Ask Kris Kristofferson how he's feeling and the raspy voice of the first New Nashville simply says: "Old."
With a single word the voice still convinces, like 40-odd years ago when Bobby McGee sang the blues, and Sunday mornings came down hard. When a lost man begged for someone to help him make it through the night, and loving her would be easier than anything he'd ever do again.
You know his open-wound story songs, if only because they were made classics by music royalty like Johnny Cash and Janis Joplin. Stories from a tough life on the road Kristofferson chose after pleasing his parents too long, as a Rhodes scholar and U.S. Army captain. Now into life's flip side, grayer and forgetful, even Kristofferson's latest album and tour, which brings him to town Wednesday, is titled Feeling Mortal.
"I don't know if I feel any more mortal than usual," he said in a phone interview from a stop in Montana. "Hell, I'm 77 now. I'm aware that I'm not as young as I used to be. … The audiences are pretty easy on an old guy. All I have to do is play guitar and sing these little chapters of your life that it doesn't hurt to go over now and then."
Paraphrasing his song The Pilgrim: Chapter 33, Kristofferson has been a poet, a picker, never claimed to be a prophet, and played a pusher in his first major movie role. That was 1972's Cisco Pike, opposite Gene Hackman and the late Karen Black, a pivotal break for a singer-songwriter.
"Pretty good for a first film," Kristofferson said, "considering I got it offered to me the same week I was doing my first job performing on stage at the Troubadour (a West Hollywood club). The first week, (cult character actor) Harry Dean Stanton came and saw me with an offer to do a film, which turned out to be Cisco Pike. … I'm amazed that I wasn't more amazed, you know? That it all came as easily as it did."
Since then Kristofferson compiled more than 100 acting credits, from a Golden Globe-winning turn as a burned-out rocker loving Barbra Streisand in A Star is Born, to Harry Connick's father in Dolphin Tale, filmed in Pinellas County. He'll be here shooting scenes for the sequel in November and December, with director Charles Martin Smith, a friend since they acted together in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
Hard to believe Kristofferson ever struggled to be heard, first pitching to Cash while working as a Columbia Records janitor. "He was always real generous with complimenting them but he didn't cut any," Kristofferson said. His next move is Nashville legend, flying a National Guard helicopter – he joined for extra money with a baby on the way – to Cash's home to deliver a demo tape.
"The truth is: I almost landed on the roof of his house … and he wasn't even there. His groundskeeper came out and got the tape. But John liked the story enough that he made up that I got out of the helicopter with a beer in one hand and a tape in the other."
"Also, he always said it was Sunday Morning Coming Down (on the tape) but it was a song nobody ever cut. I can't remember the name of it right now."
Kristofferson sounds surprised to have made it this far, like the voice in the song closing all his concerts: "Why me, lord?".
"Yeah, are you kidding? Seventy-seven years old? I didn't see that as being my lifetime. … I just hope my brain's still going until they throw dirt on me. So far, so good."