August 21, 2014 11:49 am
BY MARK GUARINO | SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER
Even though he is an Academy Award winner and one of the most respected film actors of his generation, Jeff Bridges has kept things down to earth by making music. Since 2000 he has quietly released albums that reflect his love of country and folk music, and especially singer-songwriters like Greg Brown, Bo Ramsey, Stephen Bruton and Ryan Bingham. He also tours, this Friday appearing with his band at the Venue in Hammond.
His music is not far removed from the songs he performed in “Crazy Heart,” the 2009 film that earned him a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of troubled country artist Otis “Bad” Blake, who appeared to be a mixture of Billy Joe Shaver and Waylon Jennings. Songwriter-producer T Bone Burnett, who supervised that film and who is responsible for bringing attention to so much American roots music through other films such as “O Brother, Where Art Thou” and “Cold Mountain,” produced Bridges’ latest self-titled album.
Bridges, 64, recently talked via phone about his music. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Does being such a high-profile film actor ever make it difficult to go out there and do something different, such as playing music?
I don’t concern myself with that too much. I know it’s a thing that us human beings like to catalog things. We think, “this is this,” and put things in slots, but just personally, I’ve been into music for such a long time and enjoy it so much. And people who come to see us play do enjoy it. So I don’t spend too much time worrying about how I’m perceived that way.
Unlike film acting, when you play live, you are suddenly one-on-one with a live audience, which I assume requires an entirely different set of skills.
It’s like preparing for a movie — you have to practice skills that you need. But it’s interesting you say one-on-one, because in a way, that’s how I look at it. Because it’s almost like I’m doing improvisation with another actor or a group of actors into the whole thing together with the audience. There is that performance side of things, as far as you putting on a show. You’re also having a good time together playing off of each other.
The music you play seems to share a similar sensibility of your movies, especially your latest ones.
Oh yeah, especially “Crazy Heart.” When I got in cahoots with my old buddy T Bone [Burnett] on that movie, that really set fire to all of my music. That birth of the album you’re talking about came from “Crazy Heart.” I figure that when it’s still fresh in people’s minds, this is a chance to parlay that and get a band together and play some music.
In the film world, you are collaborating with so many people — the director, screenwriter and more. But in music, it can be very different, especially when you are the one leading the ship.
Making music has a lot of things in common with making movies. The fact that it is a collaborative effort is very similar. With movies, you’re working with director and writers and fellow actors, and with music, it’s producers and songwriters and other musicians. So that is very similar to giving it up and hoping that the music muse sings through you with whatever else is going on. That’s how I approach the movies as well. There are solo aspects of each. As an actor, you spend solo time preparing for your role, and as a singer, or even a songwriter, you spend solo time writing songs and working on songs that you like as well.
Has your own songwriting changed over time?
I don’t know really where my songwriting comes from. I mentioned the muse. On a good day I’m open to the muse and it comes through me. But I enjoy writing solo and I don’t write as much as I used to. I’m looking forward to getting back up to Montana in maybe a month or so and writing. But I enjoy collaborating quite a bit. T Bone and I have written songs together. And my dear friend John Goodwin, who is on all of my albums, we write stuff together. So I enjoy playing his songs as well.
You cover songs by many esteemed songwriters like Greg Brown and Stephen Bruton. Is the process of picking songs similar to picking which scripts?
They’re quite a bit different. As far as songs to cover, it starts with songs I enjoy other people singing. Maybe they’re in my wheelhouse, although I must say I’ll get adventurous at times. You don’t know really why. Again, maybe it’s the muse coming through, you don’t really know. You don’t know if any of this will pan about. I’m working with Judy Collins on a song from [the Leonard Bernstein operetta] “Candide” [called] “Make Our Garden Grow.” It’s almost opera, so you never know what will pop out.
I read you spent time with Kris Kristofferson during the making of [the 1980 film] “Heaven’s Gate.” Did that introduction push you further into your own music or is that overplayed?
You’re overplaying it a bit. It was a big musical time for me. Because Kris brought a bunch of his music buddies: T Bone and [the late Texas musician] Stephen Bruton, who became a dear friend and who was with me all through “Crazy Heart.” I learned a lot about songwriting and performing and singing from those guys during that time and afterwards. But Kris was very focused on the acting in “Heaven’s Gate.” And being the star of that movie, he had a lot of work to do. So he didn’t jam with me too much. And we were a pretty crazy bunch back then. [The rockabilly singer] Ronnie Hawkins was on board. We had a bunch of great musicians. We got a little crazy. I don’t think Kris wanted to partake in that.
Was there a time earlier in your life when you thought you would mainly concentrate on the music and leave movies behind?
It’s funny because I resisted my acting career for many, many years. I had been nominated for an Academy Award [in 1972 for “The Last Picture Show”] and had done 10 or 12 movies. But I still figured I might want to do this music thing. I wasn’t completely sold on the movie thing. But part of my dream musically was kind of the way it’s turned out now: To have a band where I was familiar with the guys, they’re all great musicians, and guys I enjoy hanging out with and playing music. And the acting thing kind of took off. And so, as it happens to most of us, we choose the path of least resistance and that’s kind of what happened to me.
And by the way, I’m glad for that. I think a lot of my resistance to the acting was because my parents were very gung ho for me to go into acting, and what teenage kid wants to do what his parents want him to do.
The name of your band is The Abiders. So can we assume you fully embrace your iconic role in “The Big Lebowski?”
I’m so proud to have been part of that film. I love that movie. It’s one of my favorites. Even if I wasn’t in it, it would be one of my favorites. Those brothers, they know how to make movies.