Released in 1999, Kris Kristofferson’s The Austin Sessions redefined iconic songs such as “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” “To Beat the Devil” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night” by giving the songwriter a chance to strip away the formulaic Seventies Music Row treatment his renditions had received decades earlier.
On February 10th, Rhino Records will reissue The Austin Sessions, augmented by two never-before-heard bonus tracks, “Best of All Possible Worlds” and “Jody and the Kid.” The title for the latter tune, a Top 30 country hit in 1968 by Roy Drusky, was reportedly inspired by one of Kristofferson’s nicknames, Critter. According to the Kristofferson biography The Wild American by Stephen Miller, the musician and his daughter Tracy were spotted outside the Tally Ho Tavern on Music Row one day, when he heard someone say, “Look, here comes Critter and the kid.” Whether the anecdote is true or not, the song itself is a somber meditation on love and loss, and Kristofferson’s raw, emotional vocal is both heartbreaking and spellbinding. (Listen to the previously unissued recording of “Jody and the Kid” below.)
In the late Eighties and early Nineties, Kristofferson was riding high on the charts with his fellow Highwaymen, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. His recorded output as a solo artist, however, had slowed to a virtual crawl, with 1990’s politically charged Third World Warrior and 1995’s A Moment of Forever the only two releases of the decade featuring new material from the master tunesmith.
In the summer of 1997, on a four-day break from shooting a film in Texas, Kristofferson met with record producer Fred Mollin at Arlyn Studios in Austin, an hour from the movie set, to record stripped-down versions of several of his classic songs. Joining them were Kristofferson’s longtime touring guitarist Stephen Bruton, and series of special guests, including Jackson Browne, Steve Earle, Vince Gill, Alison Krauss and Mark Knopfler. The inspiration for the casual, intimate setting stretched back three decades earlier with Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, recorded at Nashville’s Columbia Records studio where the former Army helicopter pilot, fascinated by Dylan, had taken a job as a janitor in an effort to bask in the exhilarating atmosphere.
“I knew in my heart that I could pull off a great under-produced production and give Kris the album he always wanted to make,” Mollin writes in The Austin Sessions‘ expanded edition liner notes. “One that felt like it had the uniqueness and rootsy feeling that Dylan accomplished on his early electric albums.”
Emotional as this particular recording is, Mollin also recalls the joyous, laugh-filled atmosphere of the sessions. In a post for The Vintage Musician, he writes: “I think everyone involved on that record would agree it was the most fun they’d ever had in the studio. After the sessions each day we would go out for dinner, go back to the hotel and keep laughing until we fell into our hotel rooms.”
Available on CD and digitally February 10th, a remastered version of The Austin Sessions will also be available on vinyl that same day. Kristofferson, a five-time Grammy winner, is nominated for another trophy at this year’s awards: Best Americana Album for The Cedar Creek Sessions. The double LP, which also consists of stripped-down recordings of his iconic tunes, could score the 80-year-old singer-songwriter, who kicks off a tour this month, his first Grammy win since 1975.