Kris Kristofferson is known for a half-dozen compositions that became pop or country hits in the early 1970s, most of them for other artists: "Me and Bobby McGee," "Help Me Make It Through the Night," "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," "For the Good Times," "Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)," and "Why Me." But in the country market, he had many other hits as a songwriter over a period of more than 20 years. The two-CD compilation, an unusually ambitious undertaking for Sony Music's Special Products division (why didn't Legacy, the company's top-of-the-line reissue division do it?), devotes one disc to Kristofferson's own versions of some of his hits, with the second disc given over to the hit versions recorded by others, some of them licensed from other labels. There are a couple of his songs that he himself had hits with ("Josie," "Why Me"), and only his versions are included, and there are a couple of the many songs he had hits with but never recorded himself ("Vietnam Blues," "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends"). There are also two cover versions each of "Me and Bobby McGee" (by Roger Miller
and Janis Joplin
) and "Help Me Make It Through the Night" (Sammi Smith
and Willie Nelson
). The result is revelatory. His rough voice an acquired taste and his arrangements given to loose country-rock, Kristofferson makes his songs sound like personal statements. Then you hear the slick country versions of the same songs, and they sound like good commercial Nashville product. Sammi Smith's "Help Me Make It Through the Night," sung from a woman's viewpoint, has a completely different feel from Kristofferson's. "If You Don't Like Hank Williams" sounds like it was written for Hank Williams, Jr.
's typically belligerent reading, though Kristofferson's own is, if anything, more raucous. The early "Vietnam Blues," the artist's first-ever cut back in 1966 by Dave Dudley
, demonstrates the pro-war, anti-demonstrator attitude of the just-discharged former army captain, a vastly different political viewpoint from the one he would espouse two decades later. Singer/Songwriter
is not perfect -- a thorough collection would have dredged up his 1967 Epic Records single "The Golden Idol" and included more of his lost masterpieces and big country hits, notably the great love song "I've Got to Have You" and the major country hits "Your Time's Comin'," "I Won't Mention It Again," and "One Day at a Time." But this is the first compilation to give listeners a sense of the scope of Kristofferson's achievement as a songwriter, beyond the handful of songs for which he is best known. (Though the annotations do not say so, the Kristofferson performance of "From the Bottle to the Bottom" appears to be previously unreleased.)