Kristofferson retains genius, adds softness


By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


May 9, 2006

'This Old Road'
Kris Kristofferson
Grade: A

At this point in his career, Kris Kristofferson, who turns 70 next month, has nothing to prove. Johnny Cash's former janitor has written classic songs, been a Hollywood star, performed as a Highwayman with three legends -- Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson -- and helped carry the banner of gritty, honest country music.

If his CDs of the past couple of decades have been largely uneven affairs, so what. The man wrote "Me and Bobby McGee," "For the Good Times," "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," "Why Me," "Lovin' Her Was Easier" and "Help Me Make It Through the Night" and that, friends, means immortality.

So it's a wonderful surprise that "This Old Road" is a gripping, vital and touching work of art, seasoned by Kristofferson's acceptance of mortality. "Look at that old photograph," he sings on the title song. "Is it really me?"

Before he goes to his reward, however, the singer has some thanks to give (lovers, children, bandmates, rock 'n' roll) as well as some spanks (a president, warmongers, greedheads). In "Chase the Feeling," Kristofferson also takes a hard look at drugs and self-delusion ("Let it run your children off/ Let it run your wife").

Sonically, "This Old Road" takes a page from Cash's final recordings, with Kristofferson's spare, basic guitar and harmonica carrying most songs. Producer Don Was adds bass and keyboards and brings in two studio all-stars -- guitarist Stephen Bruton and drummer Jim Keltner -- for flavoring.

But the sound is all Kristofferson. Musically, he still often rewrites "The Silver Tongued Devil and I," but that's OK. His lyrical focus is razor sharp, and his raggedy voice has acquired wisdom and warmth.