Songs of 74: Why Me / Kris Kristofferson

This year Radioinfo will take you back 50 years to the songs that charted in 1974. It was a mighty fine year for music.

Today, June 22, 2024, is Kris Kristofferson’s 88th birthday. With his dear friend Willie Nelson (aged 91) cancelling music festival performances this weekend due to ill health I’ve felt driven to share this song, Why Me, as a celebration of this very fine song writer, actor and singer while he’s still with us.

Why Me was written in 1972 by Kris after a particularly profound experience in church, and as a kind of antidote to his composition Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down, which if you don’t know the story, he landed a helicopter in Johnny Cash’s yard to show him. Cash liked it, recorded it in 1970, and Kristofferson would win a songwriter’s award at that year’s Country Music Association Awards.

From 1970-1972 everyone was recording Kris’s songs, including Kris on his debut album. Songs like Help Me Make it Through the Night, For the Good Times and a little thing called Me and Bobby McGee, which Kris had played for Janis Joplin, who he was casually dating. He didn’t know Janis had recorded it until he heard it on the radio accompanied by the news that she had died.

In 1972 Kristofferson recorded and released the album Jesus was a Capricorn from which Why Me comes. The cover features he and his soon to be wife Rita Coolidge. Coolidge too was a successful singer through the 70s, and the inspiration behind the Leon Russell written Joe Cocker hit Delta Lady. She also is an uncredited writer for both Layla by Derek and the Dominos and Superstar, also credited to Leon Russell and turned into a hit by The Carpenters – but that is a story for another day.

Kris and Rita came and toured Australia in 1974 which is why I assume this song so belatedly charted here. It was one of only two minor hits he had with Australia never really getting into any of the country outlaw singers including Kris, Willie, Waylon Jennings and more, who were all so prolific during the mid 70s.

I’ve previously mentioned the 1975 CMA Awards where Charlie Rich (his biggest hit Behind Closed Doors is 50 this year too) set fire to the envelope holding John Denver’s win for Entertainer of the Year. Olivia Newton John, who I’m yet to feature, also won big at those awards, and at the Grammys, putting the “that’s ain’t real country music” people’s noses out of joint.

It’s strikingly similar to now, with Beyoncé, aka Cowboy Carter. This year’s country music awards were held in May. Beyoncé didn’t attend, and wasn’t eligible to be in the running. Not because she’s a country fraud, but because her album was not released in 2023. She will be eligible next year.

The 2024 59th edition of the American Country Music Awards did feature performances by Dua Lipa, Post Malone, Gwen Stefani and even Avril Lavigne – none of which are names you’d typically associate with country music. The genre is so hot right now that Post Malone is also releasing a country album in August that is likely to rival the success of Beyoncé’s, if the debut single with Morgan Wallen is anything to go by. Hold onto your hats!

But back to Kris.

From humbler beginnings working as a janitor for Columbia Records, by 1974 this Rhodes Scholar, disowned by his family for pursuing song writing, was touring, married with a new baby, and transitioning to becoming a genuine movie star with roles in Blume in Love, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. In 1976 he reached a professional peak appearing alongside Barbra Streisand in A Star is Born.

In 1980 his marriage to Rita ended and his starring role in the box office disaster (now considered a cult film) Heaven’s Gate saw him lose his Hollywood A listing. A few years later he would meet and marry Lisa Meyers and truly settle down. An invitation to join the country supergroup The Highwaymen alongside Willie, Johnny and Waylon followed and in 1985 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In the 90s he stuck his toes back into acting in movies like the Blade franchises and Payback with Mel Gibson.

And he kept touring and releasing music. Five years ago, I sat front row when he, fiddle player Scott Joss and his band The Strangers played, in what will be his last visit to this country.

The voice was rougher, but that has always suited his lyrics. I swear to you that he winked at me. It remains one of the greatest nights and experiences of my life.

Jen Seyderhelm is a writer, editor and podcaster for Radioinfo

Jen Seyderhelm with Scott Joss, Kris’s friend and supporting fiddle player

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