TNB Night Owl – Cash and Kristofferson: “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down”

Johnny Cash. Image captured by the News Blender.

He was a Rhodes Scholar and a graduate of Oxford College, but in the early 1960s Kris Kristofferson was an army officer and a helicopter pilot stationed in West Germany, accompanied by his wife and kids. In his free time he formed a band and wrote music, following his true passion. The fact is, he hadn’t desired an army career, but was pressured into it by family tradition. In 1965, the army offered Captain Kristofferson a plum assignment, teaching English Literature at West Point Military Academy. He turned it down, resigned his commission, and moved to Nashville to pursue his dreams. His army-oriented parents were angry enough with his choice to disown him.

To support his wife and children, Kristofferson would spend a week at a time flying helicopters down on the Louisiana Gulf Coast, ferrying roustabouts to and from their oil rig jobs, and writing songs in-between flights. He spent alternate weeks in Nashville trying to sell his tunes to record labels and working odd jobs for extra income. Some of Kristofferson’s songs were recorded by well-known artists and found mild success in the 1966-1969 period, including “Me and Bobby McGee”, performed by Roger Miller, but the kind of success he needed to become a full-time songwriter eluded him.

There were stresses on his marriage in addition to being apart from his wife and family every other week. One of his children had a serious medical condition, adding to the family’s financial struggles. The marriage deteriorated, and by 1969 Kristofferson was divorced and living the single life in an old run-down apartment in Nashville. It was in this apartment, divorced, alone, missing his kids, estranged from his parents, and no doubt feeling pretty low, that he wrote “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down”.

After the divorce, he found a job as a janitor at Columbia Records, where he hoped to luck into a friendship with a big name in the business. He’d met Johnny Cash a few times, but the break he was looking for didn’t come until Cash’s wife June Carter took a liking to the struggling songwriter. He was pretty sure Columbia would fire him if they found out the janitor was pitching songs to the big-name star, so June would hide Kristofferson’s demo tapes in her purse and take them home to play for Johnny. But Johnny always had piles of demo tapes to listen to and Kristofferson’s were just more of the same to him. To get Cash’s attention, and likely with June’s encouragement, Kristofferson flew a helicopter to his home and landed on his front lawn. Cash later quipped that Kristofferson had a beer in one hand and demo tapes in the other but Kristofferson denies this, saying he had never flown with beer and didn’t think Cash was even at home when he arrived by helicopter.

However it happened, the stunt captured Cash’s interest and he was impressed with Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down”. On October 10, 1970, Johnny Cash’s version of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” charted number 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles. The Country Music Association named the hit the 1970 Song of the Year.

Another of Kristofferson’s songs also made it big that year. “For the Good Times”, performed by Ray Price, was named Song of the Year by the Academy of Country Music.

The following year, Janis Joplin’s recording of “Me And Bobby McGee” became a megahit. But Kristofferson says it was “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” by Johnny Cash, that allowed him to quit non-music jobs and be the full-time songwriter he’d always wanted to be.

“Kris Kristofferson talking about his song Sunday morning coming down” (2:57):

“Johnny Cash – Sunday Morning Coming Down (The Best Of The Johnny Cash TV Show)” (3:27):

“Story Behind the Song: ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ by Johnny Cash” (3:30):

Question Of The Night: You have at your fingertips every song ever recorded that could be considered to be part of the country music genre, and only that genre; what track do you play?

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About Richard Doud 622 Articles
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