What Dramatic Method Did Kris Kristofferson Use to Get Johnny Cash to Pay Attention to His Demo Tapes?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about music and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the music urban legends featured so far.

MUSIC URBAN LEGEND: Kris Kristofferson used a highly dramatic method of getting Johnny Cash to pay attention to his demo tapes.

Kris Kristofferson got into the music industry relatively late in life. He was a trained helicopter pilot and served in the United States Army during the early 1960s. While stationed in Germany during the 1960s, he got together his first band and continued writing songs – something he first started doing while he was attending Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship in the late 1950s. While at Oxford, he received a graduate degree in English Literature. He ended his tenure with the Army in 1965 at the age of 32. He turned down an opportunity to teach English Literature at West Point to pursue a career in music.

So Kristofferson got a job down in Nashville, doing different sorts of odd jobs while trying to make it in the music business. One job was as a janitor at Columbia Record’s recording studio in Nashville. Very early on in his tenure there, he was present when Bob Dylan came down to Nashville to record songs for Blonde on Blonde.

Kristofferson was not so forward as to actually TALK to Dylan, as, after all, that likely would have gotten him fired, especially as he had just started. However, over the next couple of years, as he continued to work at the studios there in Nashville, he got to know Johnny Cash a little bit, as Cash would use those studios frequently. Again, Kristofferson knew he couldn’t give Cash his demo tapes, because that was crossing a line that you just don’t cross – however, he would get around it by handing his demos to Luther Perkins (Johnny’s guitarist) or June Carter. Years later, Cash would say that he got the tapes, but he threw them all away.

Kristofferson continued flying helicopters professionally, and late in the decade, he got a job with the National Guard. As part of his duty, he had access to a helicopter during the weekend.

Well, remarkably enough, Kristofferson actually used his helicopter one day to travel to Johnny Cash’s home and land in his backyard – all to give him a demo tape!!

Astonishingly enough, Cash admired his gusto, enough so that he listened to the tape, and liked what he heard. Over the years, the story has gone that Kristofferson was drunk at the time, as well, but Kristofferson claims that was an exaggeration. In fact, here he is on the topic:

I still think I was lucky he didn’t shoot me that day! I’d briefly joined the National Guard, just trying to make some extra money. So I had a helicopter I was able to fly at the weekend. The story about me getting off the helicopter with a tape in one hand and a beer in the other isn’t true. Y’know, John had a very creative imagination. I’ve never flown with a beer in my life. Believe me, you need two hands to fly those things.

The song Kristofferson played for Cash was “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”

At the 1969 Newport Folk Festival, Cash introduced Kristofferson to the audience, and Kristofferson played that song and another song he had recently written, “Me and Bobby McGee.”

Cash released “Sunday Morning Coming Down” in 1970, and it was one of Cash’s biggest later hits.

The next year, Janis Joplin’s version of “Me and Bobby McGee” became a smash hit, and Kristofferson was well on his way to stardom!

Oh, he eventually lost his helicopter license, by the way.

The legend is…


Thanks to Rob Hughes for the great Kristofferson quotes!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

4 Responses to “What Dramatic Method Did Kris Kristofferson Use to Get Johnny Cash to Pay Attention to His Demo Tapes?”

  1. It wouldn’t be a Backelor of Philosophy from Oxford, that doesn’t exist. It would either be a BA (Bachelor of Arts), or an MPhil for graduate students (Master of Philosophy)

  2. Thanks, Phil, just dropped it entirely.

  3. I wonder if this story had any influence on Cash’s “Columbo” episode where he is a pilot that commits murder and flies a helicopter that he lands in his yard?

  4. Good call, Shane. I think the chances are pretty good.

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