No one could say that Kris Kristofferson, who will perform Sunday evening in Symphony Hall, has led a life unfulfilled. He’s had three long-lasting careers where most artists have had one: as songwriter, performing and recording artist, and actor. Bu Kristofferson himself might be unsatisfied with that assessment, because his original ambition was to be a novelist.
Born in 1936 to a military family, Kristofferson moved frequently with his parents before settling in San Mateo, California, where he attended Pomona College, graduating with a degree in literature. He earned a Rhodes Scholarship and attended Oxford University. While in England, he started writing songs and recorded unsuccessfully as “Kris Carson.”
Returning home after graduation, he married and delighted his parents by joining the Army, achieving the rank of captain and becoming a helicopter pilot. He was eventually stationed in West Germany, where he resumed writing songs and formed a band. When his tour of duty ended, he was assigned to teach literature at West Point. Wanting to be a songwriter instead, he turned down the offer, causing his family to disown him. There was never a reconciliation.
Kristofferson then moved to Nashville and worked odd jobs during the day while writing songs at night. One of those jobs was being a janitor at the Columbia Records studio, where he witnessed some of the recording sessions for Bob Dylan’s legendary album “Blonde on Blonde.”
Kristofferson would also commute to Louisiana, where he worked as a helicopter pilot for oil rigs. Some of his most famous songs, including “Me and Bobby McGee,” were written in Louisiana. “Help Me Make It Through the Night” was written while he sat on an oil platform. One of Kristofferson’s first outrageous acts was landing a helicopter unannounced in Johnny Cash’s yard to give the country music legend some tapes of his songs.
He was eventually signed to Monument Records and released his eponymous debut album in 1970, to little success. But more and more singers were recording his songs, and taking them high on the charts. In 1969, Cash had introduced him as a special guest at the Newport Folk Festival, and that exposed Kristofferson not only to a whole other audience, but an entirely different group of musicians who soon would also be recording his songs. This led to appearances at other folk festivals. He would form relationships with other singer-songwriters such as Gordon Lightfoot, who recorded and had a hit with “Me and Bobby McGee.” Kristofferson’s success ended his marriage, and he had a brief affair with Janis Joplin.
In 1970, Ray Price had a huge hit with Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times,” and Cash had an equally huge hit with “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Price’s record won Song of the Year from the Academy of Country Music, while the Cash recording won the same award from the Country Music Association. That was the only time the same songwriter has won the award from both organizations in the same year for different songs.
Kristofferson’s debut album was reissued under the title “Me and Bobby McGee,” and suddenly it started to sell. Also in 1970, he played Britain’s Isle of Wight Music Festival alongside such songwriters as Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, and found to his surprise that they took him seriously as a songwriter.
In 1971 he recorded his second and best album, “The Silver Tongued Devil and I,” which contained such classics as “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again),” “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” “The Taker” and a tribute and eulogy for Joplin, “Epitaph.” Joplin’s version of “Me and Bobby McGee,” recorded days before her death, was an incredible hit, staying atop the charts for weeks and easily outselling all other versions of the song, which has been recorded at least 60 times. “Silver Tongued Devil” sealed Kristofferson’s reputation as a songwriter to be taken seriously.
Following his Los Angeles debut at the legendary Troubadour, Kristofferson started to receive acting offers. Dennis Hopper persuaded him to appear in his “The Last Movie,” which was followed by a performance in “Cisco Pike” with Gene Hackman.
In 1972 Kristofferson released his third album, “Border Lord,” whose standout song was “Somebody Nobody Knows” and whose sales were nowhere near those of the previous album. While continuing to act, he recorded his fourth album, “Jesus Was a Capricorn,” and had a hit with “Why Me.” The album’s other standout song was “Nobody Wins,” a top-five country hit for Brenda Lee. During this time, Kristofferson also helped launch the careers of Chicago-based singer-songwriters Steve Goodman and John Prine.
Kristofferson married singer Rita Coolidge in 1973, and he acted in two more movies, “Blume in Love” and Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid,” in which he starred alongside James Coburn. Kristofferson persuaded Bob Dylan to take a role in the film — his acting debut — and Dylan also wrote the soundtrack, some of which was recorded with members of Kristofferson’s band.
During the next two decades, Kristofferson’s music took a back seat to his movie work. He co-starred with Barbara Streisand in a remake of “A Star Is Born” and won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor. He recorded only two albums in the 1980s. In 1985, however, he joined forces with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings to form the supergroup the Highwaymen. The ensemble’s first album was an immediate success, and the quartet would record two more over the next decade.
Kristofferson produced only one solo album in the ‘90s and wouldn’t return to the studio again until 2006, when he released a strong comeback album, “This Old Road.” The backing on it is sparse — an occasional mandolin, bass, second guitar or backup vocal — which put the songs in the forefront, and the vocals are impassioned. The songs deal with themes Kristofferson has dealt with for years: freedom, salvation and sanity in a world hurling toward destruction and alcoholism. The album is exceptional in the way his songs let you know he’s lived what he’s singing about.
His two albums since — “Closer to the Bone” in 2009 and this year’s “Feeling Mortal” — found the singer facing his mortality with a weathered voice that is reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s final recordings. Kristofferson has always been more a storyteller than a poet, and “Feeling Mortal” is the work of a man looking into the mirror and seeing every decade of his life, the high points, the mistakes, and chronicling them with both humor and a sad grace.
Ultimately Kristofferson will be remembered and recognized for that flurry of songs he wrote in the second half of the 1960s and the early ’70s that became hits for a host of artists. But that isn’t the only thing he accomplished. Along with fellow Texans Mickey Newbury and Willie Nelson, his writing helped open up a staid and conservative Nashville music scene to a new kind of country song that wasn’t afraid to embrace poetic sensibilities. He accomplished this by using the simplest of language in a way that made you not only visualize but feel and know exactly what he was talking about, while continually contemplating man’s demons and the gap between good, evil and everything in between.