Hard to believe Kris Kristofferson is in his 70s. Then again, a lot of music history has gone by since the onetime Rhodes scholar and Army enlistee chucked a life teaching literature at West Point and writing short stories on the side to move to Nashville. In fact, so much time has passed since those halcyon days in the early '70s when the frog-voiced singer-songwriter helped shape a new kind of country with poignant, humane, truthful songs like "For the Good Times," "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," "Help Me Make It Through the Night" and "Me and Bobby McGee" that he's become the kind of artist lots of folks respect but increasingly few have heard. Maybe, just maybe, a few more will bend an ear after hearing this fine tribute disc.
Unsurprisingly, peers like Willie Nelson and Jessi Colter cut closest to the bone on their contributions. But it's a testament to the economical poetry of Kristofferson's songs that a current hitmaker like Gretchen Wilson feels free to put the big gestures of her million-selling performances to one side and merge with the existential ache of "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down." Forget about pulling heartstrings - at his best, Kristofferson went for sinew and bone and individual synapses, and his interpreters understand as much. I'm not sure about Russell Crowe's breathy version of "Darby's Castle," but it's one of the few missteps here. Even Brian McKnight's decidedly nontraditional, drum-programmed R&B take on "Me and Bobby McGee" has guts.
As for Shawn Camp's half-recited approach to "Why Me" ("Lord help me Jesus/I've wasted it so"), it'll make a hard man cry. Guaranteed.