Two country music legends, one legendary country music song.
Throughout the entire history of country music, there are few songs as iconic as “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
Penned by the great singer/songwriter and Highwaymen member, Kris Kristofferson, “Sunday Morning Coming Down” was originally released in 1969 by Ray Stevens.
It was then released by Johnny Cash the following year, becoming a number one song, Kristofferson recorded it himself for his 1970 debut album, Kristofferson.
It went on to become one of the great country songs of all time, covered by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Lee Lewis and more, but perhaps more importantly, it propelled Kristofferson’s career as a singer/songwriter to new heights.
But how did it get from Kristofferson to Cash? Well, that’s a wild story…
If you didn’t know, Kris Kristofferson is quite a man… a Rhodes Scholar, Oxford grad, Captain and helicopter pilot in the United States Army, he completed Ranger School… Kristofferson seemed to excel at everything he put his mind to.
While studying English lit at Oxford, Kristofferson began to hone his craft as a singer songwriter. When he finished up in the military in 1965, he moved to Nashville to pursue a career in music.
Moving To Nashville
According to an interview from Cowboys & Indians, he credits Nashville with saving his life:
“I think if it hadn’t been for Nashville. I probably would have ended up going to Vietnam, because I’d been in the Army.
I was definitely not doing what I thought I was supposed to do. And I think I probably would have ended up a hopeless alcoholic or something.”
Kristofferson’s cousin plugged him into the music scene, but he really wasn’t having much success and took a job as a janitor at Columbia records.
Working at the record label, he would often times run into artists like George Jones, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, but these music stars weren’t exactly in the market to collect songs from the guy sweeping the floors.
He later took a job as a helicopter flight instructor with the National Guard, but when he wasn’t piloting down in the Gulf, he was still pitching songs around Nashville.
Landing His Helicopter At The Cash House
Perhaps his most infamous helicopter ride was when he landed the thing in Johnny Cash’s yard in an attempt to try and get some of his demo tapes in Cash’s hands.
According to Cash, Kris landed with a beer in one hand and the demo in the other, walked up to him half drunk, gave him the demo of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Me & Bobby McGee,” and left the same way he came.
However, Kristofferson doesn’t quite recall the story the same way that Cash described it.
In fact, according to Kris, Johnny wasn’t even there:
“Well, I admit, that did happen, but that didn’t do me any good, landing on John’s property. He wasn’t even there in the house at the time.
I think he told the story that I got out of the helicopter with a beer in one hand and a tape in the other. But he wasn’t even in the house.
And I never would have been drinking while flying a helicopter.”
June wasn’t home either…
Kris used to give demos to June for Johnny to listen to, but unfortunately for Kris, when June would play demos for Johnny, he ended up throwing most of them in the lake.
“She wasn’t there either… but you know what? I never was going to contradict either one of them.”
Either way, the helicopter stunt was enough for Johnny to take notice. Cash was a fan of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and played the song live shortly thereafter. He even invited Kris to perform with him at the Newport Folk Festival.
He eventually recorded it, it became an absolute smash, and the rest is history.
On an episode of The Johnny Cash Show, Cash eloquently explained what the song meant to him:
“I suppose we’ve all … all of us been at one time or another ‘a drifter at heart,’ and today, like yesterday, there’s many that are on that road heading out.
Not searching maybe for work, as much as for self-fulfillment, or understanding of their life … trying to find a meaning for their life. …
Many who have drifted — including myself — have found themselves no closer to peace of mind than a dingy backroom, on some lonely Sunday morning, with it coming down all around you.”