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Flashback: Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash Sing ‘To Beat the Devil’

The Man in Black recorded the song for his ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’ LP, the first to feature a Kristofferson composition

The story of former military man Kris Kristofferson piloting a helicopter onto Johnny Cash’s lawn to deliver his demo tapes to the Man in Black, while essentially true, has often been told without certain details present. Mainly that Kristofferson had already been working for two years as janitor at Columbia Records’ Nashville studios where Cash recorded, and had unsuccessfully pitched his songs to Cash’s bandmates during that time. Cash also added to the legend by insisting that Kris stumbled from the cockpit, a beer in one hand and a demo tape in the other, before Johnny invited him in to listen to the songs. It’s a charming detail that Kristofferson later debunked, noting that he never flew a helicopter while drinking and that Cash wasn’t even home at the time the copter touched down.

Nevertheless, Kristofferson’s persistence with Cash would eventually pay off in early 1970, beginning with the release of Hello, I’m Johnny Cash. The album’s title comes from Cash’s signature opening line at live shows — and on his then-popular TV series — which he first uttered to dramatic effect at his legendary 1968 Folsom Prison concert. While Cash wrote or co-wrote a handful of songs on the album, the biggest hit to come from it was the duet with wife June on the folk standard, “If I Were a Carpenter.” Songwriters Billy Edd Wheeler and Jack Clement, both responsible for previous Cash hits, also contributed. But it was the presence of Kristofferson’s material that would signal the arrival of one of the most important songwriters of the new decade. With two cuts, “Devil to Pay” (mistakenly credited on Cash’s album to writers Merle Travis and Leon Rusk) and “To Beat the Devil,” Kristofferson and Cash began a collaborative effort that would later include Cash recordings of such tunes as “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” “Devil to Pay,” about a cheating woman living the high life, was the first Kristofferson song Cash would record, but the second, “To Beat the Devil” is the better-known of the two.

Kristofferson recorded “To Beat the Devil” on his 1969 debut LP, along with several songs that had been hits for other artists by that time. But two years earlier he had written the song with Cash in mind. The dark, somber tale of a troubled songwriter, Kristofferson’s recording is prefaced by a spoken introduction about an encounter with “a great and wasted friend of mine” in a recording studio. The song’s lyrics are applicable to the thousands of would-be songwriters who made their way to Nashville’s studios and publishing companies only to be shown the door, but can also apply to anyone who has faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles on their way to a dream they believe in. As if validating the song’s continued relevance, Eric Church performed it at the 2016 all-star tribute to the songwriter, telling the crowd, “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for this song and for Kris Kristofferson. I had a rough time in Nashville like a lot of people who get told ‘no’ a lot… ‘To Beat the Devil’ talked about the very thing I was going through.”

In the above clip, from the 1993 British documentary, Kris Kristofferson: His Life and Work, the songwriter sings the song’s first verse, accompanied by images of the yellowing photographs on the walls inside Lower Broadway’s fabled watering hole, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Footage of Cash is then inserted as he sings the chorus with Kristofferson’s voice and image gradually being reintroduced. The blending of their performances serves as a fitting symbol of the creative and personal bond the two artists would share throughout the rest of Cash’s lifetime.

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