There’s a fair case for Kristofferson as Nashville’s forgotten hero. Less celebrated than fellow ’70s outlaws Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, he brought an outsider’s perspective to Music City’s staid conservatism that drew from the confessional folk of Fred Neil and the freewheelin’ narrative of Dylan. In this respect, he did as much as anyone to replot the sensibility of country songwriting. At a time when Nashville flashed like a tacky rhinestone beacon, he was as hard-luck raw as it got.
This two-disc set?front-loaded with key recordings from between 1969 and 1971?is hardly an even-handed retrospective, but it does underscore his greatest work. While more or less giving up on his post-Highwaymen output, both Kristofferson (1970) and The Silver Tongued Devil And I (’71) are liberally plundered on disc one. It’s here where you find the gold. Lacking confidence in his own voice, Kristofferson’s earliest offerings were peddled elsewhere. Grammy-winner “Help Me Make It Through The Night” went to Gladys Knight And The Pips and Glen Campbell, among others. Janis Joplin scored a colossal hit with “Me And Bobby McGee”?and the original here is as erudite a hobo-hippie anthem as you’ll hear. Kristofferson’s version of “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”, popularised by Johnny Cash, is a bleary breath of hungover hell, matched only by the Lee Hazlewood-like “Casey’s Last Ride” and “Darby’s Castle” for beat-up-n-blue despondency. Most startlingly, the voice he had no faith in now sounds weatherbeaten to perfection.
Due to its scattershot chronology (attempting to compress 1972 to 1985), the second disc is less impressive. That said, “Border Lord” is as perfect a country-picked rumble as anything he’s recorded, as is the bigot-biting “Jesus Was A Capricorn”. There are duets, too?with then-wife Rita Coolidge and Nelson?along with the famous Willie-Waylon-Johnny foursome on 1985’s “Highwayman”. But Kristofferson’s singular, belligerent vision is made plain on “If You Don’t Like Hank Williams”: “You can kiss my ass”. Well said, that man.