Broken Freedom Song: Live From San Francisco brings icon Kris Kristofferson full circle with his early connection to songwriters John Prine and Steve Goodman. After close friendships spanning more than 30 years, Broken Freedom Song is the first of Kristofferson’s wide-ranging musical projects to be released on Oh Boy Records, Prine’s label with manager Al Bunetta.
Kristofferson, who discovered Prine and Goodman in 1971, is delighted to be with Oh Boy, but modest about his role in unearthing the two songwriting luminaries. “They were so good. It was just like finding Bob Dylan,” Kristofferson recalls. “It also happened at a time when you could make things like that happen.”
Kristofferson has been making things happen his entire life. Born in Texas and raised in a military family, he was a Golden Gloves boxer who studied creative writing at Pomona College in California. The Phi Beta Kappa graduate earned a Rhodes scholarship to study literature at Oxford, where he boxed, played rugby and continued to write songs. After graduating from Oxford, Kristofferson served in the army as an Airborne Ranger helicopter pilot and achieved the rank of Captain. In 1965, Kristofferson turned down an assignment to teach at West Point and, inspired by songwriters like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, moved to Nashville to pursue his music.
“When I was in the army, I was one of the few people outside of his personal friends who knew about Willie Nelson,” Kristofferson recalls. “I listened to a disc jockey who happened to be a Willie fan. He would play Willie’s songs and talk about him all the time. By the time I got to Nashville, he was a superhero to me. For guys like me, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson were two gods we worshipped. Then Willie and I got to be best friends. I came from a position of idolizing him to finding out he’s the funniest son of a bitch you could be around.”
After struggling in Music City for several years, Kristofferson achieved remarkable success as a country songwriter at the start of the 1970s. His songs »Me and Bobby McGee,« »Help Me Make It Through the Night,« »Sunday Morning Coming Down,« and »For the Good Times,« all chart-topping hits, helped redefine country songwriting. By 1987, it was estimated that more than 450 artists had recorded Kristofferson’s compositions. His renown as a songwriter triggered Kristofferson’s successful career as a performer and that, in turn, brought him to the attention of Hollywood, leading to his flourishing career as a film actor.
Heralded as an artist’s artist, Kristofferson has starred in more than 44 films. He’s recorded in excess of 25 albums, including three with pals Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings as part of the Highwaymen. Kristofferson spent nearly 30 years performing concerts all over the world. Yet, Broken Freedom Song: Live From San Francisco finds the 67-year-old Renaissance man sounding as expressive and insightful as ever.
“This was never meant to be an album,” producer Alan Abrahams says. “I’m producing a benefit record honoring the work of our mutual friend Mimi Fariña, the founder of Bread & Roses, who passed away in 2001. I asked Kris to contribute a track to the record. He was doing a one-off concert at the Gershwin Theater in San Francisco and he told me to go ahead and record it and take whatever I wanted for the Bread & Roses project. There wasn’t any sound check for the performance. There wasn’t any plan at all. We were all winging it and that’s the beauty of this recording. Kris’s performances are exquisite and the sound is fantastic. We caught a moment in history.”
“It’s not so much a historical moment for me as it was desperately trying to get it together for a show and concerned about whether I could do it or not,” Kristofferson says with a laugh. “I hadn’t been out in so long. For almost 30 years the road was life and I just lived for it and loved it. It was a wonderful ride, but lately, life events, age and everything has made me want to stay close to family.”
Captivated by the live recording, Kristofferson’s wife Lisa suggested releasing part of the concert as a live CD.
I could see what worked about it,” Kristofferson says. “Since it was stripped down to just a guitarist and a bass and me, the focus was on the songs. I think it’s the right direction at this time in my life.”
Kristofferson’s art has always personified characteristics like compassion, humor and intellect. Broken Freedom Song is no different. Many of the cuts, 11 lesser-known compositions and four previously unreleased songs, allude to the complexities of war and political affairs. The title track, along with the previously released “What About Me,” “Sandinista,” “Don’t Let The Bastards Get You Down,” and “Darby’s Castle” all contain political undertones.
“I like that some of the old songs are meaningful with current events,” Kristofferson says. “‘Darby’s Castle’ makes me think of post-9/11 America—stories about materialism and not keeping our eyes on the real prize.”
One of the joys of Broken Freedom Song is hearing Kristofferson recount the inspiration behind his vivid stories. The most poignant of the unreleased tracks, “The Circle,” was written about Layla al-Attar, an artist killed when the United States launched missiles at Baghdad in response to an alleged assassination attempt on the life of former president George Herbert Bush.
“I heard a newscast about it when we fired those rockets right after Clinton took office,” Kristofferson recalls. The missiles missed their target and hit the home of this woman who was a national figure and famous artist. It killed her and her husband and wounded her children. I didn’t catch her name and I just instinctively knew that I wasn’t going to hear that story on the news again. The next time I found any evidence of it was reading Howard Zinn’s book, the updated ‘People’s History of the United States.’ He mentioned the event, but again didn’t mention the artist’s name. Then I sang ‘The Circle’ at a benefit for a human rights group. I mentioned that I never caught the woman’s name and somebody told me it was Layla al-Attar.”
“I think that story, and this song, is very symbolic of what is going on around the world, much of it in our name,” Kristofferson continues. “I combined that story with a song I wrote about the disappeared people in Argentina. The image of the circle that ended with Layla continues into the circle of people in Argentina carrying signs with the names of the disappeared ones around the plaza in the circle. It seemed to be a poignant expression of something that’s going on that maybe we don’t know about. Many Americans don’t know that we fired those rockets off to Baghdad. They don’t know that we’re involved in events in our own hemisphere that are killing people.”
Although Kristofferson is a visible activist for social justice and human rights, he is also the American Veterans Association’s Veteran of the Year this year. He was honored for his work in the armed forces at received a ceremony in Los Angeles last fall.
“It would have made my daddy proud,” Kristofferson says. “I grew up in a time when people believed in duty, honor and country. My grandfathers were both officers. My father was a General in the Air Force. My brother and I were both in the Army. I’ve always felt a kinship with soldiers; I think it’s possible to support the warrior and be against the war.”
Kristofferson’s next tribute is his induction into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in August of 2003. His friend Willie Nelson will be on hand to do the honors. “I’ve always been proud to be a Texan and it’s nice to be recognized by my home state,” Kristofferson says.
Looking forward, Kristofferson is writing his memoirs for Hyperion, contemplating an idea for a novel, and continuing to act in select films.
While his music, film roles, and writing career are thriving, Kristofferson still chooses to spend the majority of his time at home with his wife and children.
“I still feel creative and I’m grateful for that, but I have a big, good-lookin’ family and a place I don’t want to leave,” He says. “That’s all that really matters.”
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