(In addition to the GRAMMY Awards, The Recording Academy presents Special Merit Awards recognizing contributions of significance to the recording field, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, Trustees Award and Technical GRAMMY Award. In the days leading up to the 56th GRAMMY Awards, GRAMMY.com will present the tributes to the 2014 Special Merit Awards recipients.)
When in 1971 the news reached my small corner of the world that there was this helicopter-piloting, William Blake-quoting Rhodes scholar by the name of Kris Kristofferson, whose songs were transforming the country and popular music airwaves, I was marooned six nights a week in an East Texas Holiday Inn lounge, fielding requests for "Scotch And Soda" and "99 Bottles Of Beer" from a handful of traveling salesmen and gin swills whose nightcap needs did not include meaningful music. Fortunately, recent recordings of "Help Me Make It Through The Night," "Me And Bobby McGee," "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," "For The Good Times," and "Why Me Lord" had begun seeping into the disinterested listeners' nonmusical psyche, and, practically overnight, introducing even the most obscure Kristofferson tune seemed to trigger in the Old Mill Club clientele something resembling audience refinement.
Despite the cold fact that the typical "Mill" crowd consisted of, maybe, six inebriated tractor suppliers, a table full of box tape wholesalers and a couple of recently divorced medical assistants, experiencing this subtle shift in the public's taste bolstered in me the notion that I too could someday carve out for myself a career as an artist.
Forty-three years later, having gotten to know the man and his wife, Lisa, I feel modestly qualified to scribble down these few words framing his extraordinary musical legacy: By creating a narrative style that introduced intelligence, humor, emotional eloquence, spiritual longing, male vulnerability, and a devilish sensuality — indeed, a form of eroticism — to country music, Kris Kristofferson, without compromising the content and quality of his work, did as much to expand the mainstream accessibility of an all-too-often misunderstood art form as Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles (I'm thinking of Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music) and, more recently, Garth Brooks. And, lest we forget, the man is one hell of an accomplished actor.
(A GRAMMY-winning singer/songwriter and 56th GRAMMY nominee for Best Americana Album for Old Yellow Moon with Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell was featured on the 2006 album The Pilgrim: A Celebration Of Kris Kristofferson with a cover of "Come Sundown," which is featured on Kristofferson's 1970 GRAMMY Hall Of Fame-inducted debut album. Six years later, Kristofferson was featured on Crowell's 2012 album Kin: Songs By Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell.)