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V/A - Nothing Left To Lose: A Tribute to Kris Kristofferson

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Artist: V/A

Album: Nothing Left To Lose: A Tribute to Kris Kristofferson

Label: Incidental

Review date: Apr. 15, 2003

Rediscovering a True Talent

Kris Kristofferson has always existed in the frayed edges and darkened corners of the country music scene. A life-long contradiction, especially in the conservative halls of Nashville, the gruff singer developed his art from a fittingly splintered persona. As an Army-man and activist, hard-drinking hillbilly and Oxford educated author, Kristofferson matched his wry, simplistic songs with a depth and political edge thoroughly missing from country music in the ’60s and ’70s.

One of the original “outlaw” performers, Kristofferson rode alongside twang-rock fixtures Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, yet saw his own fame remain elusive and frustratingly fleeting. Similarly, to more recent generations, Kristofferson has seen his star obscured by his work as an actor, with far more minds branded by the memory of his co-staring with Barbara Streisand in A Star is Born, than his considerable compositional output.

Now, San Francisco’s Incidental Music has decided that it is fine time for a repolishing of Kristofferson’s rep. Gathering a batch of today’s most influential alt.country outsiders, Nothing Left to Lose aims to introduce the Kristofferson catalogue to those who remember him as little more than the freaky dude from Blade. Calexico, Califone, the Court & Spark, Handsome Family, Howe Gelb, Grandaddy and the Radar Bothers are amongst those along for the ride through Kristofferson’s songbook.

Right from the get-go, it is apparent that the stable of artists roped together for this compilation is perfect. Not only are many of the present performers seemingly on the brink of their own breakthroughs, they also inhabit a similarly shady side of country music.

Handsome Family open the proceedings with a solid, if predictable, cover of “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down.” One of Kristofferson’s most recognizable moments, the soft hangover hymn is given a pleasant shoegazer-country reading, courtesy of a lazy keyboard drone and plucked acoustic guitars. However, head-Handsome Brett Sparks’ rendition sounds almost identical to many of the countless covers the song has spawned throughout the years.

Souled American and Califone both contribute creaky, haunting numbers that set the originals’ lonesome lyrics to equally desolate sonic landscapes. Calexico turns “Casey’s Last Ride” into a rattling desert-baked groove tune, complete with Nico-like whispered femme vocals.

Zmrzlina and Milk Chopper take a far different approach than Joplin on “Me & Bobby McGee”, morphing the original from a rambunctious rallying call to contemplative crooning. Even Grandaddy’s fuzz-pop stab at “Best Of All Possible Worlds,” while far from country, exhibits Kristofferson’s ability to write lyrics that can transcend genres.

As evil as the biz can be, there are reasons that Kristofferson hasn’t received the same rabid attention as folks like Cash, Jennings and Nelson. Our current culture-conscious scene may scoff at smooching Streisand on the cover of a bargain-bin LP, but the real reason for Kristofferson’s exclusion from the country canon has little to do with his ill-advised acting roles. While undoubtedly a songwriter of immense talent, Kristofferson was a far less engaging performer. Where many of his contemporaries found creative ways to weave their strengths and weaknesses into unique stage personas, Kristofferson remained far better at penning songs for others’ performance. Yet, with its masterful collection of material, and roster of alt.country’s most talented, Nothing Left to Lose, is not only a first rate album, but one that should solidify Kristofferson’s position as one of country music’s most innovative songwriters.

By Ethan Covey

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