unlikely hit for crooner Roger Miller, then a posthumous one for Janis Joplin; "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" was a No. 1 hit for Cash.
Kristofferson's own musical career took off in the '70s, cratered in the '80s and '90s, and underwent a modest restoration in the late '00s under the ministrations of Don Was, who produced the singer's last three albums and serves as Rick Rubin to his Johnny Cash.
During the lean times, Kristofferson did -- and does -- brisk business as an actor, often cast as a ruggedly handsome, tender-beneath-his-gruff-exterior type. He's co-starred in "Heaven's Gate," "A Star Is Born," Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes" reboot and two iterations of "Blade." And we haven't even mentioned his stint as a professional helicopter pilot, his 2004 entry into the Country Music Hall of Fame, his three marriages and eight children, or his romances with Joplin and Barbra Streisand. Or the time he co-starred in "He's Just Not That Into You." It's a legendary life well lived and carefully chronicled in song.
Writing what he knows
Kristofferson is the embodiment of a certain kind of artist now mostly vanished -- manful, hard-living, honest. His songs once concerned themselves with all the messy business of life. They were monuments to drinking and fighting, roaming and romancing. But "Feeling Mortal" feels circumscribed; almost every song is a contemplation of "that old man there in the mirror," even the ones that are nominally about something else. If he spends most of his time confronting the gathering twilight, Kristofferson says, it's because the good ones write what they know.
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"All my albums have been sort of autobiographical and reflecting what I'm going through at the time. I think that's why this is reflective of getting near the end of this road," he says. Over the past few years, Kristofferson's songwriting output has slowed considerably, even as his recorded output has increased. Songwriting doesn't come as easily these days, but Kristofferson says an "American Recordings"-style covers album, the last refuge of the late-career legacy artist, isn't an option.
"Johnny Cash had a great voice, a distinctive voice that people would love, no matter what song he was singing," he says. "I don't think of myself as that kind of singer. I feel very lucky that my voice has been accepted, but it wouldn't be if I was singing other people's songs. I think people have very graciously overlooked what I sound like."
Cash and Kristofferson were close friends, having met when Kristofferson was working as a janitor at Columbia Recording Studios in Nashville. "I was the guy who cleaned up," Kristofferson remembers. "I'd been pitching songs since the first day I met him, but he never recorded any." To help the process along, Kristofferson decided to deliver his demo tape in person -- by landing his helicopter on Cash's lawn. What could go wrong? "He wasn't there at the time. He claimed later that he was. He said I got out of the helicopter with a beer in one hand and a tape in the other. I told John, 'Man, there's no way I could fly a helicopter like that.' "
The new "Feeling Mortal" only seems like a farewell album. "I'll probably keep doing it till they don't want me to anymore," says Kristofferson, who lives in Hawaii with his wife of 30 years, Lisa. He still tours regularly and acts frequently: He's set to star in the upcoming "Shoedog," a crime drama that also will feature Sam Shepard, Kristofferson's playwriting analogue. For the first time in more than 50 years, when he left Oxford with a postgraduate degree in English literature, Kristofferson is contemplating writing a book. He once dreamed of becoming a novelist but hasn't written anything since college.
"I still might write an autobiography," he says. "While I can still remember my name."