Kris Kristofferson,
This Old Road
(New West, 2006)

Kris Kristofferson's musical reputation rests on a handful of early songs -- "Sunday Morning Comin' Down," "Help Me Make It Through the Night," "Me & Bobby McGee" -- written when he was young and hungry and recorded by others. Beyond those American classics is a body of ambitious but unmemorable and sometimes tuneless songs, placed inside indifferently produced albums.

Kristofferson, who lived and wrote in Nashville for a number of years, is ordinarily thought of as a country artist, but his songs, which owe more to folk, pop and rock ("Americana" long before the genre was invented) than to the honkytonk of traditional country or the treacly love songs of Nashville's recent years, don't sound country. That, by the way, is an observation, not a criticism. Kristofferson has an admirable, if not always judiciously directed or expressed, social conscience. Even if his recordings haven't always been all that great, Kristofferson himself has always been an appealing figure.

In this, his first CD of new material since 1995, Kristofferson picked veteran Don Was as producer, which proves to have been a wise decision. Was (presumably with Kristofferson's input) wisely chose a stark, acoustic folk-rock sound, with a small band consisting of Stephen Bruton (guitar, mandolin), Jim Keltner (drums) and Was (acoustic bass, piano). Their playing never gets in the way of Kristofferson's vocals -- technically, little more than an amiable growl -- so the words, always his strong suit, come through without distracting aural baggage. This Old Road is the best Kristofferson recording I've heard in a long time, and I am pleased to recommend it, especially to those who've shied away, out of frustration and disappointment, from previous Kristofferson albums. This one will remind you that Kristofferson can be as good as his notices.

The songs, all new but one ("The Burden of Freedom" from the late 1960s), are solid and engaging, and some are more than that. Many of the songs are introspective rambles through a long life's landscape. Kristofferson's celebrity's life is not much like yours or mine, of course, but he is artist enough to address it broadly and make his experiences and concerns feel like our own. In that regard the poignant title song is particularly striking. He also manages to celebrate love in "The Last Thing to Go" in a way that defies every cliche that has been thrown at the sentiment in a million sappy songs.

My favorite cut, however, is "In the News," a topical song of rare power. It brings to mind Bob Dylan's youthful "With God on Our Side," except that "In the News" is an infinitely better, wiser, more mature -- and thus more lacerating -- evisceration of the vile claim that God looks with favor on anyone's, including President Bush's, warmaking:

Broken dreams, broken rules
Broken-hearted people just like me and you
We are children of the stars
Don't blame God, I swear to God he's crying too.

If current governance has done nothing else, as I've had occasion to remark on other occasions, it has done wonders for the old-fashioned folk protest song. "In the News" joins a handful of pointed, musically strong anti-war/anti-Bush anthems, including John Fogerty's "Deja vu (All Over Again)," Eliza Gilkyson's "Man of God," Shawn Mullins' "Lay Down Your Swords, Boys" and John Prine's "Some Humans Ain't Human." If you doubt that bad times mean good music, there's your proof.

by Jerome Clark
6 May 2006

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