“You’re A Disgrace To Us” – Kris Kristofferson’s Family Disowned Him For Pursuing Country Music

Kris Kristofferson

Of all the interesting characters in country music history, few have the life resumé of Kris Kristofferson.

You can read more details about his wide ranging life in this piece, but let me give you a quick run down of some of his life accomplishments and jobs…

Rhodes Scholar, three sport letterman in college, Golden Gloves boxer, bartender, award winning essayist, forest-fighter, newspaper sports editor, Army Ranger, helicopter pilot, dredging contractor, and record label janitor.

That doesn’t even include what he’s actually best known for, being one of the greatest country music artists and songwriters of all-time, not to mention a movie star to boot. You’d think that any parents would be proud of a son who accomplished and did all of that, but unfortunately, this is no such happy story.

Kris was born into a military family in Brownsville, Texas in 1936 but moved frequently because of his father’s job. They eventually settled in San Mateo, California, where Kris would graduate from high school. This is where he started writing, which lead to a few acclaimed published pieces and enrollment in Pomona College.

To say he shined at Pomona would be an understatement, earning letters in football, rugby, and track and field, while graduating summa cum laude. He parlayed that success by becoming a Rhodes Scholar, a highly prestigious award that gave him a scholarship to go study at Oxford. While across the pond, he became a star boxer (earning the highest level “Blue” mark), played rugby, and began writing songs. He graduated in 1960 with a Bachelor’s of Philosophy in English Literature degree.

He also began recording music for the first time while at Oxford, but his initial foray into the industry was unsuccessful, so he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the military, which he had been encouraged to do since a young age. His father had become a major-general and served in WWII and Korea, so service to the country was the family business.

Again, Kris crushed in the service. He enlisted in the Army and eventually attained the rank of captain while also becoming a Ranger and becoming a helicopter pilot. No doubt he was set up for a long and successful career in the Army, but another opportunity presented itself that few on Earth would dream of turning down.

Kris was offered a teaching position at West Point, the iconic officer school. If only logic was to be followed, Kris would have accepted the position and reached a place early in life that few could even dream of getting too.

But there was just one problem…

The dream of playing music for a living had never left his head. While stationed in West Germany he’d even formed a band and had continued writing songs. So with this in mind, he made the fateful decision to turn down the West Point position, leave the military, and move to Nashville. Now, hindsight is 20/20 so it’s easy for us to say “Wow, what a great choice that turned out to be” but those around him at the time, especially his parents, were less than pleased.

In fact, his parents were so upset that they disowned him and didn’t speak with him for decades.

His mother was especially disappointed, recalling to Rolling Stone she told him:

“She said that I was an embarrassment to the family. I’ve given them moments of pride, when I got my Rhodes scholarship, but she said, they’ll never measure up to the tremendous disappointment you’ve always been.”

I mean, that is downright harsh, especially from your mother. Always been a tremendous disappointment? The guy had already done so much in his life but finally doing one thing that he truly wanted to do was the breaking point? That had to be a rough house to grow up in…

He also spoke with Salon back in 1999 about this.

He said his mother finally came around after not speaking with him for over 20 years:

“… before she died she was coming backstage and hugging Johnny Cash and things like that. She definitely got used to the fact that I was who I was. But while I was unsuccessful I was disowned. I was told, ‘Don’t visit any of our relatives. You’re a disgrace to us.”

The reporter asked if it was his success that made the family change their minds, and he said:

“Probably to my father. My father told me that he would never understand me, but he understood that I had to do what I had to do, because nobody could have stopped him from being a pilot because he loved flying. He was glad I had the guts to stand up for what I wanted to do. He was a hard person to please. I doubt that if I hadn’t been successful there would have been any reconciliation.

But hell, by the time my mother died, she was calling up radio station and giving them hell if they didn’t play my songs. 

Being disowned was a real blessing at the time. I had a lot of guilt on my shoulders for not living up to what everybody expected me to be. For not being Bill Bradley — being responsible, going into government, being a senator. And when my mother reacted so strongly to me it was very liberating.”

Leave it to the most interesting man in country music to find the silver lining.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to have your parents completely disown you for following a dream. Sure, them trying to talk you out of it or thinking it’s crazy or wanting you to be secure all comes from a place of love and is to rightfully be expected. But straight up dropping you on the curb? That’s just awful.

Fortunately, all is well that ends well and even this big split was able to at least be partially reconciled for Kristofferson.

Hard times seem to make the best music, so in Kris’ honor, let’s crank up a few classics.

“Sunday Morning Coming Down”

“Loving Her Was Easier”

A beer bottle on a dock



A beer bottle on a dock