The first stuff I probably listened to was Mexican music—the harmonies of the old mariachi music. Simple, simple stuff. In fact, I spoke Spanish before I spoke English—that’s what they tell me anyway. And then I heard Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams. The first time I heard Hank he was on the Grand Ole Opry and got five encores doing “Lovesick Blues.”
I wrote my first song in Brownsville, when I was around eleven years old. It was an imitation Hank Williams or something. I think it was called “I Hate Your Ugly Face.” But I sang in college as well. I had a friend who sang, and we made a record down in Southern California. Then I tried to get into the business when I was at Oxford, in England, with a guy who started out Tommy Steele. He changed my name to Kris Carson, and I cut a record with Tony Hatch, who wrote “Downtown” and “I Know a Place.” It was so bad they didn’t release it.
So I went into the Army and started writing again, mostly takeoffs from hit songs, putting military lyrics and comical stuff to them. My platoon leader had a relative in Nashville, Marijohn Wilkin, who had a publishing company and had also written “Long Black Veil” and “Waterloo.” She was one of the established people there and invited me to come by, which I did when I rotated from Germany.
It was incredible because Johnny Cash was my hero when I went to town. Marijohn introduced me to him backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. That was when he was really a loose cannon, but he was so exciting. He was electric. I decided right then that I was going to come back, and if I couldn’t make it as a writer of songs I would write about these guys.
My next assignment was supposed to be teaching English at the Academy at West Point, but I didn’t go. I got out of the Army and went to Nashville instead, and I think Johnny Cash was probably the biggest reason.
Kris Kristofferson, a native of Brownsville, has released more than twenty full-length solo records and has appeared in more than forty films. His latest record Broken Freedom Song: Live From San Francisco is available on Oh Boy Records.