THEY CAN’T REMEMBER when they met, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, but it was a long time ago, back in the days before Kenny Rogers had sung his way to Beverly Hills, before their respective remakes of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and A Star Is Born, before country music had gotten too big for the Grand Ole Opry, before either of the two had stopped hearing friends say, “Stick to songwritin’ and leave the sangin’ to real sangers.” It was at least several tour buses and a couple of wives ago: Nashville, before Altman.
“He was in my consciousness from Day One,” Kristofferson said the other day about Nelson in testimony given on the 21st floor of the Sheraton Premiere overlooking the Universal Amphitheatre. “It was him and Johnny Cash.”
Nelson, who was sitting nearby, was not so well known as Johnny Cash – then. In 1971, the year Kristofferson released his first two albums, The Silver Tongued Devil and I and Me and Bobbie McGee, Nelson was still a song peddler in Nashville, a quiet, short-haired success.
The altogether unlikely saga of how he fled Nashville and became the first country music star to wear braids and a headband is partly the inspiration for Songwriter, the quirky comic movie that Kristofferson and Nelson have made about their luxuriously scruffy trade.
“Originally this was to be a story about me an’ Waylon Jennings,” Nelson said. “And Waylon was to have played the part that Kris is playin’. But Waylon, for one reason or another didn’t do it.”
“And I figure Waylon got to do it every day,” Kristofferson added on cue, in the bass rasp that America has come to know as the voice of the country-western poet turned movie star. His face, at 48, looked as smooth and bronzed as when he was frolicking au naturel with Sarah Miles in The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea 10 years ago.
Songwriter, then, brought the two bearded country music heroes together for their first formal collaboration after years of circling each other in mutual admiration. If they seemed unusually concerned about the movie’s wavering fate thus far, it was because Songwriter was, as Kristofferson said, not just another movie but “like his (Nelson’s) life story.”
Nelson, who was dressed in striped jogging pants and a ski parka and whose Bible-length locks were cropped once again, corrected his new partner amiably. “It’s based on some things that happened along the way. The characters do not necessarily represent people that we know, but they could. It’s not a malicious movie about anybody.”
In the picture, Nelson, now 51, plays the part of Doc Jenkins, an estimable
songwriter who has lost control of his career to shady business associates. Kristofferson plays Blackie Buck, a former singing partner of Doc who has gone on to become a superstar and is trying to help Doc get out from under the thumb of an avaricious Nashville mogul (Richard Sarafian).
Blackie and another singer (Leslie Ann Warren) begin recording Doc’s songs disguised as their own compositions in order to divert the songwriting royalties from the ogre who owns Doc’s publishing rights.
It makes one think of a piece of Nelson’s own history: In 1961, he sold the rights to his song “Night Life” for $150. The song, eventually recorded by more than 70 artists, was to sell more than 30 million copies.
Like Doc, did he ever resort to writing under other names?
“Who, me?” Nelson said with one of those beatific grins that have helped fans to find gospel truths in his music.
“Oh, sure, I did that, everybody knows I did that. I recorded under the name of Hugh Nelson one time.” He considered the statement he just made and added, “I will deny everything I said. I was drugged, I was…” He broke off into laughter.
Kristofferson presented his view of the movie. “It’s about a whole bunch of bandits outdoing each other. Everyone of ’em’s a crook, as far as I can see.”
“On both sides, ” Nelson reminded him.
“Right, on both sides.”
“There wasn’t an honest man on the bus,” said Nelson.
There were laughs all around, in recognition of what was assumed to be an unofficial universal law of the music business.
“It’s up front about it bein’ crooked anyway,” Kristofferson observed about what’s on the screen.
Both men have appeared in movies that dealt with the music business before. In A Star Is Born Kristofferson played an over-the-hill rock star; in Honeysuckle Rose Nelson portrayed a touring performer not unlike himself.
Songwriter, they said, was more like the real thing, more like their lives. It included new songs both had written.
“This is much closer,” Nelson insisted, “because we are songwriters.” He had a qualification. “It’s a little exaggerated, of course. It’s kind of like The Dukes of Hazzard.”
“But some of your life has been more bizarre than anything that movie,” Kristofferson interjected. “And crazier than The Dukes of Hazzard.”
Anyone who has followed Nelson’s remarkable career, from anonymous songwriter to wealthy jefe of the cosmic cowboys will recognize in the movie a number familiar details — like Doc’s publishing company burning down in a mysteriously set blaze; like his longtime association with a manic promoter named Dino (played by Rip Torn).
“Yes, I had a house that burned in Nashville, and I knew a guy who was a lot like Dino,” Nelson said with a suddenly straight face, mentioning a particular promoter who had staged several of the famous Fourth of July outdoor concert in his native Texas and whose name rhymed with “Dino.”
“And it would be real easy to put a lot of names on Rodeo Rocky,” be said about the film’s black-hatted Nashville mogul. “But we better not.”
Bud Shrake, who wrote the screenplay, is an old friend of Nelson’s. A former sportswriter and Austin novelist (Strange Peaches, Limo), Shrake brought his familiarity with Nelson and his “On the Road Again” life to the project. More surprising is the apparent rapport producer Sydney Pollack and director Alan Rudolph found in the style and humor along the Nashville-to-Austin circuit.
Kristofferson described Rudolph as “a gifted young hungry director who got the joke.
“Humor is such a peculiar thing. It doesn’t translate sometimes. For three people to agree on what’s funny is real rare.”
Like watching Doc Jenkins don an ill-fitting plaid suit and walk up to the door of his ex-wife to try to sell her a vacuum cleaner. “I drew on past experiences for that,” Nelson explained, mentioning that in leaner years he had once sold encyclopedias door to door.
Critics in Los Angeles have found the film funny and praiseworthy, which has helped to rescue it from what once appeared an early demise. Tri-Star, the studio that financed and is distributing the picture, originally released it in the South to disappointing box office results. But the L.A reviews, after an exclusive· run at the Beverly Cineplex, have persuaded the studio to open it wide tomorrow, at least here.
Kristofferson, who said he ranked this with the best work he has done for the movies, recalled, “People were already talkin’ about it like it was a loser. When in fact it wasn’t and hadn’t had a fair chance.”
Commenting on the studio’s handling of the picture thus far, Nelson said, “It was a poor job or bad judgment, which would you prefer? I was pretty upset about it. But I’m OK now.”
Los Angeles Herald Examiner 1985