It was 1968 and I was eighteen-years-old. I was hitchhiking from Miami to New York and had gotten off the beaten track, so to speak. I should have stayed on US 301 (this was before the Interstate Highway System), but instead I found myself just south of Memphis hoping I could catch a ride into Nashville by noon and then catch a long haul out of that city.
It was early morning, the traffic was light and I wasn’t having any luck when suddenly a black Mustang screeched to a halt and the guy driving leaned over and said through the open passenger-side window, “I’m headin’ to Nashville, that do you any good?”
Of course, I said, “Yes,” and jumped in.
As he’s accelerating, he’s looking straight ahead and not at me. In fact he doesn’t say anything, which is strange, but not unheard of. So, I say nothing and stare out the windshield at the fast approaching skyline of Memphis. Then it hits me. I know this guy; I should have tumbled to him from the voice.
At that time in my life I was not into different forms of music, I liked rock n’ roll. Since then my taste in music has matured to encompass all types. But even though this guy wasn’t a rocker I knew him and his music, a couple of his songs had crossed over and were played on the top forty stations.
The driver was intent on what he was doing, but I think he caught me looking at him out of corner of his eye. I noticed he had a firm grip on the steering wheel, his knuckles were white. Finally after a few minutes he turns to me and says, “Howdy, my name’s John,” and raised his right hand from the wheel and stuck it out in my direction.
We shook hands, and I said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you Mr. Cash.”
Once John and I shook hands, he became more talkative. Hell, he became down right verbose. He told me about his hitchhiking adventures and asked me about mine. We were three hours out of Nashville and I don’t think there was another quiet moment the whole three hours. We just bullshitted about life, women, and we even got into metaphysical discussions. He told me about his army days and the time he was arrested in Texas. Just to keep it even, I told him about shit that had happened to me while on the road. We didn’t talk about his music or anything like that. I’d been around enough to know that if I came off as a gushing fan that would have been a major turn off for him. Besides, at the time, I was not a fan, gushing or otherwise. Well, to be honest, by the time we hit Nashville I was becoming a fan; of the man if not his music.
As we neared Nashville, he told me he’s just gotten married a few months back and was dying to see his wife. “I’ve been gone two days and it feels like two years,” he informed me. Then he said, “It’s about dinner time why not stop in and get something to eat and then hit the road. June’s a great cook.” Dinner is what country folk call lunch.
I accepted his kind offer and we got off the highway and headed for his home, which was only a few blocks away. When we got to his house, and as we were pulling into the driveway, he said, “Looks like June is out somewhere, but don’t worry we’ll rustle somethin’ up.”
I told him not to bother, that I could cadge a meal down the line. But he just looked at me and shook his head, and in that deep voice, asked me if I had any money. I course didn’t and I told him so. Then he told me that he’d been on the road and hungry, and that if I didn’t get my ass in the house pronto, he’d drag me in.
So we went inside and walked right back to the kitchen. John told me to sit at the table and then he opened the refrigerator and looked around for a moment before saying, “Ah ha, I knew it was still here when I left.” Then he pulled out a platter with a ham on it. I mean a real ham, bone and all.
I’m sitting there and he goes back to the fridge and comes up with a jar of mustard and a hunk of white cheese. I remember this because I was not a big mustard lover and it was the first time in my life that I had ever seen cheese that was not orange or yellow in color. Then John starts to slice, or maybe hack would better describe it, the ham. As he’s doing so, he told me where the bread and plates where kept and asked me to get said items, which I did.
When the sandwiches where made, two of them, he asked me if I’d like a beer.
So there I am, sitting in the kitchen of a man I’d meet only a few hours before, and I’ve got two thick ham and cheese sandwiches and a can of beer in front of me. Not a bad score and the day was still young yet.
I asked him if he was going to eat, but he said beer would do him fine.
Okay, enough already with my long winded shit. Now to the part you guys wanna hear about. We’re sittin’ at the kitchen table, me eating and John’s drinking beer. We’re both shooting the shit when the doorbell rings. John gets up and before he leaves the table, takes a long swig of beer. “Be right back,” he said. A minute later, he came back into the kitchen with this guy who was a little older than me, but his hair was longer. In those days you were judged by the length of your hair.
“I want you to meet a friend of mine. This here is Kris,” said John. I had my mouth filled with ham sandwich, so I mumbled hello. He waved and smiled, “Glad to meet ya.”
John then asked Kris, “How about a sandwich and a beer?”
The guy replied, “Just a beer, it’s my lunch hour and I’ve got to get back to work, but I have a new song I’d like you to hear and see what you think.”
By now, I’ve eaten my two sandwiches and was washing them down with the beer. I had nothing to add to the conversation so I figured I’d just finish my beer and get the hell out of there. But before I could say my thanks and hit the road, John leaves the room and returns a moment later with a guitar.
Prior to going any further, I’ve got to lay out the scene for you. We’re sitting at a round kitchen table. To my left is John and directly opposite me is this guy Kris Kristofferson. (At the time I thought he was Chris.) John and I were hitting our beers and looking at Kris tune the guitar. Then he picked at the strings and started to sing. Now I know ya’ all are going to kill me, but I don’t remember what the song was. I wasn’t really paying attention. In my mind I was rehearsing my good-bye speech to John.
When Kris was done, we all three sat there looking at one another. I didn’t say anything because it wasn’t my opinion Kris sought. Kris didn’t say anything because he was waiting for John to say something, which he finally did.
“It’s not bad. But I don’t know if it’s for me.”
I’ve got to hand it to Kris, he smiled broadly and said, “That’s okay, I just wanted you to hear it and get your thoughts.” Then he lifted his beer and said, “Prosit.” That was my cue to leave. I stood and told John I had to hit the road. He said he’d drive me back to the highway, but I told him not to bother, he had company and besides, it was only a few blocks. Kris said if I could wait a few minutes, he’d drop me off on his way back to work. I declined his offer. I didn’t want to wait around. I had a full stomach and New York City was calling to me. So I said my good-byes, walked out the front door, retrieved my case from the Mustang and headed off for further adventures.
Just one last thing. When I got to New York and opened my case Benjamin Franklin was there staring up at me from on top of my clothes. John must have put the C note in my case when he went to let Kris in.