When most major stars with a music career retire, proper announcements are in order, if not farewell tours or tribute shows. But when Kris Kristofferson made the decision to retire last year, there were no such fireworks set off, and the public didn’t learn about it until it was tucked deep into a press release Wednesday about a management change, as if everyone already long since knew or assumed it. That may speak to Kristofferson’s unassuming nature: He really didn’t think that his withdrawal from public performance and recordings was the stuff of headlines.
“It wasn’t any big stake in the ground, like ‘I’m retiring! I’m not doing this anymore!,” says Tamara Saviano, Kristofferson’s longtime manager. “It was an evolution, and it just felt very organic. There was no big change — it was this sort of slow ‘What should we do now? What’s next?’ And here we are in the middle of a pandemic… It was like, ‘Yeah, let’s retire.’ To us on this side of the fence it was an organic, normal, ‘things are changing’ thing. Kris is aging; Kris is 84. It didn’t feel like such big news to us. That’s why there was no announcement: It was just sort of a slow changing of the guard thing.”
Kristofferson hadn’t known he was going to retire when he played what might have been his final gig in January 2020, aboard the Outlaw Country Cruise. “Absolutely not,” says Saviano. “Kris was scheduled in March to do the Luck Reunion in Austin” held annually at Willie Nelson’s property. “The pandemic just changed everything,” and made the thought of ramping touring back up at some point in the indefinite future seem like a less likely or important goal.
Adds Saviano, “It doesn’t feel like a retirement because Kris’ music isn’t going anywhere. There are still going to be new projects” — of the archival or tribute sort. “But he’s not going to be on the road anymore.”
That said: “I’m not gonna say Kris will never record again, Kris will never take the stage again, because the moment I say that Kris will prove me wrong.Never say never. He might wake up a month from now and go ‘I’m gonna go in the studio and make an album,’ and he will.”
Wednesday’s announcement was about Morris Higham Management taking over the reins of Kristofferson’s career from Saviano — though the fact that it talked of managing “the Kris Kristofferson estate” spoke to the fact that the singer-songwriter-actor does not plan to embark on new professional endeavors. “Honestly, the announcement was more about the new management changes; (including) Kris’ retirement was an afterthought,” Saviano says. “We didn’t know” it would be such a big deal — “we never announce anything!” she laughs.
Higham handles the careers of top country stars of today like Kenny Chesney, Old Dominion and Brantley Gilbert as well as another legendary retiree, Barbara Mandrell, and the estate of Roger Miller. Kristofferson’s son, John, was also announced as being newly appointed to oversee the family business.
Saviano will continue on as a key member of the Kristofferson camp, fulfilling many of the duties she has for years, including running Kristofferson’s independent label, KK Records, and spearheading various projects and releases.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Kristofferson’s second album, “The Silver Tongued Devil and I,” which included the signature songs “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do)” and “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33.” His debut album, “Kristofferson,” was released in 1970 and then re-released in ’71 under the title “Me and Bobby McGee” after his career took off; it included not just “Bobby McGee” but the classics “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “For the Good Times” and “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.”
Saviano indicates that the camp is looking at ways later this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the early musical career zenith those albums represented back in 1971 — in a year that will also mark something else worth celebrating, Kristofferson’s 85th birthday on June 22.
She says she’s hoping to put out a live album recorded at Gilley’s in 1981 that she describes as “a great live record.” She is also going through his journals and short stories with an eye toward publishing some of his writings in book form. And she and John Kristofferson are “also talking about doing some tribute stuff with younger artists” recording his catalog of songs, although they’re still looking at what shape that should take. “We’re just looking at all angles of his life, including exploring the possibility of doing a film,” although those are “early conversations… I intend to work on Kris’ legacy as much as I can.”
(Saviano also has her hands full with some non-Kristofferson work, primarily a documentary she directed about Guy Clark that was delayed due to the pandemic but is expected to premiere this year.)
That Kristofferson might not record new material is not a complete surprise: His last album of all-new material, “Feeling Mortal,” came out in 2013. He subsequently re-recorded a selection of his vintage material for 2016’s “The Cedar Creek Sessions,” which was nominated for a Grammy for best Americana album. As an actor, Kristofferson was last seen in 2018 in the Ethan Hawke-directed “Blaze.” One of Kristofferson’s final L.A. performances was at the “Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration” Joni Mitchell tribute concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in late 2018, where his duet with Brandi Carlile was memorialized on a DVD and CD.
One idea the camp dismisses: that Kristofferson is being forced to retire because of ill health.. beyond the pandemic-related concerns that have most performers of a certain age wary of hitting the road again any time soon.
“Kris’ body of work will live on — and hopefully he’ll live on for a lot longer,” Saviano says. “He’s really healthy and in good shape.”