Live at Gilley’s – Pasadena, TX: September 1981
Where have 41 years gone? Kris Kristofferson’s Live at Gilley’s – Pasadena, TX: September 1981 is here to remind us of how great his songs were. Heck, most of us probably still know the lyrics and can sing along. For those of you who still have a car with a CD player, this is for you. As you well know, Kristofferson has few peers when it comes to songwriting but plenty of them when it comes to singing. He’s like “everyman.” It’s this writer’s guess is that most of you will find yourself singing along to these classics. While the studio versions are clearly more polished, the enthusiasm of this audience in Gilley’s instills the kind of energetic party vibe that will make you sing. Billed then (it has since closed) as “the world’s largest honky tonk” and home of the infamous mechanical bull, Gilley’s had four performance spaces holding 6,000 people with the Southside Ballroom, where this one presumably took place, holding 3,800. Mickey Gilley passed away on May 7, 2022 but not before he penned liner notes for this release. The other liner contributors are George Strait and then band member Billy Swan.
The performance comes at the end of the tour, as you’ll hear Kristofferson explain. One gets the sense here and toward the end when he calls out the last song “Why Me” that part of him just wanted to get the show over with yet the enthusiastic audience gave him the necessary energy to deliver a strong performance. Given that most of these songs were essentially a decade old (many from just his first three albums), familiarity abounded. The crowd is such a vital part of this recording that the album is almost one part Kris and one part Gilley’s. The late owner states this, “Gilley’s could hold several thousand people, but the club was very intimate. You were right there on stage with people all around you. You could bend down and shake hands with people…Right next to the club was the recording studio, and we recorded everything that was done on stage… We got some acts that made me think, ‘Are you kidding me?’…Kristofferson was one of those artist that I didn’t think would want to play Gilley’s, because he was such a big name and a tremendous talent.”
Any preconceptions melt away on the very first song, “Me and Bobby McGee,” a tune that this writer can remember blowing a blues harp to on one of those infamous college road trips. It’s a song with a history that many might not be aware of. Sure, you’ve heard Janis sing it, you’ve heard the Grateful Dead sing it, and maybe even a host of artists from Charley Pride to Dolly Parton. But few probably know the origin of the song. Kristofferson wrote it after a phone call from fellow Country Music Hall of Fame member Fred Foster, who had an idea for the song title. Kristofferson brought the song to Roger Miller, who was the first to record it. At that time Kristofferson was a writer on Music Row before launching his own successful solo career which boasted many of the classics you’ll hear here – “Darby’s Castle,” “The Pilgrim,” “For the Good Times,” “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” “The Silver Tongued Devil and I,” and ten more.
This is indeed Kristofferson in his prime. You won’t find many Kristofferson live albums and those that you will, are within this millennium, well past his peak years. In addition, backing him on this performance are his practically legendary road band – Stephen Bruton, Billy Swan, Donnie Fritts, Tommy McClure, Glen Clark and Sammy Creason. Kristofferson’s phrasing and even some of backing is a bit casual in places but that only adds to the vibe.
Yes, we can hear you singing already, “Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose/Nothin’, don’t mean nothin’ hon’ if it ain’t free, no-no/ And feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues/You know feelin’ good was good enough for me.” This release has ‘feelin’ good’ all over it.
- Jim Hynes