Redneck Country Club
October 8, 2016
Kris Kristofferson didn’t write “Stop the World and Let Me Off”; two men named Carl Belew and W.S. Stevenson did. Nor has he ever recorded it, unlike his late buddies Merle and Waylon. But that doesn’t matter. Sunday night at the Redneck Country Club, he did those men one better and actually made it come to pass.
The effect was remarkable. The Stafford-area venue, which resembles an upscale barn with a sprawling patio area, was stuffed with hundreds of people. Red Dirt veteran Dub Miller struggled to be heard over the thicket of conversation during his long opening set, but never sounded anything less than grateful for the opportunity to open for one of the two surviving Highwaymen. Kristofferson, said visibly awed Country Club owner Michael Berry, was a “bucket-list artist.”
Even Kristofferson’s timing, as he walked onstage at almost the precise moment the event op-ed rubberneckers would soon enough describe as a new low in American politics was getting underway, seemed like more than simple coincidence. It was tough not to think about what was going on back in St. Louis, right up until the moment Kristofferson started to sing. Then everything else melted away.
Using little more than his words, an acoustic guitar and that Methusalan voice, over the next 25 songs Kristofferson cast a spell that stretched well beyond his own 80 years and back into untold eons of wisdom and folklore. His economy of words is not the same thing as mincing them; his songs are laden with tenderness, regret and Arizona-dry humor, but they’re also usually over in about two and a half minutes. There was very little in the way of musical embellishment; a couple of verses and a chorus or two per song were more than enough for him to get his point across. For variety, he threw in a little harmonica here and there. That’s it.
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The crowd was spellbound. Kristofferson drew them in with a simple greeting and “Shipwrecked In the Eighties,” and kept them at attention, minus applause breaks between songs, for the next 75 minutes. The songs the crowd knew were sung with gusto, if respectfully; remarking on the sound of hundreds of voices softly singing along to “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” the singer said, “sounds like church,” and seemed pleased. My tablemate didn’t miss a word of “Me and Bobby McGee,” and the room was seldom louder than on the chorus of “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down.” Kristofferson’s forceful fist-pump after that one was a rare visible acknowledgment that things were really going his way.
The wayfarers and rogues that populate Kristofferson’s songs make up one of the great galleries of the country and folk idioms, up there with Guthrie, Dylan or any of Kristofferson’s fellow Highwaymen. (Imagine the four of them all sitting around a studio kitchenette late into the night, trying to out-BS one another…the mind boggles.) These people, none of them especially rich or otherwise privileged, are flawed but hopeful, less malicious than they are impatient; “trading tomorrow for today” is a big theme in Kristofferson’s music. They survive by their wits and the occasional kindness of strangers. These are the lonely souls clinging to one another for warmth, both physical and spiritual (“Casey’s Last Ride”); standing up for what they believe and suffering the consequences (“They Killed Him”); or facing down the great beyond one long minute at a time (“Feeling Mortal”). But they’re also haunting places like the Tally-Ho Tavern, trying to get over (and get over on one another), always trying to convince themselves that the going up is worth the coming down. Often enough, they do.
Kristofferson, their creator, has imbued all of these people with a deep-seated humanity that is poignant and noble; all the more so because he loves their imperfections, too. Watching him perform Sunday did not necessarily reveal any great new insight why the emotional rabbit-punches in the last lines of “Jody and the Kid” are so devastating, for example, but just being in Kristofferson's proximity gave songs like that another layer or two of gravity. And by and large, his set was almost entirely politics-free, unless you count the line from “Jesus Was a Capricorn” that looms more relevant than ever: “everybody’s gotta have somebody to look down on.” That, right there, is Campaign 2016 in a nutshell. Politics is entertainment nowadays, except lately it hasn’t been very entertaining at all. When Kris Kristofferson sings, though, much more is at stake. These are people’s lives he’s talking about.
Shipwrecked In the Eighties
Me & Bobby McGee
Here Comes That Rainbow Again
The Best of All Possible Worlds
Help Me Make It Through the Night
Casey's Last Ride
From Here to Forever
Lovin' Her Was Easier
I'd Rather Be Sorry
They Killed Him
Jesus Was a Capricorn
Jody and the Kid
The Pilgrim, Chapter 33
To Beat the Devil
Sunday Morning Coming Down
The Silver Tongued Devil and I
For the Good Times
A Moment of Forever
Why Me Lord
Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends