Speaking from his home on the Hawaiian island of Maui, Kris Kristofferson, 76, looks back on a life rich with Hall of Fame-worthy country-music writing and recording credits, acclaimed acting roles, a Rhodes scholarship and collegiate athletic prowess with nothing short of fondness. "It's a pretty neat life when you think about it," he tells Rolling Stone. "I just feel so grateful."
But rather than spend his time driving a tractor around his expansive property, mowing the lawn or occasionally taking the two-hour trek across the island to spend time with his "best friend" Willie Nelson ("He's the same kid sitting at his table playing chess and smoking whatever"), Kristofferson continues to churn out new songs.
His latest album, Feeling Mortal, due on January 29th, contains some of the singer-songwriter's most raw and poignant material yet. Ask him, however, and he's quick to dismiss any reference to his supreme talent – despite having scored a Number One album and penned iconic songs for the likes of Janis Joplin ("Me and Bobby McGee") and Johnny Cash ("Sunday Morning Coming Down"). "Hell, I've been making up songs since I was 11," he says. "I think that's just what I do naturally. And I just feel grateful that I've been able to do it all my life."
The album, Kristofferson's 28th, arrives three years after 2009's Closer to the Bone and was again recorded with longtime collaborator Don Was. The acclaimed producer (The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan) flew down to Maui, along with a team of A-list studio musicians, to cut the 10-track LP. "The musicians were great," Kristofferson says. He praises the work of guitarist Mark Goldenberg, whom Kristofferson says made him "feel like Hank Williams or something."
Was, whom Kristofferson says "came along [in the Eighties] when the rest of the business was ready to abandon me," has been instrumental in the singer’s late career resurgence, and remains an essential ingredient to his continuing musical output. "He seems to understand just what it is of your creative work that works and how to enhance it," Kristofferson explains. "Hell, he works with all kinds of people now because he's so good at it. But he's been absolutely dependable. He's never changed."
Kristofferson's music has always been especially emotive – "It's all been pure expression of what's in my heart," he says – yet Feeling Mortal feels particularly soul-baring. On the title track, over an aching acoustic strum, Kristofferson stands at Heaven's Gate, and the notoriously fiery man is still not ready to give in.
"God Almighty, here I am/ Am I where I ought to be/ I've begun to soon descend/ Like the sun into the sea." Yes, there’s still fight left in the ex-boxer, who would forgo a career in the Army to move to Nashville in the Sixties and go on to achieve his songwriting dream. "I warn you/ You’re wasting your time/ You don’t tell me what to do," he brazenly instructs over sweeping harmonica on "You Don't Tell Me What to Do."
With a title that points to the man's inevitable vulnerability, though, one can't help but wonder how often Kristofferson thinks of death. Unsurprisingly, he has a metaphor to explain his position. "I got to a point in my life, I guess, where it's like being in a football game," he explains, his voice quivering a bit, "and all of a sudden you get to playing at the end and you realize what a great game it's been.
"I think it's funny that as human beings we never think about dying," he continues. "I mean, we don't preoccupy ourselves with it, because it would be kind of depressing. But the truth is we're all gonna die." He pauses, then adds with a chuckle, "Well, maybe I won't."