Today’s #VeteranOfTheDay is Army Veteran Kristoffer “Kris” Kristofferson, an Army Ranger who became a country superstar.
Kristoffer “Kris” Kristofferson was born in Brownsville, Texas, in June 1936. In his youth, Kristofferson showed a fondness for country music and a talent for writing, penning his first song at age 11. After graduating high school, he attended Pomona College in California. At Pomona, Kristofferson studied poetry and literature, winning awards for his writing and working as an editor for the school newspaper. He graduated from Pomona in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. He then went on to attend the University of Oxford in England as a Rhodes Scholar, earning a master’s degree in English literature in 1960.
Kristofferson came from a military family. His father was a major general in the Air Force. After college, his parents encouraged him to join. He joined the Army in 1960, training as a helicopter pilot at Fort Rucker in Alabama and later completing Ranger School. In the early 1960s, Kristofferson received his commission and served with the 8th Infantry Division in West Germany. But Kristofferson never lost his love for writing and music. While in Germany, he continued to practice his songwriting and performed with a band of fellow soldiers.
After he completed his tour of duty in Germany, Kristofferson received an offer teaching English literature to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. However, after spending two weeks on leave immersed in the country music scene in Nashville, Tennessee, Kristofferson chose to follow his passion and resigned from the Army in 1965.
“I just fell in love with the music community that was going on there,” Kristofferson said in a 2010 interview. “The way the old heroes helped out the new guys. It was a very soulful business at the time; I don’t know if it’s anything like that now, but it was definitely the best move I’ve ever made.”
But Kristofferson’s music career got off to a slow start. As a struggling artist, he spent years employed as a part-time bartender and helicopter pilot while working nights as a janitor for Columbia Studios, providing demo tapes of his songs to the country music stars who recorded there. He gave one of these tapes to superstar musician Johnny Cash in 1969, but Cash ignored it. Undeterred, Kristofferson responded by landing a helicopter on Cash’s front lawn. That got Cash’s attention.
“I was taking a nap,” Cash said of the encounter, “… [and] I look up, and here comes Kris out of a helicopter with a beer in one hand and a tape in the other.”
Cash agreed to record one of Kristofferson’s songs, kickstarting a career as a singer and songwriter that would last for decades. Artists who have recorded Kristofferson’s lyrics include Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes, Bob Dylan and others. Kristofferson would win three Grammy awards for his music during the 1970s, as well as a lifetime achievement award in 2014. He also found fame as an actor, appearing in over 100 film and television roles.
Kristofferson retired in 2020, ending a career that spanned more than half a century.
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Writer: Stephen Hill
Editors: Theresa Lyon and Merrit Pope
Fact checker: Jake Halderson
Graphic artist: Brittany Gorski