Lady Antebellum, Rosanne Cash and Alison Krauss all paid poignant, elegant tribute to Kris Kristofferson last night at a filmed concert in Nashville. But it was the more defiant performances of Kristofferson's songs that best captured the country renaissance man's rebellious spirit: Hank Williams Jr.'s outrageous "If You Don't Like Hank Williams," Darius Rucker's politically charged "Under the Gun," Jack Ingram's slashing "Jesus Was a Capricorn" and Eric Church's Music City kiss-off "To Beat the Devil."
A track off Kristofferson's 1970 debut, "To Beat the Devil," with its story-song structure, championed down-on-their-luck songwriters, urging them to continue singing "to the people who don't listen." Church could relate, he said, by way of introducing the song last night.
"I wouldn't be here if it weren't for this song and for Kris Kristofferson," Church said. "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."
Church has performed the song before, but with Kristofferson sitting on the side of the stage, the rendition took on added weight. However, it didn't inhibit the North Carolina native from adding a bit more attitude to the payoff line: "I ain't sayin' I beat the devil/but I did drink his beer for nothin'/and I stole that son of a bitch's song."
Williams' performance was the most over-the-top of the evening, swaggering onstage to sing Kristofferson's nod to Hank Sr., "If You Don't Like Hank Williams." With its if/then chorus — "you can kiss my ass" — the song offered Bocephus a chance to prove he's still one of country's most charismatic, if polarizing, entertainers. At times, his vocal delivery is as unconventional as Willie Nelson's, dropping into a river-deep baritone for the line "you're the only one that you are screwing" and ad libbing spoken lyrics about the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. (Watch his performance below.)
The Life & Songs of Kris Kristofferson was filmed to air on a network and date to be announced.