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Thursday, March 16, 2006 04:27 pm

Our wild American

Kris Kristofferson has lived enough for 20 men, and heÂ’s not done yet.

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Kris Kristofferson This Old Road (New West)
Rhodes scholar. Army pilot. Janitor. Singer/songwriter. Drunkard. Movie star. Kris Kristofferson, who turns 70 this year, has lived enough for 20 men, and he’s not done yet. This Old Road, his first album in 11 years, finds the grizzled troubadour taking stock of a life led well, if not always wisely, and paying tribute to the people who helped him find his true path. One emblematic track, “Wild American,” celebrates the bravery and integrity of such undersung icons as native American activist John Trudell and alt-country gadfly Steve Earle. “Heroes happen when you need ’em,” Kristofferson sings, and although he’s too modest to put himself in their company, he certainly belongs there. The man who more than 30 years ago defined freedom as “just another word for nothing left to lose,” the most elegant encapsulation of existentialism ever to grace a Top 40 hit, is still preoccupied with the eternal verities of the human condition: love, honor, patriotism, responsibility, and, yes, freedom. An unapologetic lefty and a fierce opponent of the Iraq war, he won’t be invited to the White House anytime soon, but his contributions to American culture will endure long after the lies, blunders, and misdeeds of the current administration. Kristofferson’s songs, among the very finest in the national canon, are best known as covers: Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” Johnny Cash’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and Al Green’s “For the Good Times” are just a few of the immortal versions that have helped secure the songwriter countless industry awards and a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame. More a songwriter/singer than a singer/songwriter, Kristofferson would be the first to admit that his wobbly, grainy, and resolutely unbeautiful baritone is an acquired taste, but there is something deeply affecting about his own performances, imperfect as they may be. With This Old Road, the antique-piano timbre of his voice, the unassuming adroitness of his phrasing, and the muscular poetry of his lyrics have the ideal conditions in which to flourish, thanks to producer Don Was, who clearly understands that Kristofferson’s music, like Shaker furniture, requires no froufrou embellishments. Although Was, longtime Kristofferson associate Stephen Bruton, and session man extraordinaire Jim Keltner supply understated accompaniment on a few cuts, most of the album consists of nothing but voice, acoustic guitar, and harmonica, a spareness that allows the listener to notice the subtle complexity infusing even the most apparently simplistic songs. Consider, for example, “In the News,” an overtly political effort that might have come off a bit bumper-stickerish in less accomplished hands. Beginning with a sorrowful reference to Laci Peterson, the verses tick off a laundry list of human failings, from environmental depredation to war profiteering, false propheteering, and neo-McCarthyism. About midway through, Kristofferson sings, “Don’t blame God, I swear to God I heard him say/‘Not in my name, not on my ground/I want nothing but the ending of the war/No more killing, or it’s over/And the mystery won’t matter anymore.’” Despite the fact that he’s appropriated a well-known slogan, the use to which he puts the line, the perfect audacity of attributing it to God himself, invests the cliché with new urgency. The uncharacteristically jaunty “Pilgrim’s Progress” conflates the political and the personal in a series of self-deprecating questions: “Am I young enough to believe in revolution?/Am I strong enough to get down on my knees and pray?/Am I high enough on the chain of evolution/ To respect myself, and my brother and my sister/And perfect myself in my own peculiar way?” Because you’re asking, Kris, the answer is “Hell yeah.” Shine on, you wild American.
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