KAHULUI, Maui — When Kris Kristofferson walked onstage at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center on Friday with a rousing “Hello, Maui!” he was answered with a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd welcoming home a local favorite.

Dressed in black and performing on a bare stage, Kristofferson got right down to business, his acoustic guitar and harmonica backed only by Micah Nelson, Willie Nelson’s youngest son.

After two numbers, the opening words of Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” were drowned out by full-throated support for the 80-year-old singer-songwriter.

Musician, Actor & Rhodes Scholar Kris Kristofferson performs with Micah Nelson on February 24th, 2017 at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center
Micah Nelson, left, and Kris Kristofferson perform at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center Tony Novak-Clifford

“You all must have been having a party before I got here,” he said, a wide grin acknowledging the goodwill. “Thank you” was drowned out by more whoops and hollers.

And so it went through classics “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Loving Her Was Easier,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “For The Good Times” and 25 of the hundreds of original songs tracking through a career of full-tilt-boogie living.

The often plaintive, always heartfelt lyrics invoked memories of love and loss in his listeners, some of them Hana folks who have known Kristofferson, his wife Lisa and their five youngest children since they moved there in 1990. Many wore stick-on passes Lisa gave them to get backstage after the concert.

Some of Kristofferson’s fellow Hana residents got backstage passes to his Friday concert. Courtesy of Lisa Kristofferson

Among those making the four-hour roundtrip from East Maui were two former Hana High and Elementary School principals, Hana’s current principal and his mother, the vice principal and his wife, teachers, young parents who had been classmates of the Kristofferson kids, local business leaders, school bus drivers, a ranch hand and a mechanic who keeps Lisa’s cars running, plus me and my husband.

“They’re wonderful go-to people in our community,” Principal Rick Paul said of Kris and Lisa. “They are regular parents who helped out a lot. You could always count on her to drive the kids, and she chaperoned and organized years of overnight trips. She taught mock trial for 15 years, with little ol’ Hana getting all the way to state competition. They bought the high school computers, wrote checks for fundraisers. Lisa was a great problem solver and helped us design the new middle school.”

In 2007, during a state spending freeze, Lisa organized a concert by her husband at the MACC that raised $40,000 for Hana school’s athletic department. Two years later, another concert and a silent auction raised $27,000 split between Hana athletics and other school expenses.

“They opened their arms to the community,” said Rich Young, Hana school vice principal and former athletic director. “Most of what they did was anonymous. Airline miles for sick kids and their families. Helping kids pay for school trips, school supplies, whatever. And it wasn’t just money, but time, too. Lisa was always showing up with a big pan of lemon bars. She must have baked a thousand lemon bars.”

‘His Voice Got Stronger And Stronger’

The family’s “just folks” demeanor and attendance at local weddings, funerals and baby christenings earned them protection from intrusive fans and tabloids. Ask a gas station attendant, postmistress, waitress, B&B owner or just about anybody else in town where Kris Kristofferson lives and the answers are likely to be “never heard of him,” “no idea,” “20 miles back where you came from” or “none of your business.”

But if he wasn’t on tour or making a movie, local nonprofit organizations counted on Kristofferson to arrive unannounced and unobtrusively join local musicians on makeshift stages, often under rain tents. Tourists would do a double-take, staring hard at the bearded older guy playing guitar in jeans and a T-shirt. I once watched a fellow off a tour bus stare at Kris for 10 minutes, then turn to his wife and say, “Naw, that’s not him. What would he be doing out here in this wilderness?”

What Kris and Lisa were doing was protecting their privacy, raising their kids out of the limelight, and setting an example of being hard-working, outdoor-loving, community-minded adults surrounded by genuine friends.

Kristofferson with some of the folks who drove over from Hana for the concert. From left, Camille Coates, BettyLou Burgett, Melanie Coates, Kristofferson, Natasha Maduska and Patty Eason. Courtesy of Melanie Coates

Paul recalled a mandatory all-school parent meeting soon after the Kristoffersons settled in a place with barely 2,000 people living in a rainforest along a 100-mile coastline.

“Kris and Lisa came to find out this big problem was about the ‘pencil wars’ back in the day when kids jousted with one another until one of the pencils broke. Teachers asked parents to make their kids stop pencil fighting because it was costing too much to replace the pencils.”

After the “emergency” meeting, the Kristoffersons, who had left Malibu partly because of student suicides, agreed that moving to Hana had been a great decision.

“Kris is a bard,” said Hana resident Melanie Coates, a former principal attending the concert. “His performance tonight was very moving because even though I knew the old songs, they felt more personal with him quietly reciting the lyrics. When he did the one he wrote for his kids (“From Here to Forever”) I got a deeper message because I saw their faces in my mind. It was magical.”

“The crowd was 100 percent with Kris,” said Terry Mynar, Hana Ranch Store’s manager who came with his wife Sharon. “I didn’t go in with the expectation of Kris being perfect, because none of us are. We are all getting up in age. I thought at the start he was going to forget (lyrics) sometimes, but then he settled in and his voice got stronger and stronger. I was amazed. It was a great night. We’ll never forget it.”

‘He’s Really Back’

There are no secrets in small towns. For the last decade doctors had blamed Kristofferson’s increasing memory problems on Alzheimer’s disease or dementia caused by playing football and rugby, and being a Golden Gloves boxer in his youth. Lisa sought out specialists who prescribed a lot of pills. Then a year ago, on a hunch, one of them tested Kristofferson for Lyme disease. The results were positive.

Lisa threw away the pills, and he underwent intensive antibiotic treatments to control the disease they think he got from a tick bite during six weeks filming “Disappearances” in a Vermont forest.

Last summer, when she saw friends waiting in line at the Hana Post Office, Lisa burst out: “Kris’s back! He doesn’t have Alzheimer’s! He’s really back, he’s the old Kris. Some days you wouldn’t think he had anything at all, he’s his old self again.”

We gave her a group hug and shared the good news on the coconut wireless.

Kristofferson and columnist Tad Bartimus. Tony Novak-Clifford

Kristofferson’s improving health amped up his touring schedule throughout America and Europe with Nelson, Merle Haggard’s sons Ben and Noel, and their band The Strangers.

Accompanied by Lisa, he starts a three-month tour in the U.S. and 10 European countries March 22.

“Kris enjoys performing so much whether it’s perfect or not,” Lisa said. “That’s why we keep doing it.”

Except for a one-night gig April 8 in Norman, Oklahoma, with the Haggard brothers and The Strangers, Kristofferson’s 45 concerts will be solo acoustic events. 

But given Kristofferson’s long career and deep friendships with some of the world’s finest musicians, you never know who will turn up to share the microphone.

His best friend Willie Nelson joined him on the MACC stage. In Honolulu, local entertainer and “Hawaii Five-0” actor Al Harrington surprised him with a song. (They are longtime friends as well.)

The MACC concert’s $27,700 proceeds were donated to the nonprofit Na Keiki o Emalia, a grief support group for children founded by Kula psychologist Brooke Brown, a friend of Lisa’s since they met on Maui in 1974.

Musician, Actor & Rhodes Scholar Kris Kristofferson donates all proceeds from his show february 24th, 2017 at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center to na Keiki O Emalia Organization. He is pictured here with Brooke Brown, Exectutive Director of the organization as he leaves the stage.
Kristofferson with Brooke Brown as he leaves the stage. He donated all proceeds from his show to her grief support group for children, Na Keiki o Emalia. Tony Novak-Clifford

When Brown’s daughter Emalia, a Seabury Hall teacher, died of cancer in 2014 and Brown was trying to console her 3-year-old grandson, she learned through census records that nearly 1,900 Maui children under age 18 also were grieving a deceased parent.

“Lisa called me on Valentine’s Day to tell me Kris wanted to celebrate Emalia and the children,” Brown said. “I told her it sounded like she wasn’t going home with any money and she said, ‘Yeah, that’s right,’ and that’s what happened. They even gave us the CD sale money.

“There was so much love in that auditorium for Kris that night,” Brown said. “There were moments when he lost the threads of memory, but he would look out at all of us and let us in on what was going on. He owned his lapses between those brilliant lyrics and the audience was right there with him, supporting him all the way.

“Generosity is a two-way street and it doesn’t get any better than that.”

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