There's a certain romanticism to country music, though it may be hard to believe with acts like Shania Twain and Kenny Chesney making a farce of denim and cowboy hats. There was a time when playing country music meant something more than showing your midriff. Kris Kristofferson is living evidence of this classic era, when country music was rugged, dressed all in black with dusty, worn cowboy boots.
"They've been with me a long time," smiles Kristofferson before his whopping Calgary Folk Music Festival set on a sunny saturday evening. "I'm kind of superstitious. I heard there were 10,000 to 12,000 people here. I don't know if it makes you nervous, but it does for me."
The singer, songwriter and actor appeared at this year's Folk Fest to the glee of the sold-out crowd. Bashful as he is, sold out crowds aren't new for the country legend. Kristofferson has not only crooned many-a-tune over his 40-year career, but has written them for others too. The writing in songs like Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee" and Johnny Cash's "Sunday Morning Comin' Down" generated a name for Kristofferson, but his early years writing in Nashville were not wildly successful. In a city built on country music, it took more than a guitar strapped to your back to make your way.
Legend has it that Kristofferson was first noticed after an assault on Cash's home. The story has mutated over the years, but it is certain there was a helicopter, some beer and a tape recording involved.
"I'm not going to step on John's version of the story," says Kristofferson. "He's got a very creative imagination. Well, I thought maybe it would catch his attention--really, I was lucky he didn't shoot me out of the sky."
From landing a helicopter in Cash's backyard to touring with him, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson as The Highwaymen, there's something about Kristofferson that makes him an evident pioneer of "outlaw country."
Saturday's crowd wasn't just old Highwaymen fans, but a more eclectic mix. The diversity represents a new generation discovering his work, though some of his popularity is certainly due to his acting career.
"I was over in Sweden and the guy interviewing me said there were a bunch of kids outside saying: 'Whistler sings?'" recounts Kristofferson of his role in the Blade films.
As the 80-plus roles to his name suggest, acting is more than a passing interest for Kristofferson. He is, however, finding it hard to find the right role for an old man--which he stresses he is.
"I'm not going to say I feel so young," says Kristofferson. "My daddy always looked young, it might be genetic."
Age suits Kristofferson. As he mounts the stage, his salt and pepper hair glows against his tanned skin. There's character etched throughout every line of his face and each rasp in his voice. With a "hello Calgary," the crowd erupts and it's not long before his voice is joined by the hum of the audience. His songs come steadily, with only occasional interruptions. Sometimes a false start, sometimes the beginning of a story, but still just as you've always known them.
"I don't tweak songs too much when I'm touring because I'm pretty limited in my skills," he smiles. "The best thing I can do is come as close as possible to telling the truth."
None who've heard him play would argue his integrity, though he admits that at times he's less than perfect. But perfection is not what country is about, and Kristofferson is all about country.
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