Kris Kristofferson

Kris Kristofferson’s life is unprecedented, and won’t be replicated.

Born Kristoffer Kristofferson in the border town of Brownsville, Texas on June 22, 1936, Kristofferson changed the language of country music, with extraordinary internal rhymes, Shakespearean iambic pentameter, and socially progressive subject matters that found the personal within the political.

The story of how Kris Kristofferson made it into the Music Business is an epic 20th century tale. Thanks to a post made by the Giant Killer, we became aware of this unbelievable story, one which has various versions, yet still part of a tale involving two of America’s greatest musicians, both of whom have unique ties with aviation.

Kris Kristofferson grew up a military brat, with a tradition of military service in his family dating back to his grandfather’s service as an officer in the Royal Swedish Army. Son of an officer who would become a Major General in the USAF, with a brother who would become a Naval Aviator, Kristofferson would become a Rhodes Scholar, join the US Army himself where he earned his Ranger tab, and earn his wings as an Army Aviator, flying helicopters in Germany. At that time the US Army was experimenting with the doctrine of “Air Cavalry” a concept which would come to fruition with the 11th Air Assault Division testing the concept and being re-designated into the 1st Air Cavalry Division, which would test the concept in action when deployed to Vietnam in 1965.

Roskilde Festival 2013
Kris Kristoffersen live at Roskilde Festival 2013

Commercial helicopter pilot

By then Kristofferson would resign his commission, in spite of being offered a position as a Literature instructor at West Point. Despite being estranged from his family as a result, Kristofferson persisted in his new path to become a Musician. Few people at the time realized the influence of Music upon culture, an influence which can oft times condense an entire book into a single song. With this new Medium, Kristofferson would take his literature background into an entirely new direction. Moving to Nashville to pursue his dream, he put his Ranger training to good use and found a creative way to infiltrate the Nashville Music Business.

According to Kris Kristofferson’s Wikipedia page;

He got a job sweeping floors at Columbia Recording Studios in Nashville. He met June Carter there and asked her to give Johnny Cash a tape of his. She did, but Cash put it on a large pile with others. He also worked as a commercial helicopter pilot for south Louisiana firm Petroleum Helicopters International (PHI), based in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Kristofferson recalled of his days as a pilot, “That was about the last three years before I started performing, before people started cutting my songs. I would work a week down here [in south Louisiana] for PHI, sitting on an oil platform and flying helicopters. Then I’d go back to Nashville at the end of the week and spend a week up there trying to pitch the songs, then come back down and write songs for another week. I can remember “Help Me Make It Through the Night” I wrote sitting on top of an oil platform. I wrote “Bobby McGee” down here, and a lot of them [in south Louisiana].

“Help Me Make It Through the Night.”

“Kris Kristofferson’s Bobby McGee”

Kris Kristofferson steals a US Army helicopter and lands it in Johnny Cash’s yard

Thus did a pair of songs which have influenced the National Consciousness come to being. Kristofferson would have an influence on Janice Joplin herself, being romantically involved with her as she turned his song into a bigger hit with her classic rendition, which is far better known than his.

Kristofferson’s Wikipedia page does modify the tale of his stealing a helicopter and landing it in Johnny Cash’s yard a bit;

That time Kris Kristofferson stole a US Army helicopter and landed it in Johnny Cash's yard
Captain Kris Kristofferson in the early 1960s as an Army Aviator in this official US Army photo from the time.

Weeks after giving Carter his tapes, Kristofferson landed a helicopter in Cash’s front yard, gaining his full attention. A story about Kristofferson having a beer in one hand and some songs in the other upon arrival was reputed, but has been disproven, with Kristofferson saying, “It was still kind of an invasion of privacy that I wouldn’t recommend. To be honest, I don’t think he was there. John had a pretty creative memory.” But upon hearing “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”, Cash decided to record it, and in 1970 Kristofferson won Songwriter of the Year for the song at the Country Music Association Awards.

Cash orders Kris to fly away

David Thayer commented on Pensacola Aerospace Museum’s Facebook page;

That time Kris Kristofferson stole a US Army helicopter and landed it in Johnny Cash's yard
US Army UH-1A Huey, the workhorse of the Army Aviation in the early 1960s, and which still flies for the USMC in its latest twin engine version as the UH-1Z.

‘The Kristofferson story is basically correct although it is not exactly the same as the story, he PERSONALLY told me over a few beers back in 1977. Kris said he had been fired from his Drilling Rig Helicopter job for flying drunk. So, wanting to be a songwriter he got a job as a janitor at Columbia Records in Nashville……….one day in the studio he handed Johnny Cash a tape, which Johnny Promptly threw in the trash……….he didn’t give up……….he did in fact take the US Army helo and land in Johnny’s yard.

‘June Carter came out and yelled “Sweet Jesus, they come to us up the road and now they are coming to us out of the sky”………Cash, not amused, ordered Kris to fly away and Kris refused to go until Cash hear ONE song…….finally Cash gave in and agreed to listen to one song…. Kris Played him “Sunday Morning Coming Down”……..Cash melted and wanted to cut it immediately and it later became song of the year.’

Mr. Thayer also added;

‘That is the story Kris actually told me…….we had been drinking, ………did he add any yeast to the story?…….I have no idea, when he told me the story, I thought it was too much to believe then over the last 20 years the story has resurfaced and is fairly close to what he told me.’

Johnny Cash unique ties to Aviation

That time Kris Kristofferson stole a US Army helicopter and landed it in Johnny Cash's yard
Photo of Johnny Cash in 1977

Johnny Cash himself has some pretty unique ties to Aviation, serving the US Air Force as an enlisted Signal’s Intelligence specialist, and having the unique distinction of being what was likely one of the first people in NATO to hear of the death of Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin. His nephew Roy “Outlaw” Cash would be the first Radar Intercept Officer to transition into the front seat of an F-4 Phantom as a Naval Aviator, and would score the first East Cost Mig Kill while flying with VF-33, known then as the Tarsiers.

Captain Roy Cash Tribute to his uncle Johnny’s song “That Ragged Old Flag.”

Johnny Cash himself would become a form of spiritual mentor to Randy “Duke” Cunningham as America’s first Vietnam War Naval Aviator Ace experienced the pitfalls of celebrity status in the wake of his worldwide fame, as related in his autobiography “Fox Two.” Thus did a Country Music Legend help a Former Army Aviator become a Music Legend of his own, and another Aviation Legend find his spiritual way, while his nephew shot down a MiG during the troubled first deployment of the F-4J.

Be sure to check out William Cobb’s Facebook Page Pensacola Aerospace Museum for awesome aviation’s photos and stories.

Photo credit: U.S. Army, Morten Jensen and CBS Television via Wikipedia