By Paul Sexton
While far greater stardom and albums with bigger hits were to come, The Silver Tongued Devil and I was widely received as even better than Kristofferson's greatest hits of a debut.
To many, Kris Kristofferson may have immediately seemed the fully-formed star when he hit it big in 1972, but in reality, his dues had most definitely already been paid. Whether it was while in the 8th Infantry Division of the US Army, or in Nashville, honing his songwriting and performing while sweeping floors at Columbia Records, Kristofferson would pour blood sweat and tears into his craft. At one stage, he even used his military training to moonlight as a commercial helicopter pilot, simply to make ends meet.
While he would go on to find adoration as both a musician and a film star, the imposing Texan was decidedly no flimsy pin-up. His studies at Pomona College in California, at Oxford and as a teacher of literature at West Point had proved him quite the polymath, not to mention his qualifications as a gifted sportsman across many disciplines.
But when he hit Music City at the end of his teens, Kristofferson was seduced by its charms, assiduously setting about painting it red. That was when he wasn't pulling night shifts as a janitor at Columbia or holding down a day job at the Tally Ho Tavern, of course. Waylon Jennings, later his dear friend and fellow Highwayman, said it was “like putting a fox in charge of a chicken coop”.
His debut album Kristofferson would arrive in 1970; although it wasn't a success in its own right, his potent songwriting certainly was. Indeed, its tracklist reads like a greatest hits; ‘Me and Bobby McGee', 'For The Good Times', 'Help Me Make It Through The Night' and 'Sunday Mornin' Coming Down' reached way beyond country’s borders – verging into rock with Janis Joplin, soul with Gladys Knight and the Pips and even easy listening with Perry Como.
A year later, the Monument label released his sophomore set, The Silver Tongued Devil and I, just before Kris made his film debut, as the Minstrel Wrangler, in The Last Movie. Far greater film stardom would come for Kristofferson, and later albums would offer up bigger hits, but this second LP was widely received as even better than his first.
By this point, Kristofferson was cutting quite a figure on stage. Reviewing his Troubadour show in Los Angeles some months after the record's release, Billboard wrote: “A totally relaxed, totally confident Kris Kristofferson sang his own songs and introduced three new pieces by 22-year-old Chicago songwriter Jon [note the misspelling] Prine”.
Having just turned 35 upon the album's release, Kristofferson brought a profound, real-life honesty to his writing, given extra heft by his imposing bass tones and innate, no-nonsense tradition in his melodic approach. He wrote seven of its ten songs solo, alongside one each with the learned Shel Silverstein ('The Taker') and southern soul man - and Kris' long-time keyboard player - Donnie Fritts (the closing 'Epitaph (Black and Blue)'.
The one outside contribution, entirely suited to his storytelling style, was Billy Joe Shaver's 'Good Christian Soldier', a subtle but searing condemnation of the Vietnam War (“We're playin' cards, writin' home, havin' lots of fun / Telling jokes and learning how to die”). Bobby Bare, for whom Shaver was writing for, acquired a co-writing credit.
Silver Tongued Devil was recorded at Monument's own studios in Nashville, produced by ubiquitous man-about-country Fred Foster and featuring such fine players as Billy Swan, Norbert Putnam and David Briggs. It cast Kristofferson as a storyteller of real depth, opening with a title track that set a swaying, almost singalong feel against a cautionary tale - set in that very Tally Ho Tavern he knew oh so well - of how alcohol would turn the shy narrator into his own evil twin, particularly where women were concerned.
Never afraid to confront life's uglier side, or feel obliged to present a happy ending, he addressed tragic addiction on 'Billy Dee', and indeed almost every song on the record was a filmic vignette. In some cases, they were drawn from a songbook that had stayed open all through Kristofferson's years of fame-free day jobs. One such was 'Jody and the Kid'; once again inspired by an incident in his years at the Tally Ho, it was a top-40 country hit as early as 1968 for country favourite Roy Drusky.
Waylon Jennings, meanwhile, would release the first version of 'The Taker', which mined the familiar theme of a man whose charms were irresistible to women, a subject Kristofferson knew plenty about. Waylon cut it as the title song of his early 1971 LP, which also included his version of perhaps the single most enduring track on Silver Tongued Devil, the gracefully rueful 'Lovin' Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again).' While the song didn't figure on the country charts, it gave him a medium-sized hit at pop radio, helping the album to a run of more than six months on the bestsellers.
The Silver Tongued Devil and I was entirely faithful to a principle that Kristofferson described in that same conversation, back in 2006. “When I went to Nashville and wanted to be a serious songwriter,” he said “the guys I hung out with – who also hadn’t made it yet but were still a respected clique of underground guys – didn’t want to hear good musicianship or vocalising. They didn’t care if you sounded like George Jones or Ray Charles; they wanted to hear the song, and what it meant”.
The key moments of The Silver Tongued Devil and I, wrote Billboard, “show his consummate skill at natural, sincere, simple country songs, and his untrained bass voice interprets them even better than the great artists who have had hits with his material.” From this point on, Kris Kristofferson's own voice would be heard loud and clear.