Kris Kristofferson was a bit discombobulated.
He was calling from Verona, N.Y., where it was snowing in April. His tour bus had broken down the previous day, so he'd taken a six-hour cab ride and arrived at his gig 15 minutes before showtime. And he was trying to sort out the unexpected hubbub created by a 14-page spread on him in the current Rolling Stone.
It seems that Kristofferson crossed Toby Keith when their paths crossed backstage at Willie Nelson's 70th birthday concert in 2003. At least, that's how the Rolling Stone profile by Ethan Hawke -- yes, Ethan Hawke the actor/novelist -- begins. Keith reportedly told Kristofferson: "None of that lefty bleep out there tonight."
The Rolling Stone story brought a denial from Keith last week. And Kristofferson himself has retreated from the situation.
"Actually, I like Toby Keith, but I don't agree with his politics," said Kristofferson, who will perform tonight in Minneapolis. "There are a lot things in artistry that transcend politics."
He says he doesn't even remember the exchange with Keith, but his wife does. "That's something that happened six years ago," he said, "and I can't even remember what I had for breakfast."
However, the legendary songwriter, acquired-taste singer and celebrated actor does remember his first Twin Cities gig at the Guthrie Theater in 1971. John Denver showed up to see Nashville's most acclaimed tunesmith. "I remember him in my dressing room at halftime and he was just kind of staring at me and he didn't say a word," Kristofferson recalled. "He looked like he was just shaking his head and wondering what this was all about."
At 72, Kristofferson is on tour doing solo shows. "It's a combination of new stuff and things people know," he said, "and some topical comments -- reactions to whatever is going on around us in the world right now."
He has a new album coming out this year on New West Records. He recorded it with Don Was, who produced his "This Old Road" in 2006.
Kristofferson is in the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Not bad for someone with a voice that's as dry and desolate as the West Texas plains. While studying as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England in the early 1960s, he cut some recordings for Top Rank Records, but his recording career went nowhere. After three years of piloting Army helicopters in Germany, he moved to Nashville to become a songwriter.
To feed his family, he became a janitor in 1965 at Columbia Records Studios, where he witnessed sessions by Lefty Frizzell, George Jones, Roger Miller and others. He was there for Bob Dylan's recording of "Blonde on Blonde," the landmark double album.
Most country artists recorded three songs in three hours and the session was over. Dylan, one of Kristofferson's idols, came into the studio in the winter of 1966 and started writing at the piano while his highly paid session musicians went off to play pool and pingpong.
"This was unheard of in Nashville at the time," Kristofferson said. "And it went all night long. He was sitting at that piano with those dark glasses on. I didn't even talk to him. It would be like interrupting Einstein."
In 1973 Dylan and Kristofferson acted together in the western "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." "I can't say I was ever comfortable around him," Kristofferson said, "but he made me laugh and I really respect him."
Stories behind his songs
While Kristofferson has made more films (including "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and "A Star Is Born" with Barbra Streisand) than albums, it is his songs that are his timeless legacy. He discussed what sparked three of his classics.
"Me and Bobby McGee." "I've never written on assignment in my life," he said. A record exec called with a title, "Me and Bobby McKey," and a story line about Bobby being a woman who is friends with the guy in the first half of the song but his lover later. Kristofferson sat on the idea for two months until inspiration came to him in Baton Rouge, La. "I probably was as inspired by Fellini's 'La Strada,' which is a movie about a guy and a girl who traveled around and he left her and lost her and he ends up howling at the stars at night."
"Sunday Morning Comin' Down." "That's just autobiography," he said of the hangover classic. "I probably wouldn't have written it in the form I did if I didn't know Mickey Newbury, a songwriter who influenced me a lot. I lived in a condemned apartment at the time and it was just about looking around and I imagined what was going on."
"They Killed Him," an ode to Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ. The idea was sparked by the film "Gandhi," explained the songwriter. "I was down at one of Willie's Fourth of July picnics and this girl told me: 'Did you know that Bob Dylan recorded 'They Killed Him'?' Oh, man, you could have knocked me over with a feather. That's one of the marks in my life that I'm really proud of."
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719