Free-speech award honors Kris Kristofferson

Monday, September 22, 2003
Kris Kristofferson performs at Americana Awards Show in Nashville, Tenn., on Sept. 19. Photo by Bill Thorup

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In accepting the second annual “Spirit of Americana” Free Speech Award on Sept. 19, Kris Kristofferson was mindful of the man who had received last year’s award — country legend Johnny Cash, who died earlier this month.

“We’ll never see his like again,” said Kristofferson, who had attended Cash’s funeral in Nashville just days before.

The celebrated singer-songwriter, who once landed a helicopter on Cash’s front lawn to try to deliver a demo tape, received the 2003 “Spirit of Americana” award presented by the First Amendment Center in partnership with the Americana Music Association.

Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center, introduced Kristofferson the Americana Awards Show, saying, “Last year, we had the privilege of presenting the first ‘Spirit of Americana’ award to Johnny Cash. In the wake of that, the real challenge was to identify the next winner, someone who like Johnny Cash put passion ahead of product and whose music reflects a lifetime of integrity. … What about a man who, despite extraordinary career risks, wrote songs tackling tough topics and challenging his government’s foreign policy? … What about a man who is as comfortable with messages as he is with music? A man who loves his country, but also expects it to live up to its potential — and its principles?”

Kristofferson then took the stage and sang “Don’t Let the Bastards Get you Down,” incorporating a new verse about the situation in Iraq: “After 10 years of crippling sanctions, we went in and did it to ‘em all over again … fighting terrorism.” He played a new song, “In the News,” in which he sang, “Don’t blame God, I swear to God, he’s crying too.”

“I tell you, it feels to be a real special night,” Kristofferson said after the ceremony. “Given the closeness of the funeral with John and June, I’m a little overwhelmed right now. I’m real proud.”

The writer of such landmark songs as “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Help Me Make it Through the Night” added, “It’s hard for me to think right now to think of myself as being in the same category with so many of the great ones, but I feel that passing of the baton. We’ll not be seeing another Johnny — no Waylon (Jennings), no Roger Miller, no Shel Silverstein — again. I know it’s the course of life, but right now it’s a little close. The reality of it sinks in a little more every day.”

Kris Kristofferson receives “Spirit of Americana” Free Speech Award from First Amendment Center Executive Director Ken Paulson. Photo by Bill Thorup

That afternoon, Kristofferson taped an episode of “Speaking Freely,” a half-hour television interview program focusing on free expression and the arts and hosted by Paulson. Asked for his definition of patriotism, Kristofferson said, “I think it’s believing in the principles that your country stands for. I think if you believe in freedom, and justice, and humanity, then you’re believing in the same things the founders of our country were.”

A lifelong activist for social justice and human rights, Oh Boy recording artist Kristofferson was selected by the two groups for blending that activism with his music and professional career and concerns about politics, world affairs and armed conflict. The nonpartisan award recognizes Americana musical artists for careers that are marked by civic and social involvement. Kristofferson’s current politically charged CD, “Broken Freedom Song: Live From San Francisco,” was released in July on Oh Boy Records.

“At the First Amendment Center, our goal is to remind all Americans of the importance of protecting freedom of expression,” said Paulson. “The ‘Spirit of Americana’ Free Speech Award recognizes musicians and songwriters who have used their powers of creativity and freedom of speech to truly make a difference. Kris Kristofferson is an extraordinary artist who has never hesitated to take a stand. We honor him as both a songwriter and citizen.”

J.D. May, executive director of the Americana Music Association, said, “In addition to being a musical pioneer and major influence on the Americana genre, he has also been unwavering in his beliefs, lending an important voice to issues that may have otherwise been overlooked. In all aspects of his life, he embodies the spirit in which this award was created.”

Kristofferson, born in Texas and raised in a military family, was a Golden Gloves boxer who studied creative writing at Pomona College in California. The Phi Beta Kappa graduate earned a Rhodes scholarship to study literature at Oxford, where he boxed, played rugby and continued to write songs. After graduating from Oxford, he served in the army as an airborne ranger helicopter pilot and achieved the rank of captain.

In 1965, Kristofferson turned down an assignment to teach at West Point and, inspired by songwriters such as Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, moved to Nashville to pursue his music. Kristofferson achieved remarkable success as a country songwriter at the start of the 1970s. His songs “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “For the Good Times” were chart-topping hits. He has starred in more than 44 films and recorded more than 25 albums. His latest CD is the first of a series of musical projects to be released on Oh Boy Records.

This is the second year the “Spirit of Americana” Free Speech Award has been presented at the Americana Awards Show. The First Amendment Center also salutes artists for support of free speech in other areas of the arts, including the Freedom in Film Award, presented since 1999; and a Free Speech in Comedy Award presented in 2002 and 2003.

The mission of the Americana Music Association is to provide a forum for the advocacy of Americana music, to promote public awareness of this genre, and to support the creative and economic viability of professionals in the field. Each year the Americana Conference brings together artists and industry professionals from all over the world for the only industry event specifically focused on the growing Americana format and industry.

Tommy Womack is a long-time Nashville musician, formerly with the bands Government Cheese and Bis-quits. He wrote the critically praised rock ‘n’ roll memoir The Cheese Chronicles: The True Story of a Rock & Roll Band You Never Heard Of.

Tags: , , ,