May 4, 2017 | by Andrew K. Lau
Of all the hundreds of gems I pulled outta the trash heap while working 15 years at a record store, Kris Kristofferson’s Border Lord (Monument, 1972) is the crown jewel — it gets the most listens, has yet to be replaced with a better copy, and is far from the jokey curio almost all of my other finds represent. Mostly, though, it contains actual value in an otherwise foolish endeavor of digging through stacks of throw-away records.
Sure, I could’ve walked downstairs and maybe found a clean copy in the racks, but what’s the fun in that?
The only thing I knew about Border Lord, before unearthing this copy, is that underrated Los Angeles band Acetone had recorded a version of the title track for their 1995 album, I Guess I Would LP, stretching out the song for 11 syrupy minutes. The copy I rescued has the requisite ring-ware old records get and the upper right corner has been chewed by something or someone — a condition that goes along quite well with the rustic, beat-up, and down-to-earth aura of the material inside.
Turns out, not too many people loved this record upon its release, which is odd because it’s certainly one of Kristofferson strongest early works. Hindsight tells us the forbearers of outlaw country — of which he is a member alongside Townes Van Zant, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Tanya Tucker et al — never really saw much in sales early on. Border Lord’s middling reviews and low sales may’ve been influenced by Kristofferson overall approach, which is to say, after a listen or two, it seemed as though he isn’t too invested in his songs or the characters. His detached singing style and the song’s barebones arrangements (especially on “Somebody Nobody Knows” and “When She’s Wrong”) render the material almost invisible. This perceived distance is a creative slight-of-hand, which must’ve frustrated radio station program directors and record buyers alike. He wasn’t disinterested at all. In fact, considering his history, Kristofferson wasn’t one to half-ass anything. In all actuality, he was an over-achiever with an “aw shucks” attitude.
His somewhat unusual backstory finds him as a sporty frat boy graduating top of his class with a BA in Literature at Pomona, which earned him a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. There he continued to excel in sports and academics, but figured what the heck and recorded a single or two under the name Kris Carson. Though he’d been tinkering with songwriting as early as age 11, his true musician talent had yet to develop, and, for the first time in his young life, he didn’t find success.
Despite his newly acquired Bachelor of Philosophy in English Literature, Kristofferson’s family all but forced him to continue their military tradition. He joined the Army and became a helicopter pilot while quietly continuing his music aspirations with long-range plans of becoming a novelist. After his tour of duty ended in 1965, he declined an offer to teach literature at West Point and decided to give a career in music a try. For this, his family saw him as a traitor to their more conservative world views, turned their backs and cut him loose.
Undeterred, he moved on to Nashville. In an angry letter to her son, Kristofferson’s mother made it clear how disappointed she was in him by throwing away a promising career to hang out with such go-nowhere layabouts like Johnny Cash. Kristofferson happened to be sitting in producer Jack Clement’s office when he first read the letter and recited parts of it out loud. Clement asked if he could pass the letter onto Cash, who would certainly understand the pain and residual duality involved in receiving such a missive.
Ironically, one of Kristofferson’s first songs to be recorded by another artist was “Viet Nam Blues” in 1966 by Jack Sanders for the Dot label. It’s a bitter, pro-war song in the talking-folk tradition, told from the perspective of a soldier on leave encountering anti-war protesters. While it’s hard to imagine the Kris Kristofferson we know today taking such a hard stance, at the time he penned the song he was fresh from active duty and still shedding his conservative upbringing. Though his views on war would soon change drastically, he retained the most important facet from this period of his life: supporting veteran rights.
From there, Kristofferson’s career trajectory is a well-known story: swept the floors at the Columbia studios in Nashville, gave a demo to June Carter Cash who passed it on to husband Johnny who, in turn, put it in an ever mounting pile of tapes from other would-be songwriters.
Kristofferson decided to meet Cash himself. In what surely reads as country music folklore, Kristofferson was working a side job flying helicopters out to area oil rigs, and actually did land a chopper on Cash’s lawn. Unfortunately, Johnny wasn’t home at the time but later ended up recording Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” which earned the kid the Academy of Country Music’s “Songwriter of the Year” award. When the two did eventually meet, the first thing Cash brought up was that letter from Kristofferson’s mother (Clement gave it to him). In his delightfully sardonic way, Cash offered: “It’s always nice to get a letter from home, ain’t it Kris?”
Despite his songs having chart success with other artists, most notably Janis Joplin’s number one version of “Me & Bobby McGee,” Kristofferson’s own records never really took off. A self-titled debut album faltered, his second, The Silver Tongued Devil And I did better. Border Lord, his third, which should’ve been his breakthrough record, didn’t find much of an audience. And it’s truly puzzling, because Border Lord features Nashville heavyweight session players and is a continuation of its predecessor’s subtle brilliance.
The album’s opening line, sung in a warm, inviting tone, couldn’t be more welcoming to a new pair of ears: “I’ve been chasing after Josie since the day I could run / Even though I didn’t know it at the time.” It’s the kind of “come on over and lemme tell ya a story” persona one would think the guy radiates in person. As with any good collection of songs, the understated touches come to the forefront after a few repeated listens. Take the bass drum sound on “Burden of Freedom”: it’s tuned so low and loose that, when hit, gives off the sound of watery thunder. Then there’s the most prominent instrument on the record: his voice. It’s easy to take the vocals for granted, but Kristofferson possess one of those singular voices he easily transitions from a gravelly baritone to a wonderful mid-tenor. Both “Little Girl Lost” and “Somebody Nobody Knows” are perfect examples of how Kristofferson can pull emotions from the intent then twist those meanings by merely taking a note up or down. In fact, keeping the lyrical content simple gives him the room to add much more depth through singing.
Kristofferson wasn’t the first to do this, of course. Border Lord is not necessarily minimalism but maintaining a country music tradition of lyrical economy. On “Stagger Mountain Tragedy,” for example, the song’s fiddle/banjo/guitar/drum/harmonica makeup is played with such precision and the harmonies are so clear it all deftly betrays the nightmarish lyrical imagery sung in a voice remarkably similar to Lee Hazelwood’s:
Then I saw the laughing dagger and I heard the Devil scream
And her bleeding heart was beating in my hand
Then the darkness flew away and I was standing by a tree
With a hanging rope a-dangling from a limb
Sometimes all it takes are four lines to make a movie’s worth of imagery. Clocking in at under three minutes, “Stagger Mountain Tragedy” doesn’t give the listener (or the song’s protagonist) much time for rumination. As an aspiring novelist at the time, these songs contain tight, concise narratives, drawing you in and never letting you down no matter how grim the outcome. And speaking of writing techniques, Kristofferson’s favorite anti-hero, the Devil, shows up in five of the 10 songs; a device he uses so often in his early work it would seem as though the singer was working as Lucifer’s PR man.
As for should’ve-been hits, there are two humorous, up-tempo jukebox stompers. The first is “Smokey Put the Sweat on Me,” an unusually wordy, rollicking number where the female in question is the Devil and maybe even the police as well. The other is “Getting By, High and Strange,” which is even funnier and contains the record’s only solo in the form of a twangy guitar shuffle. The drumming, a fantastically precise cross-stitch of hi-hat/snare/bass drum has the music run, run, running into the sunset of the fade-out.
Fittingly, Border Lord (and the outlaw country movement at large) bridges the gap between two important genres of music that, at the time, were kept apart by class and ideology. Country was no longer specifically for the conservative hillbilly, prideful of the more dodgy aspects of Southern culture. Rock music (at least as it stood in 1972) was no longer for the bleeding-heart college student, too self-obsessed to look beyond the more boring aspects of white, middle class convention. The limits were obsolete.
Nashville didn’t take to Kristofferson’s kind of country… at all. When he walked up on stage to accept that award for “Songwriter of the Year” in 1970, his appearance angered old guards. Black pants, shiny square belt buckle, baby blue Nehru-collared shirt under a black jacket with leather trim, his hair falling way past his eyes — it was an amalgamation of counterculture and country, and the crowd snickered as they applauded. Veteran musician turned hokey TV star, Roy Clark, handed him the award and tried to ham it up with “well look what we have here” facial expressions.
Kristofferson gave a quick, mysterious speech in his low drawl, name-checking Marty Robbins, Cash, and one other industry outsider, Merle Haggard, while hardly looking up at the camera. The establishment saw this as an encroachment upon sacred ground by undesirables and went into panic mode tagging him as a “disgrace” in trade papers the following day. This really wasn’t much of a surprise. Country music isn’t exactly a genre to champion substance over style, and they continue this disgusting trend today as country pop (more pop than country) contaminates the air we all breathe and lowering, even further, the creative levels of terrestrial radio. As always, a healthy reaction also continues and outlaw country is thriving — all it takes is a little investigation. But a word of caution: One should not be hoodwinked by the excessively lame and cartoonish pandering of Hank Williams III when all it takes is one Emmylou Harris record to prove the point.
Whoops, where was I?
Ah, yes. Considering Kristofferson had already been disowned by his real family six years earlier, the award ceremony ousting must’ve been downright laughable. Cash was country music royalty by that point, and the industry either turned a blind eye to his brand of against-the-grain attitude or just put up with it. One rebel was apparently enough for the genre. “When you’re headin’ for the border lord,” Kristofferson sings in the title track, “you’re bound to cross the line.”
The album’s closer, “Kiss the World Goodbye,” unintentionally sums up Kristofferson’s opinion on such matters rather nicely. Additionally, the song returns us to that detached writing style but also adds a sing-along chorus and humming organ that edges the song into gospel territory. Although written as a dying man’s lament, it can be seen as the singer’s never-look-back creative approach with the final notes ending in a wonderful finality.
Two months after Border Lord was released, typically a time when a record would be heavily promoted, Kristofferson did a performance for WPLJ radio in New York with wife-to-be, singer Rita Coolidge, and didn’t touch any of this album's material. Only the title track would bubble up during live shows now and then, thereby putting extra weight in its line: “Breakin’ any ties before they bind you.”
Ahead lay a promising acting career for Kristofferson, more records (over 30 at the time of this writing, all available in some format), and a legacy without the constraints of being fenced in. Now at the age of 81, he has followed a theme of not fitting anywhere — not as a country musician, or an actor, not as a veteran or an objector. Not even as a proper son in his parent’s eyes. Quite a life. The best part is that all of this overthinking came from a record I pulled out of the garbage. One man’s throw-away is another’s mantel piece.