The musical freedom that Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson yearned for in the late 1960s seemed out of reach in the sterile new office buildings and sagging bungalows that housed the record business on Music Row. The corporate enclave ruled every country artist in town. Except for Johnny Cash, who under the cover of midnight darkness lugged his guitar and his band into the studios of Columbia Records.
Cash followed his own rules in the studio, uncorking classic records that dealt with war, the plight of the American Indian, and other thorny topics—a departure from more traditional subjects of love and heartbreak. Cash’s producers let Cash be Cash, which meant throwing away the studio clock, leaving his backing band the Tennessee Three alone, however calcified its boom-chicka-boom rhythm had become, and standing by without complaint while Cash ploddingly chose songs and worked out arrangements—A&R tasks that elsewhere on Music Row would have been completed days before the session. When Waylon Jennings demanded and got such freedoms from RCA-Nashville in the early 1970s, many proclaimed that he was the first. In truth, as with so many things in that town, Cash—the godfather of Nashville’s outlaw movement—had gotten there first.
Bob Dylan came second. He arrived in Music City on February 14, 1966, to record "Blonde on Blonde" and, like Cash, presided over sessions that were the antithesis of Nashville Sound. With the exception of multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy, who had traveled to New York in 1965 and unexpectedly played guitar on Dylan’s "Highway 61 Revisited," none of the Nashville musicians on "Blonde on Blonde" had worked big-label sessions that were so free and easy. Throughout six days of recording, interrupted midway by a few live shows, Dylan wandered into Columbia in the evenings, spent hours scribbling down lyrics and a few more on music, then recorded in the morning. Songwriter Billy Swan was in the final days of the engineer’s assistant job that he would soon give to Kristofferson during those sessions. He admits that he had only haphazardly followed Dylan’s career up to that point, but in between his gofer tasks, he began to see the light. “What was coming back from those speakers was so fucking good: his singing, his performing. That whole album is fantastic.”
* * *
Like Dylan and Cash, producers Jack Clement and Fred Foster modeled independence in Nashville. Fixtures in town by the mid-1960s, the two men still lived in the shadow of Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins. But not for long, as their wily hustle and passion for music for music’s sake created a thrilling alternative to corporate music making and would attract various freedom-hungry outlaws in the years to come.
Clement stood out in Nashville like a juggler in a funeral parlor. He had established his producing credentials at Sun Records in Memphis, where he worked on Johnny Cash’s and Jerry Lee Lewis’s recordings.
Plying an impulsive spirit that only Memphis could nurture, he dug feverishly through Nashville’s creative world as if it were an old attic chest, and pulled out the old and the unusual, but particularly the unusual. In the 1960s, he dusted off the career of long-forgotten country music father Ernest “Pop” Stoneman, wrote novelty songs for the grim Johnny Cash, and persuaded Chet Atkins to sign the black singer Charley Pride.
“They all wanted to be around Jack,” says Jim Casey, who wrote for one of Clement’s publishing companies in the 1970s. “Jack would smoke a little dope and do crazy stuff and put them in a chair and spin them around and get them dizzy and play them crazy shit. They’d come to town and that would be the first place they’d go.” Toting his ukulele, he was always up for a good sing-along or a night on the town. Waylon’s drummer Richie Albright met him for the first time outside Sue Brewer’s Boar’s Nest: “I got out of the car and just as I was walking up the sidewalk, this guy comes down and I looked up and it was Jack. He walked down the stairs and stopped on the stoop, and I said, ‘Jack?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘I’m Richie Albright.’ I put my hand out and started shaking hands, and he turned around and threw up. He hung on to my hand. So that was my introduction to Jack Clement.”
Cowboy moved to Nashville in 1959 as a freelancer, performing various production chores for Chet Atkins and writing hits such as “Miller’s Cave” for Hank Snow and “I Know One” for Jim Reeves. An investment in a studio in Beaumont, Texas, pulled him out of town for a few years, but by 1965, he settled back in Nashville just in time to greet Kristofferson on his first day in town. In addition to producing Charley Pride and Pop Stoneman and the Stoneman Family, he supervised the recordings of the Glaser Brothers (Tompall, Chuck, and Jim), and in 1969 opened Jack Clement Recording Studios at 3102 Belmont Boulevard, a few blocks east of Hillsboro Village.
The stars—Charley Pride and Johnny Cash—turned to him for ideas, but he also attracted writers such as Jerry Foster, Bill Rice, Vince Matthews, Bob McDill, and Townes Van Zandt, all of whom made deep impressions on Nashville in one way or another. “Jack had enough of that Memphis thing in him that he was willing to try anything,” observes Casey. “Nashville is very conservative. Nobody wanted to take many chances. Jack was willing to try things and that’s a Memphis thing.”
It might also be a North Carolina thing. Fred Foster was born there in 1931, the same year Clement was born near Memphis. Like Clement, Foster came to Nashville looking for a poker game, arriving in 1960 and quickly revealing his preternatural knack for building winning hands with unlikely cards.
Roy Orbison had floundered on Sun Records and RCA in the late 1950s before Foster signed him to Monument Records, which he had established in Baltimore in 1958. Orbison enjoyed his greatest days in Foster’s care, with hits such as “Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel),” “Crying,” and, of course, “Oh Pretty Woman.” When Orbison left Monument for MGM Records in 1965, Dolly Parton appeared to steal Foster’s gaze. Up to that point, the determined young woman from the Smoky Mountains had failed to break nationally, striking out on two labels. With Foster at the helm, her next two singles climbed the country charts in 1967—“Dumb Blonde” and “Something Fishy.” They spent a combined twenty-six weeks on the countdown and attracted Porter Wagoner, who promptly spirited Dolly away to RCA and Chet Atkins.
If Foster had done nothing but cement Roy Orbison’s and Dolly Parton’s roads to the top, his legacy would be secure, but he had also spied an attractive hand in the black audience that big-label Nashville ignored and left to the tiny black-oriented record companies that dotted the city. Foster’s operation stood somewhere between the two: small enough to take risks and big enough to exploit black markets more successfully than the smaller outfits. “Monument had sort of become a pet of radio,” recalls Foster. “So I cut an R&B record and shipped it. The phones went wild! And telegrams poured in, letters from radio stations, criticizing me, ‘What are you trying to do? We put on a Monument record without auditioning it because it’s always good. Here we put on something and there’s screaming and hollering in the middle of our program—what in the hell are you doing?’ I said, ‘Well, I can’t do that anymore.’ So I started an R&B label.”
Like Jack Clement, Foster also housed young writers under the shelter of his publishing company, in his case Combine Music, which he established concurrently with Monument in 1958. The company had given Dolly Parton a contract before she bolted to RCA, and throughout the 1960s attracted such artists as Ray Stevens, Chris Gantry, Billy Swan, Dennis Linde, all of whom wrote songs that bored into Nashville’s musicscape and enjoyed Foster’s sponsorship without interference. “You’ve got to let a flower be a flower,” declares Foster. “You’re going to make a flower bloom differently than it would normally bloom? I don’t think so. Just nourish it, give it enough fertilizer, water and let it bloom. It will bloom. Business, hell, I can’t stand it. Business has ruined many a good man and woman.”
Of course, Combine’s biggest acquisition was Kris Kristofferson, who had failed to break through at Buckhorn Music, despite his “Vietnam Blues” and a few others, including “Jody and the Kid” (recorded by Roy Drusky) and “From the Bottle to the Bottom” (recorded by Billy Walker). “Kris always wrote alone,” Marijohn Wilkin told interviewer Philip Self, “and so it took him longer without having a cowriter to guide him.” Wilkin suggested that Kris’s work was often unripe, too close to his recent emotions and experiences. But he had tempered somewhat the epic-poetry style that Jack Clement observed in 1965. However, Marijohn wasn’t convinced. “I couldn’t carry him any longer,” she continued. “He hadn’t had a hit.”
When Kris left Marijohn in early 1969, Billy Swan probably introduced Kris to Fred Foster. Swan had already signed with Combine and was producing Tony Joe White’s first Monument sides, foremost among them the swampy pop hit “Polk Salad Annie.” He knew that Foster’s publishing company marked the intersection of Nashville’s street life and establishment of country music, a perfect place for Kristofferson.
Bob Beckham ran the funky show at Combine. In the 1950s, he appeared as a singer on "Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts" and landed a contract with Decca Records, but he abandoned performing soon after to go into publishing, where he proved adept at negotiating the eccentricity of songwriters. “He was a super-likable guy and just drew people,” says Swan. “He was a friend, straight-ahead, you never felt like he was above you.”
When Beckham joined Combine in 1964, the company had already run through two directors and was operating out in lonely Hendersonville, where Foster also headquartered Monument Records. “I stayed out there for about three weeks,” Beckham told writer Michael Kosser, “and I’m thinking, ‘Damn, man, if I’m gonna get into the publishing business I gotta leave.’” The new hire persuaded Foster that a healthy Combine belonged among the action on Music Row. Foster agreed, but he made Beckham promise to get his okay if ever he wanted to pay a writer more than the average draw.
After orchestrating the move to 812 Seventeenth Avenue South, Beckham transformed Combine into a good ole boy salon when the workday ended. He opened his bar and office easy chairs to musicians and songwriters from all over town, characters such as Donnie Fritts, a staff writer associated with Arthur Alexander and other soul men; Felton Jarvis, who produced Elvis Presley; and Texas-born songwriter Mickey Newbury, whose “Just Dropped In (To See What My Condition My Condition Was In)” was about to launch Kenny Rogers’s career.
“It was Beckham that changed everything,” says Kristofferson. “That office would be, at the end of every day, filled up with songwriters. Good ones. Guys that didn’t even write for him, like Mickey, and Shel Silverstein. It was a place where everybody would get at the end of the day, sit and pass the guitar around, try and knock each other out.”
The party carried on in the alley behind Combine, where songwriters smoked and gossiped and created mischief. “That was our world right there,” declares Swan. “We were throwing knives one time and the knife blade went through the building to the little studio in there. We had to stop for a little while ... It was a fun time, really loose. No borders.”
* * *
Out in Hendersonville, a telephone call from Bob Beckham rattled Foster’s office. He was touting a new find named Kris Kristofferson, who, he said, had been writing for Buckhorn but needed a bigger draw. Of course, that meant an excursion out to the suburbs for the boss’s okay.
In his vest and worn cowboy boots, Kris appeared an unusual sight in Hendersonville, especially next to the dapper Beckham. The sole of Kristofferson’s right boot flapped away from the shoe when he walked, so Foster fished a thick rubber band from his desk and wrapped it around his foot. “I don’t know what a songwriter was supposed to look like, but he didn’t look like one to me, at least not one doing very well. But he was nice enough, and I just put my formula to work: if you came in wanting me to hear your songs, you’d have to sing four. Anyone might luck up and write one. Can’t do it four times. Not possible.”
Kristofferson recalls singing two songs, but confesses that the beer he had for breakfast may have erased the other two from memory.
“He sang the first song,” continues Foster, “which is called ‘To Beat the Devil,’ which is half recitation. And he’s not playing very good guitar! It was a little rough, and I’m listening to this thing. It’s like watching a movie. I thought, ‘Well that’s really a great piece of material. Different.’ The next song. I thought, ‘Man, I know there’s no way this guy can be this good.’ Third song. And I thought, ‘I must be hallucinating, sure as hell!’ Nobody has ever come into my office before or since and laid four classic songs on me. And then he did ‘Jody and the Kid.’ So I said, ‘Well, I’ll approve the deal.’ ”
According to Foster, the other two songs were “Best of All Possible Worlds” and “Duvalier’s Dream,” which, like “Devil” and “Jody,” indulged Kristofferson’s passion for the rambling tale. Undoubtedly, the music dwelled on the fringes of Nashville’s popular sounds, and featured smart turns of phrase and knowing maturity that Foster rarely heard from songwriters. “He just has such a way of putting it together that it all appeals to me,” says Foster. “He’s written songs that just tear me up, that may be not commercial, but who cares?”
But there was plenty to indicate that those songs could be commercial. Indeed, nursery-rhyme-simple verse still ruled the day in country music, but conspicuous exceptions marked by complexity of plot and imaginative characterization had already settled on the record charts: John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” (1967), Chris Gantry’s “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife” (1968), Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” (1968), and, most recently, Tom T. Hall’s “Margie’s at the Lincoln Park Inn” (1969).
That day in Hendersonville, though, Foster discerned another dimension in Kristofferson. “I said, ‘There is one condition.’ His face kind of fell, and he said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘If you’ll sign with Monument as well, as an artist.’ He said, ‘What!? You’re not serious? Man, I can’t sing! I sound like a fucking frog!’ I said, ‘Perhaps . . . but a frog that can communicate is good enough for me.’ So he said, ‘Okay, if you’re crazy enough to do it, I guess I am, too, then.’ And so the next day, he got both contracts.”
* * *
Foster shared a small office building with the great songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and their secretary, Bobby McKee, a woman whom Foster hadn’t bothered getting to know. Not long after he signed Kris, he and Boudleaux were in the midst of closing an improbable deal involving a Mexican symphony and steel guitarist Jerry Byrd when Foster scurried down to Boudleaux’s office instead of calling. Boudleaux playfully accused him of cooking up an excuse to see his secretary. “I had no idea in the world what he meant,” pleads Foster. “I said ‘What? Bobby? What’re you talking about?’ He said. ‘Barbara. Bobby. Bobby McKee.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah ... Haven’t you heard about me and Bobby McKee?’ ” And I dashed up the steps to my office.”
At the same time, in spite of his spectacular audition, Kris had been moaning about a dry spell, so Foster threw him an "On the Road" concept starring “me and Bobby McKee,” although Kris thought he heard him say “McGee.” Kris hesitated, but agreed to think about it on his next shift in the helicopters over the Gulf of Mexico.
Kris picked up the story in an interview in 2009: “I went down and hid from him for about a month, and then this thing started comin’ to me and I remember I was affected by the film "La Strada" that Fellini did. At the time I was flyin’ around Baton Rouge and New Orleans. I came back up to Nashville and Billy [Swan] and I went in and put this thing on at this tiny studio at Combine and we stayed up all night doin’ it, just the two of us in the studio all night long. He played the organ . . . and we overdubbed our voices many times.”
Who before him in Nashville had ever tapped an Italian film for inspiration? Who else but Fred Foster would have accepted the result? “When I showed it to Fred the next day he was just ecstatic—he loved it,” continued Kristofferson. “I split it with him. I gave him half. I remember Bob Beckham tellin’ me, ‘No! You can’t do that. You can’t split that.’ And I said, ‘Man, I wouldn’ta written it if he hadn’ta told me to.’ ”
Beckham knew that Fred would profit handsomely from the publishing alone. Not surprisingly, it was Beckham who made sure he did.
“Beckham was a big, big change,” observes Kristofferson. “He pushed my songs in a way that I had not had done by a publisher, really, before that. He had the respect, I think, of the different A&R people on Music Row that if he said something was worth listening to, they listened to it. I hadn’t worked with a publisher that was so in tune with the music. He was just totally devoted to finding good songs and pitching them.”
“Me and Bobby McGee” finally passed under the nose of Roger Miller, country music’s very own urbane wit and inspiration to young songwriters of the Combine set, not to mention the likes of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Miller glossed up the gritty story, which on paper seemed more inspired by 1969’s "Easy Rider" than 1954’s "La Strada," and though it rose to the top twenty in the summer of 1969, Miller was not the vessel to carry an "Easy Rider" ethos. But he was the turning point in Kristofferson’s career. Miller had claimed three Kristofferson songs, including “Bobby McGee,” and in his wake, artists and producers flocked to the thirty-two-year-old songwriter. And while Nashville buzzed, Kristofferson took all that Roger Miller money and paid off his son’s medical bills.
Beyond Miller, down the Nashville street, waited Johnny Cash, who could give Kristofferson a voice like no other.
* * *
Johnny Cash sneered at Nashville early in his career. He worshipped its idols—Hank Williams, Hank Snow, and Eddy Arnold— but he despised its institutions, primarily the Grand Ole Opry, which he believed scoffed at his Memphis roots. When Cash had gotten too big for Memphis in the late 1950s, he moved his family to California, a sure slap at Nashville, and in 1960, his hit “Smilin’ Bill McCall” took aim at every fork-tongued publisher and record man in country music.
However, Cash gravitated toward Nashville in the late 1960s, mostly because singer June Carter, whom he would marry in 1968, lived there. His headquarters became an apartment in Madison, a Nashville suburb, which he shared with Waylon Jennings, although neither one bunked there very much. “The thing about those two is that even when they were doing pills, they would hide them from each other,” says Hazel Smith, then an employee in music industry offices and later a well-known columnist. “They would not, either one, ever admit they did pills. I know June would come over and clean up the house. I heard Waylon say that. So that was their way of life there for a while.”
Their way of life spilled out onto the streets, too, such as one night outside Sue Brewer’s when Billy Ray Reynolds was along for the ride. “Waylon had a brand-new limousine, the first car he bought after he moved to Nashville,” says Reynolds. “He always wanted one of the Fleetwood limousines. Johnny Cash thought Waylon’s pills were in his glove box and he came through and took a tire iron to pry it open, looking for pills. Waylon got sick to his stomach over that one.”
Johnny and Waylon occasionally toured on the same package shows and, as Waylon’s drummer Richie Albright knew, their pills came along for the ride. One night after a concert, Albright, for some forgotten reason, desperately needed Waylon and was banging on his hotel room door, which was next door to Cash’s. The black-clad singer, who was uncharacteristically in his room, stuck his head out the door and offered to help. Albright: “He said, ‘I’ll tell you what, his bed is right on the other side over here.’ He had this big bowie knife. He said, ‘There’s a picture right over the top of that bed. I bet I can cut the string through this wall.’ So he stood back there and threw that damn knife at that wall, taking chunks out of that wall, sometimes it would stick for while. He was going to wake Waylon up by cutting that string.”
Cash had joined country music’s elite in the late 1950s, but several arrests, including a highly publicized pill bust in El Paso, Texas, not to mention his relentless hotel knife-throwing, jeopardized his career. Since Hank Williams’s tragic flameout in 1953, nobody in country music but Cash had been as popular or as reckless.
But 1968 marked a turning point in his personal life. Buoyed by the critical acceptance and astronomical sales of his surprise hit album "At Folsom Prison" as well as the wedding vows he’d won from June Carter, Cash crafted one of his career’s sterling periods. At the core of those good days was ABC-TV’s "Johnny Cash Show." For three seasons (1969 to 1971) it lured national and international talent and cracked open its door just wide enough to let in a handful of unknown local artists looking for a break.
Cash insisted that the show be produced in Nashville, specifically at Ryman Auditorium; he had let go of his disdain for the venerable radio show and the city. Every episode announced to viewers Nashville’s connection to one of entertainment’s hottest performers and his wildly eclectic list of guests. Joni Mitchell visited, followed by Eric Clapton. Neil Young captivated viewers, and Bob Dylan cast a troubadour spell over them. For the first time in the eyes of the world—for Cash’s show boasted an international audience—Nashville emanated cool.
“For a lot of people, Cash had sort of come out of nowhere,” recalls Darrell Berger, then a student at Vanderbilt University. “But Cash and Dylan were kind of uncategorizable. And Cash especially was an outlaw before they had outlaws. I remember getting the record 'At Folsom Prison.' I thought it was really great. Of course, he wore black and seemed not as slick as those other guys. I listened to him a lot on the jukebox in the bars when I was a little kid. So it was easy for me to take to him as he was going along.” To young people like Berger, the Cash show appeared to be a counterculture refuge. But it was that and more: Cash’s show staked out neutral ground. Old-timers from Cash’s core audience—truck drivers, farmers, housewives—mingled in the Ryman’s Confederate Gallery with the long-haired college students who shunned country music and would not have dreamed of visiting the Ryman but for their trust in Cash.
Bob Dylan’s visit to Cash’s first show stirred America’s counterculture, inciting thoughtful reviews in Rolling Stone and New York’s Village Voice. The folk icon had generally avoided public appearances since his motorcycle accident near Woodstock, New York, in July 1966 and even in his busiest days had rarely accepted invitations from network television. But he had emerged from the shadows at Cash’s request, nodding to his base on both coasts and empowering his host’s show with rock festival credibility.
Soon, a scene sprouted around it. Young songwriters, poets, and musicians haunted the Ryman backstage and hotel rooms and bars where the show’s musicians and production staff dwelled, hoping to pitch a song or grab a guest spot or just meet Cash’s guests. Kristofferson, who was around so much that he became something of a mascot, camped in the makeup artist’s room, strumming his songs for any star who might be interested.
Once Kris figured out that Cash taped two shows a week, he persuaded Bob Beckham to increase his weekly draws and pay for a room at the Ramada Inn, which was the show’s headquarters. “So we are having all these jam sessions and having time to pitch songs to people we couldn’t ever see other than that,” Kris revealed in a 1971 interview with Rolling Stone. “So we had just been sort of hanging around the Ramada, and like Buffy Ste.-Marie—we had a great jam with her one time, and she dug all this. In fact she cut [my] ‘To Beat the Devil,’ but never released it. We had a ball and made some really good friends.”
Fellow Combine songwriter Donnie Fritts also appeared when production cranked up. Fritts had been one of the core figures of the Muscle Shoals, Alabama, music engine, with Dan Penn, David Briggs, Rick Hall, Billy Sherrill, and Spooner Oldham. He had cowritten the country-soul classic “Rainbow Road” and more recently the languid “Breakfast in Bed,” which appeared on "Dusty in Memphis," Dusty Springfield’s masterpiece. When his friend Tony Joe White performed “Polk Salad Annie” on the Cash show, Fritts finally met the Man in Black. “We went out to his house one day and went fishing with John and his father. I never went fishing, but how’re you going to turn that down? I didn’t care a thing about fishing, but, God, fishing with Johnny Cash! It was just great.”
Fritts would actually take to the stage as Kris Kristofferson’s organist later on in the show’s run, but in the first year he only played the so-called guitar pulls that sprang up whenever the show’s hangers-on and guests sat down to rest at the Ramada Inn. Cash encouraged the jamming, frequently inviting folks to bring their guitars and new songs to his house on Old Hickory Lake after the day’s filming had ended. “We’d all sit around in a big circle and show each other what we had,” wrote Cash in his second autobiography. “Kris Kristofferson sang ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ for the first time on one of those nights, and Joni Mitchell ‘Both Sides Now.’ Graham Nash sang ‘Marrakesh Express’ and Shel Silverstein ‘A Boy Named Sue.’ ”
In the autumn of 1970, the start of Cash’s second season on the air, a reporter for the British tabloid New Musical Express found himself in a Spanish restaurant with a crowd of show people, including Joni Mitchell, producer Stan Jacobson, and Dennis Hopper, whose "Easy Rider" gave him white-hot credibility among the counterculture and who earlier in the evening had convincingly recited Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” on the Cash show. Hopper, no singer, had lugged a guitar into the restaurant and between gulps of sangria thrust it into the hands of songwriter Chris Gantry, who sang “Pentagon Bygone,” and then he gave it to his current girlfriend, Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, who belted out “Me and Bobby McGee.” Bucky Wilkin, the son of Kristofferson’s early sponsor Marijohn Wilkin, contributed, and Mickey Newbury followed. “It was now three in the morning,” observed the reporter. “Hopper stood up and warmly thanked two people not present for bringing us all together—Kris Kristopherson [sic] and Johnny Cash.”
Indeed, the Cash show was merely one scene in Nashville, but nobody could refute its influence. “It made everybody aware of the serious part of country music,” observes Kris. “The part we all believed in.”
In effect, Cash and his TV show had joined the civil rights heroes of earlier in the decade in communicating to America that the 1960s lived in Nashville. Yes, visitors would still find a less than sterling nightlife, a local government that enjoyed the status quo, and fundamentalist churches that preached rashly and acted slowly, but Nashville had exported to America the integration of public accommodations . . . and 'The Johnny Cash Show.' And that had to be worth something.
* * *
When "The Cash Show" debuted in 1969, Kristofferson still carried the dismissive letter from home in his wallet. Its creases turning white from years of folding and unfolding, it must have still sobered him while also sharpening his resolve. Jack Clement had told him to keep the letter in his pocket, that one day they’d run into Johnny Cash, who’d want to see it. “I’ll introduce you to him,” plotted Clement, “and I want you to whip out that letter and show him.”
The day came when Kris found Cash in Clement’s office, and, as instructed, he solemnly produced the letter. The son of an Arkansas cotton farmer, who knew something about parental rejection, read the mother’s lines, and burst into deep guffaws. “He was laughing his ass off,” says Clement. “It was a very intellectual kind of letter, well-chosen words. But just really putting him down.” Clement reckons the letter bonded the two artists. From that moment, he recalls, Cash paid attention to Kristofferson and his songs.
Not that Kris wasn’t trying on his own to pull at Cash’s ear. During his stint changing lightbulbs at Columbia, Kristofferson had slipped demo tapes and lyrics sheets to Cash and June Carter. And according to a story that Cash told, and would have to be dismissed as apocryphal if only Kristofferson himself hadn’t confirmed it in later years, the maverick songwriter rented a helicopter, landed it outside Cash’s home in Hendersonville, and delivered more demo tapes. Kristofferson collided with the country music veteran at just the right time. As the 1960s came to an end, the star’s songwriting productivity had plummeted. Now in constant demand on the road and on television, the man who had given the world “I Walk the Line” and “Five Feet High and Rising” could find neither the time nor the focus to repeat the writing glories of the past, and so he pulled Kristofferson deeper into his fold. “It was a beautiful thing Cash was doing,” says songwriter Jim Casey. “It was hopeful especially when he took somebody like Kristofferson under his wing. Kris couldn’t sing that well. Couldn’t play very well but, God, his songs were just incredible. So that gave everybody hope that you didn’t have to be a great singer.”
In dramatic fashion so characteristic of Cash, he told Kris and another songwriting buddy Vince Matthews that he was taking them to Rhode Island for the Newport Folk Festival. And he wasn’t just taking them; he was giving Kris a spot on his set. It was July 1969, and Roger Miller’s “Me and Bobby McGee” was hitting the country charts.
The Newport lineup of 1969 was almost any music fan’s dream. Bobby Bland, Muddy Waters, and Big Mama Thornton mingled with Bill Monroe, Mac Wiseman, and Don Reno. The producers even made room for folkies such as Pete Seeger and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, whose prominence at the festival had been reduced over the years to make room for the ticket-selling stars from other genres. The scene was nothing less than bucolic, according to the New York Times. “The breezy twang of country strings mingled with the cries of blues singers as audiences strolled from one group to another sampling musical styles or pausing to ask questions,” wrote John S. Wilson.
Cash carried a huge revue with him to Newport, including his regulars the Carter Family, Carl Perkins, and Doug Kershaw. Making room for Kristofferson was bound to ruffle feathers among the organizers, but critic Wilson found him magnetic, though his name proved difficult to spell. “The most interesting of Mr. Cash’s associates was Chris Christopherson, a lanky, boyish songwriter with an easy, persuasive vocal style, whose observant use of everyday imagery made ‘Sunday Morning Sidewalk’ a particularly poignant portrait of loneliness.” The correct title was “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and Cash himself would make it his own in 1970.
“If there was one thing that got my performing career started, that was it right there,” says Kris. “And Cash was as scared as I was! It was so funny, he wanted me to go out and sing some songs before his set. And they didn’t want me to. They said he just had so many minutes himself, so they didn’t want me to take away from them. But he let me do two songs. He made them let me do two songs. And there was no looking back after that. It went over real well, and they put me on some afternoon shows that had different songwriters, like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.”
Matthews never took the stage, but back home in Nashville, Kris and Vince both trembled with excitement, jogging up Broadway to the rooming house where Billy Swan stayed and slept. “It was six o’clock in the morning,” recalls Swan. “And Kris and Vince said, ‘Hey Billy.’ I had the little side [balcony] door open that faced the street. Kris said, ‘John put me on at Newport, and I sang a couple of songs.’ ”
“He was going to make it,” says Fred Foster of his new writer-recording artist. “But what Johnny really contributed to Kris was stability. Like, ‘I’ve already been there and done that, son, don’t worry about it. It’s going to work out fine. You got a question, just sing it out and I’ll holler an answer at you.’ That’s the way I saw it. They were very close friends.”
Excerpted from "Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris and the Renegades of Nashville" by Michael Streissguth. Published by It Books/Harper Collins. Copyright 2013 by Michael Streissguth. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.