“Hello, sir. How are you?”
Kristofferson’s new album, “Feeling Mortal,” takes an unsparing look at the icon in winter. The title track is packed with death signifiers (“I’ve begun to soon descend/Like the sun into the sea”), but “I don’t feel like it’s a sad song,” Kristofferson insists. “I feel like it’s a realistic look at something you don’t think about till you get to the end of the road, you know? I think people who are my age can probably identify with it. But it’s not a sad song to me.”
Kristofferson’s memory is going, a possible legacy of his years as a college football star and Golden Gloves boxer. “I think that’s because of all the concussions I had,” he says. “It doesn’t bother me, but I can’t remember names at all anymore. I wish I’d known the damage it did back when we were doing it.”
He can still remember his song lyrics and has easy recall of events from his past, which make for one of the best back stories in music history: The well-born son of an Air Force major general, he was a Rhodes Scholar and star athlete who graduated from the rigorous Army Ranger school. He gave up a career in the military for life as an aspiring (read: starving) Nashville songwriter in the ’60s, and was soon in demand as a writer. “Me and Bobby McGee” became an unlikely hit for crooner Roger Miller, then a posthumous one for Janis Joplin; “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” was a No. 1 hit for Cash.
Kristofferson’s own musical career took off in the ’70s, cratered in the ’80s and ’90s , and underwent a modest restoration in the late ’00s under the ministrations of Don Was, who produced the singer’s last three albums and serves as Rick Rubin to his Johnny Cash.
During the lean times, Kristofferson did — and does — brisk business as an actor, often cast as a ruggedly handsome, tender-
beneath-his-gruff-exterior type. He’s co-starred in “Heaven’s Gate,” “A Star Is Born,” Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” reboot and two iterations of “Blade.”
And we haven’t even mentioned his stint as a professional helicopter pilot, his 2004 entry into the Country Music Hall of Fame, his three marriages and eight children, or his romances with Joplin and Barbra Streisand. Or the time he co-starred in “He’s Just Not That Into You.”
It’s a legendary life well-lived and carefully chronicled in song. Kristofferson is the embodiment of a certain kind of artist now mostly vanished — manful, hard-living, honest. His songs once concerned themselves with all the messy business of life. They were monuments to drinking and fighting, roaming and romancing. But “Feeling Mortal” feels circumscribed; almost every song is a contemplation of “that old man there in the mirror,” even the ones that are nominally about something else. If he spends most of his time confronting the gathering twilight, Kristofferson says, it’s because the good ones write what they know.