Between Bob Dylan’s Nov. 6 show at the Johnny Mercer Theatre and Kris Kristofferson’s Nov. 13 concert at the Lucas Theatre, Savannah will have been unexpectedly graced by the presence of two of the most venerated songwriters of the modern era, less than 10 days apart from each other.
Odds are, both men would appreciate the chance for a pre-show dressing room or tour bus hang together, as they are not only old and close friends, but also near peers who honed their craft in the maelstrom of the 1960s and 1970s country, rock, poetry and Hollywood scenes. Both are also devotees of hard living who, after decades of abusing their bodies with varying degrees of hedonism and substance abuse, fell back upon their deep-seated sense of religious and spiritual faith to restore, rejuvenate and inspire the second halves of their respective careers.
At 82, Brownsville, Texas, native and itinerant military brat Kristofferson is actually five years older than Dylan, whom he first met while sweeping up the floors and emptying the trash cans (seriously) in Columbia Records’ Nashville recording studio during sessions for Bob’s landmark 1966 two-LP set “Blonde on Blonde.”
By that time in his life, this particular janitor had already earned national notoriety as a high school athlete in rugby, American football and track and field. He then graduated college with a B.A. in literature, summa cum laude. That led him to receive a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University’s Merton College, where he ultimately received a bachelor of philosophy degree in English literature and the highest award for university level boxing.
But deep down, he really wanted to prove his worth as a country songwriter. So, he took that job sweeping floors and eventually met and convinced June Carter to pass along a tape of one of his songs to Johnny Cash in hopes the singer would consider recording it. After a few weeks went by without Cash taking the time to listen to yet another unsolicited demo from yet another unknown songwriter, Kristofferson, who paid the bills by working as a pilot flying commercial helicopters (did I mention that after graduating from Merton, he joined the U.S. Army, became a Ranger and then a captain and helicopter pilot?) landed one unannounced in Johnny’s front yard as a stunt to get Cash’s attention.
Unsurprisingly, it did, and shortly thereafter, the Man in Black had cut and released Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” which not only cemented a lifelong friendship and working relationship between the two men, but also earned Kristofferson the title of Songwriter of the Year at the Country Music Awards.
Almost overnight, existing songs by this headstrong, hardscrabble and exceedingly educated lyricist became sought out by all manner of established recording artists, and before long, the man who had composed such contemplative, melancholy and romantic tunes as “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Once More with Feeling,” “Come Sundown,” “Help Me Make it Through the Night” and “For the Good Times,” which would be cut by everyone from Janis Joplin to Jerry Lee Lewis, was in demand as a performer himself.
One of the shining lights of the initial outlaw country movement that included Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Mickey Newbury and Billy Joe Shaver, Kristofferson almost simultaneously shifted direction, becoming an idiosyncratic big-screen actor. He appeared in several off-kilter features, like “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” and “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” as well as mainstream fare like the 1976 remake of “A Star Is Born,” which paired him romantically (and musically) with Barbra Streisand, and was recently reimagined with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga starring.
Kristofferson rode those two trains of film and TV semi-stardom and music biz iconoclasm for decades, to somewhat diminishing returns. However, in 2004 he first began showing worrisome symptoms of memory loss, fatigue and confusion, which were eventually diagnosed as early onset Alzheimer’s disease. For almost a decade, until 2015, this diagnosis was believed to be correct and between the severity of his symptoms and the stigma surrounding such news, it had a pronounced and deleterious effect on his life and career.
However, in 2015, he was given a new diagnosis by a new team of medical professionals. They determined he had been suffering from Lyme disease all along, and he immediately pursued a rigorous range of treatments that most all involved agree have turned his life around for the better. Nowadays, most of the physical and mental impairments which plagued him are at bay, and while he still grapples with short-term memory loss, his long-term memory is said to be sharp and clear.
He has reconnected with his muse and his old songs, and has embarked over the last few years on a number of short, extremely well-received concert tours across the country and abroad. Audience members and critics alike agree that his intimate, confessional approach to singing and playing may have only increased its intensity with age, and Kristofferson’s palpable zest for life and love of connecting with his listeners is said to be resulting in some of the most direct and revealing performances of his lengthy career.
For this Lucas Theatre date, he’ll be accompanied by several members of The Strangers, the longtime backing band of his dear, departed friend and collaborator Merle Haggard. They’ll back him up on a lengthy set of original compositions drawn from across his entire back catalogue. This leg of the tour kicks off just a few nights before he arrives in our neck of the woods, but their dates earlier in 2018 won raves from all corners.
Just a few years ago, the mere idea that Kris Kristofferson would be turning in great theater performances backed by a stellar country band with a familiarity for his vibe and material would have been unthinkable. Now it’s a reality. This may be an opportunity that’s too good for many to pass up.