various artists,
The Pilgrim: A
Celebration of Kris Kristofferson

(American Roots, 2006)

A couple of years ago American Roots Publishing announced an ambitious project -- "to preserve American culture," no less -- by issuing Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster. It boasted contributions from an assortment of roots artists who put their own distinctive arrangements to Foster's evocative lyrics and melodies. The CD, a very good one, went on to win the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.

The Pilgrim, the label's second release (two more, tributes to Irving Berlin and to early-Broadway African-American composers, are scheduled to follow), takes up -- surprisingly, perhaps -- the songs of Kris Kristofferson.

The impressively comprehensive liner booklet implies this happened as much by circumstance -- ARP people knew Kristofferson people -- as by choice. While an exceptional songwriter, Kristofferson surely is not destined to ascend to the historical status of a Foster or Berlin. Even so, he's an unusual and interesting figure, and he wrote several of the most finely crafted popular songs (all hits for other artists) of the latter 20th century: "Me & Bobby McGee" (Janis Joplin), "Help Me Make It Through the Night" (Sammi Smith), "For the Good Times" (Ray Price) and "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" (Johnny Cash) -- each covered here, by Brian McKnight, Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis, Lloyd Cole & Julie Sobule, and Gretchen Wilson, respectively.

I am not crazy about McKnight's contribution, which recreates the song (one of Kristofferson's few purely folkish pieces, a natural for his pal Ramblin' Jack Elliott) as a soul-pop tune, but maybe that's no more than my quirky (or cranky) taste. On the other hand, Wilson just plain inhabits "Sunday Mornin'" with a haunted, mesmerizing interpretation. After Cash (who had a #1 country hit with it in 1970), one would assume that nothing more could be done with the song. One, Wilson shows, is mistaken.

Kristofferson made his name (at least as a songwriter) in Nashville (he did pretty well in Hollywood later). His idiosyncratic approach, however, was and is far removed from what is ordinarily thought of as country music, even if "Come Sundown" (as Rodney Crowell demonstrates) reminds us Kristofferson could -- maybe still can -- compose an in-the-tradition honkytonker when he's of a mind. Mostly, his songs feel as if cobbled together from strands of country, folk and pop, while ordinarily not sounding quite like any of them. Kristofferson's work stands apart from that of most other rooted singer-songwriters in its stubborn originality, in its refusal to be specific about its musical debts and in its non-musical, literary influences. No wonder he so astounded the very conservative Nashville music industry of the late 1960s.

The 18 cuts (concluding with a ca.-1970 demo of the man himself singing "Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends") are capably done and generally enjoyable, and on occasion more than that (Jessi Colter's reading of "The Captive," for instance). Perhaps the least fulfilling moment is "Sandinista," performed by Patty Griffin & Charanga Cakewalk, a dated and preposterously earnest revolutionary-tourist anthem. Still, it has a sweet melody, and Griffin is a pro. It's surely best enjoyed if you don't pay much heed to the words.

The Pilgrim succeeds in what it set out to do, which is to remind us of Kristofferson's special genius. It's hard to imagine that any future tribute will improve on it.

by Jerome Clark
28 October 2006

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