I’d like to relay a little story of the time I had a beer with Kris Kristofferson … before he was famous.
It was 1968; I was eighteen years old, and was hitchhiking from Miami to New York. I 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 found myself just south of Memphis hoping to 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 much 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; he hadn’t even glanced at me. In fact, he hadn’t said a thing since I sat my butt in the seat. It was kinda strange, but not that unusual when you’re hitching. So, I said nothing in return and stared out the windshield at the fast-approaching skyline of Memphis. Then it hit me. “I know this guy; I should have tumbled from the voice.”
At that time in my life, I was not into different types of music; I liked rock n’ roll. Since then my taste in music has matured (or evolved) to encompass all kinds. 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 out of the corner of his eye I think he caught me looking at him. I noticed he had a firm grip on the steering wheel, his knuckles were white. After a few minutes, he turned to me, saying, “Howdy, the 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. My name is Andrew.”
Once John and I shook hands, he became more talkative. Hell, he became downright 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 for the whole three hours. We talked about life, women, and we even got into a metaphysical discussion. He told me about his army days and the time he was arrested in Texas. Just to keep even, I told him stuff 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 coming off as a gushing fan would have been a major turn-off for him. And besides, at the time, I was not a fan, gushing or otherwise. But 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’d 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’s 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. He looked at me, shook his head, and in that deep, baritone voice of his, he asked if I had any money. Of course, I didn’t and said so. He said he’d been on the road and hungry, and he knew how it felt. Then he added, “If you don’t get your butt in the house pronto, I’ll drag you inside.”
So in we went, and walked right back to the kitchen. I was told to sit at the table as John opened the refrigerator and looked around for a moment before saying, “Ah ha! It’s still here. He then pulled out a platter with a ham on it. I mean a real ham, bone and all! He also came up with a jar of mustard and a hunk of cheese. As he started to slice the ham, he told me where the bread and plates were kept and asked me to get them.
When the sandwiches were made—two of them—he asked if I’d like a beer.
So there I am, sitting in the kitchen of a man I’d met only a few hours before. I’ve got two thick ham sandwiches and a can of beer in front of me. Not a bad score … and the day was still young!
I asked John if he was going to eat. He said beer would do him fine.
We were sittin’ at the kitchen table, shooting the shit when the doorbell rang. John stood up, took a long swig of beer and said, “Be right back.” A few minutes later, he came back with some guy.
“Andrew, I want you to meet a friend of mine. This here is Kris.”
My mouth was filled with ham sandwich, so I could only mumble a meek hello. The guy waved and smiled from ear to ear, “Glad to meet ya, Andrew.”
John asked his friend, “How about a sandwich and a beer?”
“Just a beer, please. 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 of it.”
By now, I’ve had my fill of ham sandwiches. And seeing as I had nothing to add to the conversation, I figured I’d finish my beer and get the hell out of there. But before I could say my thanks and hit the road, John left the room and returned a moment later carrying a guitar.
Prior to my going any further, I’ve got to lay the scene out for you. We’re sitting at a round kitchen table. To my left is Johnny Cash and directly opposite me is the not-yet-famous Kris Kristofferson, tuning a guitar. John and I were hitting our beers. Kris was picking at the strings for a few moments before he started to sing. Don’t ask me what the song was because I don’t remember. When he was done, we all sat there looking at one another. I didn’t say anything because it wasn’t my opinion Kris had 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 away. Kris said if I could wait a few minutes, he’d drop me off at the highway 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. I said my good-byes and 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, there was Benjamin Franklin staring up at me from on top of my clothes. John must have put the C-note in there when he went to let Kris in.