Songwriter. Singer. Actor. Rhodes scholar. Country-music icon. Kris Kristofferson may be the ultimate Renaissance man — and perhaps the coolest dude on the planet. Tonight, the 70-year-old outlaw receives the Johnny Cash Visionary Award at the 2007 CMT Music Awards (starting at 8 pm/ET), which honors country-music videos and features performances by everyone from Kenny Chesney to Carrie Underwood. We spoke with Kristofferson about his storied career. (Also check out our recent Q&As with CMT Music Award nominees Taylor Swift and Big & Rich's Big Kenny.)
TVGuide.com: How does it feel to receive an award named after your dear friend?
Kris Kristofferson: Listen, anything that's got Johnny Cash's name attached to it is an honor for me. I'm a little saddened by it, because we wouldn't have a name for [the award] if he were still here. But I'm honored to follow in his footsteps.
TVGuide.com: Do you have a favorite Cash story?
Kristofferson: There are a ton, because I had the good fortune to really get to know him, and then work with him in The Highwaymen, standing next to him and singing with him — whether he liked it or not. [Laughs] John was always larger-than-life to me, but also very human. Probably the most important thing he did for me, as far as my career goes, was when he put me on stage at the Newport Folk Festival [in 1969]. But the most impressive thing, the thing that probably brought me back to Nashville, was meeting him backstage at the Grand Ole Opry when I was still in the army. I decided right then that I was coming back to try to make it. I don't know how I had the audacity to think that I could, looking back at the songs I was writing then. [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: I saw an interview in which you joked that you were the only person brave enough to sing harmony on "Folsom Prison Blues" with Johnny.
Kristofferson: Yeah. He said nobody had ever had the nerve to do that! [Laughs] But he was very forgiving.
TVGuide.com: What did you think of the film Walk the Line?
Kristofferson: I liked it. I thought that both John and June were dealt with respectfully, accurately, at that time of their lives. It was an amazing feat.
TVGuide.com: How do you feel about awards shows?
Kristofferson: I'm a little uncomfortable with them. My daughter said, "You country people really give yourself a lot of awards." [Laughs] I think it happens if you live long enough, you know?
TVGuide.com: Do you look at the popularity of country music today and marvel at what's happened with it?
Kristofferson: Well, it's kind of mixed feelings. I really appreciate the fact that country music got a respect today that it might not have had. I think Bob Dylan had a lot to do with that, mainly because of his relationship with Johnny Cash and his coming to Nashville to record. But I think everything that gets bigger and more marketable probably gets watered down a little. Fortunately, there's still some old guys like Willie [Nelson], Merle Haggard and Ray Price. But there are good young guys, too.
TVGuide.com: Like whom?
Kristofferson: [Philadelphia folksinger] John Flynn. He's still trying to get noticed, but he's got a great heart and I really like the way he thinks. I also like Keith Urban, Toby Keith.... I hate naming people because I know I'll forget someone. And Shooter [Jennings] is amazing. Waylon's gotta be smiling somewhere.
TVGuide.com: Of course you've done a lot of acting. Anything coming up?
Kristofferson: I haven't got any offers I couldn't refuse yet. [Laughs] I hope I keep [acting], but I'll live just as long if I don't.
TVGuide.com: Do you have a favorite role?
Kristofferson: I liked the role in Lone Star a lot. And [I liked] A Star Is Born, [it was] better than people gave it credit [for being]. [Laughs] But if I had one that I wish I could go back and do over again, it would be [1973's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid]. I would like to do that knowing what I know today.
TVGuide.com: That's one of my favorite soundtrack albums.
Kristofferson: Oh yeah, mine, too! If I had to pick two soundtrack albums, it would be that one and the one from O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Dylan [recorded the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid album] against a lot of resistance. Ol' Sam [Peckinpah, the film's director] would get crazy every now and then. I remember he tried to bust up one of the [recording] sessions one time. But to me, [the soundtrack] was one of the best parts of the film.
TVGuide.com: As a songwriter, singer, actor, helicopter pilot, Rhodes scholar and even studio janitor, you must be the ultimate Renaissance man. What's next?
Kristofferson: [Laughs] Well, that's one way to look at it! That's a very kind way to look at it. I hope that I'll keep being creative until they throw dirt on me. Maybe it'll be by writing down a kind of memoir of the whole journey.
TVGuide.com: If you were starting out today, how do you think you'd fare?
Kristofferson: Well, I don't know, but I'm glad I'm not. The great thing about Nashville back in the day was that the old guys hung out where the young guys were. The established writers like Harlan Howard and Jack Clement gave us encouragement and passed the guitar, you know? Chet Atkins let me sit in on his sessions. Everybody was good to us, and everybody loved the music. That was the main thing. What really mattered was respect for the music. Nowadays, I'm sure they sell more records… but I don't know.
TVGuide.com: Some of modern country's stars came from reality shows, like American Idol and Nashville Star. What do you think of those shows?
Kristofferson: Those Idol shows are kind of scary to me. They wanted me to be on one of those panels one time, and I said it's the last thing in the world I'd ever want to do. I would hate to have to discourage somebody. [Laughs] To me, if you love it enough to devote your life to it, then you're doing the right thing.