Going Up and Coming Down

Kris Kristofferson, Authenticity, and Country Music's "New Breed"

Illustration by Phil Blank.

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Going Up and Coming Down

Kris Kristofferson, Authenticity, and Country Music's "New Breed"

by Alex Macaulay
Southern Cultures, Vol. 25, No. 2: Inside/Outside

"As the noted Music City chronicler Peter Cooper put it . . . . 'Death, taxes, and backlash are inevitable for those fortunate enough to be successful.' Such was the case with Kristofferson, whose fall paralleled his rise."

Attendees at the 1970 Country Music Association awards were startled when Roy Clark announced that Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” beat out Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” for Song of the Year. Amid applause and some gasps, a dazed, disheveled, long-haired Kristofferson stumbled up the steps of the Ryman Auditorium, looking an awful lot like the down-and-out character in his award-winning song who “stumbled down the stairs to meet the day.” Some in the audience laughed nervously after the artist delivered a garbled acceptance speech that probably left many wondering what type of coming down awaited him the next morning. Kristofferson later denied being under the influence of any substance, claiming that the shock of the award announcement startled him so much that he reared his head back and banged it against a wooden pew. Physically and emotionally stunned, he stumbled down the aisle and onto the stage. Regardless of what put the singer in that condition, the image resonated. One viewer remembers Tennessee Ernie Ford snarking that he, for one, “liked country music because you could tell the boys from the girls.” Ford and others breathed a sigh of relief when Haggard’s apparent tribute to squares, college deans, and manly footwear earned him album and single of the year honors. Writing in the New York Times, however, Paul Hemphill announced that, like it or not, “Kris Kristofferson is the new Nashville sound.”

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