Mary G. Hurd,
Kris Kristofferson: Country Highwayman
(Rowman & Littlefield, 2016)

The key to understanding Kris Kristofferson as a songwriter, a singer or even a person lies in a statement from the British mystic poet William Blake that Kristofferson discovered when he was a graduate student at Oxford and even today, in his 70s, he is fond of quoting:

If he who is organised by the divine for spiritual communion refuse and bury his talent in the earth, even though he should want natural bread, sorrow and desperation will pursue him throughout life, and after death shame and confusion are faced to eternity.

That statement led Kristofferson to discover his ultimate theme, which he first mentioned in a journal entry while he was still in England. It read, "God help me shoulder the burdens of freedom." Freedom was the desired state; it overrode everything, yet as the chorus of "Me & Bobby McGee" states, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." An artist (and an individual) must be free, but freedom carries with it a terrible price: You must sacrifice everything and, since that is the case, freedom is ultimately as much of a curse as a blessing.

And Kristofferson did sacrifice everything for the freedom to pursue his art. He came from a military family, and it was assumed that he too would make the service his career. In fact, he was a lieutenant in the Army, about to make captain, when he returned from England. Assigned to teach literature at West Point, he chose instead to resign his commission, move his wife and children into a $50-a-month coldwater flat in Nashville and try to make a living as a songwriter. For five years he almost starved to death, surviving on odd jobs, like sweeping the floor at Columbia Records studios.

His parents disinherited him and they never resolved their differences. His wife, who had married an Army officer, suddenly found herself with three children and a husband who was hanging out all night writing songs and boozing with his new friends, whom she saw as degenerates. She took the kids and left him.

Kristofferson had found the freedom he'd sought but at a huge cost. Still, as far as he was concerned, freedom was an essential condition; his view of the concept was romanticized, coming as it did from William Blake; freedom involved suffering and sacrifice. One did not gain freedom as much as one lost everything else and wound up with it, like a consolation prize. Only freedom, however allowed creativity into a life; to write, you had to be free and to be free, you had to sacrifice all of the things that normal people hold dear, like stability, comfort, family and career.

Kris Kristofferson: Country Highwayman tells the story of Kristofferson's fight for freedom while maintaining two separate careers: as a singer-songwriter and as an actor. More a study than a biography, it goes beyond the surface of Kris Kristofferson, entertainer, to find what drives and motivates the artist within. By the time you finish, you won't think of Kristofferson -- or any other Americana artist -- in quite the same way again.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

30 April 2016

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