WATCH: Kris Kristofferson Performs ‘Why Me,’ Tells Story of Song to Ralph Emery

by Suzanne Halliburton
(Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Kris Kristofferson never considered himself a religious man. But his greatest solo success as a singer was a song inspired by a Sunday morning redemption in a Nashville church almost a half-century ago.

Kristofferson relayed the story of “Why Me” to Ralph Emery, the Nashville radio and television host. He talked of how a “profound” religious experience brought tears to his eyes and gave him a “forgiveness I didn’t know I needed.”

Then Kristofferson and his friend, Willie Nelson, sang the moving song.

Kris Kristofferson Tells What Inspired The Song

Kristofferson said he’d been at a fundraiser in Cookeville, Tenn., the night before as a favor to Dottie West. Then he found himself in Jimmy Snow’s church the next morning. Larry Gaitlin sang “Help Me.” Folks in the congregation knelt in prayer. Then Snow asked if anyone felt lost to raise their hands.

“I had a profound religious experience during the session, something I never had happen before,” Kristofferson told Emery. “Why me’ came out of it.

“Everybody was kneeling down and Jimmy said if anybody’s lost, please raise their hands. The notion of raising my hand was out of the question. All of the sudden, I felt my hand going up. I was hoping nobody else was looking.

“He said “if anybody is ready to accept Jesus, something like that, to come down to front of the church. I thought that would never happen. But I found myself getting up walking.”

“Why Me” Became A Top Hit On Country, Pop Charts

Kristofferson, the former Army captain, released the song in 1973. It hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country chart in July, 1973. The song also spent 19 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 16.

Gaitlin sang backup on the song. Rita Coolidge, Kristofferson’s soon-to-be wife, did so, too.

So many country stars covered “Why Me.” Elvis Presley included it in his concerts. So did Nelson. Kristofferson played the song for Johnny Cash and June Carter in a hotel room in 1972 before “Why Me” was released. Cash then added the cover. So did George Jones, Conway Twitty and David Alan Coe.

Country music historian Bill Malone said the song seemed “greatly out of character for Kristofferson, but it can be interpreted as his own personal religious rephrasing of ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down.’

But, he said Kristofferson’s gruff styling made the song more authentic.

“He sounds like a man who has lived a lot but is now humbling himself before God.”