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Kris Kristofferson wrote this song while living in a run-down tenement in Nashville when he was working as a janitor for Columbia Records - a strange occupation considering he had a master's degree from Oxford University and risen to the rank of captain in the US Army. But Kristofferson wanted to be a songwriter, so he turned down a professor position at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and swept floors at Columbia waiting for his break.
In the military Kristofferson learned to fly planes and he worked as a commercial helicopter pilot in Nashville, and the story of how he got his demo tape of this song to Cash has become legend: He flew his National Guard helicopter to Cash's front yard, where he landed and delivered the tape. The story is often skewed to imply that Cash had never met Kristofferson, but they had known each other since 1965. In a 2008 interview with the San Luis Obispo Tribune, Kristofferson explained: "I knew John before then. I'd been his janitor at the recording studio, and I'd pitched him every song I ever wrote, so he knew who I was. But it was still kind of an invasion of privacy that I wouldn't recommend.
To be honest, I don't think he was there. He had a whole story about me getting out of the helicopter with a tape in one hand and a beer in the other.
John had a pretty creative memory but I would never have disputed his version of what happened because he was so responsible for any success I had as a songwriter and performer. He put me on the stage the first time I ever was, during a performance at the Newport Folk Festival."
This song was #1 on the Country charts for 2 weeks in September 1970. It was Kristofferson's first Country #1 as a writer.
In a 2009 Rolling Stone article about Kris Kristofferson that was written by Ethan Hawke, it explains that Kris made Johnny Cash listen to the song before removing the helicopter. After hearing it Cash said he "liked his songs so much that I would take them off and not let anybody else hear them."
Cash recorded the song live on The Johnny Cash Show, and before the show, ABC censors asked him to change the lyrics, "Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned" to "Wishing, Lord, that I was home." Cash sang it the way Kristofferson wrote it, and even stressed the word "stoned."
The original version of this song was recorded by Ray Stevens in 1969. At the 2009 BMI Country Awards, at which Kristofferson was honoured as an icon, he recalled how Stevens took a chance on his tune, when he was still an unknown songwriter: "Nobody had ever put that much money and effort into recording one of my songs," Kristofferson said. "I remember the first time I heard it - he's a wonderful singer - I had to leave the publishing house and I just sat on the steps and wept because it was such a beautiful thing." Stevens added that he was drawn to the song because he felt Kristofferson had a "spark." "He was very talented, very smart and right on time with his style," Stevens recalled. "A lot of people since then have copied those songs that he put out so at this point in time it doesn't seem all that different. It still is of course. There are very few writers who get that spark at the right time."
The "Lowdown" and "Lido Shuffle" singer makes a habit of playing with the best in the business.
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