Kris Kristofferson's latest full-length, Feeling Mortal, is an authentic representation of his feelings, and that's part of the reason I think the record fails. Feeling Mortal is a superb example of what makes some critics uncomfortable about authentic music — the kind of art that expresses feelings with minimal artifice intruding between those feelings and the emotions of the artist's audience. Of course, many critics and listeners will hear Feeling Mortal as an honest work. In their rationale, critiquing a man who is simply trying to sing his song is typical of writers — writers who don't know what it's like to carry around the burden of being Kris Kristofferson.
I met the great songwriter in Nashville a couple of years ago. He was in town promoting his 2010 film Bloodworth, and I interviewed him about the movie while slipping in a few other questions. He was funny, engaged and as admirable as I thought he would be, and I came away impressed.
I hadn't much liked Kristofferson's recent music — reviewing his 2006 full-length, This Old Road, I had said, "Don Was' production is so minimal it isn't even there, and Kristofferson sings almost as good as Henry Gibson." If that reference escapes you, go back and watch Robert Altman's 1975 film, Nashville, and you'll see Gibson playing a country superstar, Haven Hamilton, who sings a patriotic song titled "200 Years."
Sitting across from Kristofferson, I liked him. He told me about his early days in Nashville, and about hanging out with Donnie Fritts and Tom T. Hall. I asked him about what I consider to be his best work in the past decade, his turn in the 2005 movie The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico, a mockumentary about outlaw country, Gram Parsons, Nashville and Kris Kristofferson.
For a second, Kristofferson affected to not remember working on Guy Terrifico. Finally, he said, "I remember they had originally written Merle Haggard as a bad guy, and I said, 'Listen, he's the closest thing to Hank Williams we've got walkin' around today — he's a great writer and a great singer, so treat him with respect.' So they changed it."
Directed by Michael Mabbott, Guy Terrifico exudes good-natured disrespect for the outlaw-country era. The child of Ukrainian immigrants, Terrifico uses Dolly Parton's measurements to win the Canadian lottery, and loses his musical focus — instead of writing songs, he develops an act that consists of him "humping the drum." He gives a drunken performance on a fictional Nashville television show, gets arrested, and is asked to leave town and never come back.
Kristofferson's fictionalized anecdotes frame the film. Guy Terrifico plays off Kristofferson's myth, which includes turns in director Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and Convoy. One segment has the singer telling the story of an abortive Terrifico gig: "I took Sam Peckinpah to see [Terrifico] in L.A., and like I said, they just sounded great. Sam just loved it. And Sam, with his gift of being able to see and feel other men's suffering on a profound level, got pissed off, and he pulled a gun out, and started firing in the air, and shouted, 'Shut your mouths and listen, you bunch of fuckin' Hollywood rump-wranglers! The man's a poet!' "
Guy Terrifico makes its point through humor. Meanwhile, Feeling Mortal may possess some kind of humor, but its critiques of materialism sound as false as Kristofferson's song about legendary folkie Ramblin' Jack Elliott. He recommends "bread for the body and a song for the soul" in "Bread for the Body," while "Castaway" finds the singer climbing aboard an abandoned ship in the Caribbean.
Feeling Mortal lacks detail — Kristofferson may be authentically worried about death, but you get the feeling he's falling back on clichés about the saving powers of art and the liberating qualities of booze and rambling. "Most of his lifetime he's been wasted / On the wine of life he's tasted / And I guess the rest, Lord, he was stoned," he sings in "Ramblin' Jack."
The record is inert, which for all I know may be the point — if Kristofferson were to engage a 40-piece orchestra and write a work in which he declaimed his poetry over something more interesting than Don Was' wan Americana-isms, his audience would probably say he was no longer authentic. But as Guy Terrifico suggests, the road to art is paved with indirection, fiction and role-playing. Life is too short to worry about being real.