“Pretty fair shooting for an old married man.”
That’s the greeting that a fair-faced Kris Kristofferson offers James Coburn as the title characters converge in the 1973 Western “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” It comes as Coburn’s somewhat fatherly Garrett gets the slip on Kristofferson’s youthful Billy in a town square and subsequently turns an unsuspecting chicken into a pile of very ruffled feathers with a barrage of gunfire. This is, after all, a Sam Peckinpah movie. Shedding the blood of a bird in the opening minutes makes the carnage that follows seem a little more familiar.
“Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” gets a featured showing Tuesday as part of a fundraiser for the Harry Dean Stanton Fest. As is the case in the film, Kristofferson will stand as the dominant presence. He will be at the Kentucky Theatre to introduce the screening. West Irvine native Stanton won’t be on hand. That’s perhaps also fitting, as Stanton’s Luke is a part of a legion of characters who essentially ride shotgun to the cat-and-mouse play of Kristofferson and Coburn. He shouldn’t feel neglected, though. Jason Robards, a who’s who of Western film vets (Slim Pickens, Paul Fix, Chill Wills and Jack Elam, among them), and even a few of Kristofferson’s musical pals, including Bob Dylan and future ex-wife Rita Coolidge, don’t distract much from the eventually broken bonds between Garrett and Billy.
A cult film in many ways, “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” was part of the star-maker assembly kit that fashioned Kristofferson into a celebrity, combining his reputation as a songwriter with his growing popularity as a film actor.
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Where did everything begin for Kristofferson? Die-hard fans might disagree, but for many, his fortunes started to turn once Johnny Cash turned the Kristofferson song “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” into a No. 1 country hit in 1970. Kristofferson was arguably the hottest name in country music that year who wasn’t also a prominent performer. “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” was named song of the year by the Country Music Association, and his song “For the Good Times,” a chart-topping single for Ray Price, received the same honor the same year by the Academy of Country Music.
In October 1970, Janis Joplin cut what is perhaps Kristofferson’s most recognizable composition, “Me and Bobby McGee,” just days before her death. It became a mammoth hit early in 1971. By the time “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” opened in theaters, Kristofferson’s star power was nearly set. A quartet of albums, culminating in 1972’s “Jesus Was a Capricorn,” solidified a reputation as a writer with a country sensibility traditional enough to do justice to his Texas heritage and forward-thinking enough to foresee an outlaw movement several years before it took on mainstream appeal.
Sure, the rest of the decade put Kristofferson in the headlines — the co-billed remake of “A Star is Born” with Barbra Streisand, the high-profile marriage and performance partnership with Coolidge, and concerts that revealed him to be, as British newspaper The Guardian termed it, “a fully fledged boozehound.”
But there have been remarkable accomplishments in the face of such celebrity status. One of Willie Nelson’s most underrated albums was a 1979 collection exclusively devoted to Kristofferson’s music (“Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson”), and his decade’s worth of music with the all-star quartet The Highwaymen — which included Nelson, Cash and Waylon Jennings — was alone the kind of critical and commercial triumph that could define a career.
Life from the ’90s onward has brought quieter successes, although their artistic worth has been no less profound. Any list of great Kristofferson albums would have to include 1995’s topically inclined “A Moment of Forever” and a pair of leaner sounding works, 2006’s “This Old Road” and 2009’s “Closer to the Bone.” All three records were produced by music stylist-turned producer-turned label executive Don Was.
As for the movies, a personal favorite surfaced during his recording renaissance: the extraordinary 1996 John Sayles film “Lone Star,” in which Kristofferson played the murderous (and murdered) county sheriff Charlie Wade in a series of flashback scenes.
Today, at 80, with Kristofferson visiting Lexington to celebrate one of his earliest movies, the dual careers continue to thrive. He is featured on two new tribute albums of artists who span generations and styles: the Waylon Jennings memorial CD and concert film, “Outlaw,” and a revisiting of the 2007 Brandi Carlisle album “The Story,” called “Cover Stories.” Kristofferson will be back onscreen this summer in the old West. He teams with Luke Hemsworth in “Hickok,” which details the story of quick-draw gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok.
“When I moved out to California a long time ago, I just sort of lost touch with the record business end of things,” Kristofferson told me in a 1995 interview before a concert he gave at the Kentucky. “I kept making a lot of albums, although most of them never saw the light of day. But, fortunately, if you stick around long enough, good things happen.”