From the folksy drawl of the first “Helloooooo,” with a rising lilt on the last syllable, the voice on the phone from Santa Barbara, Calif., is unmistakable. That’s the thing about Jeff Bridges. He always sounds like Jeff Bridges, whether he’s playing the stoner Dude in The Big Lebowski, crooning a broken-heart ballad in Crazy Heart, slurring abuse as a drunken cowboy in True Grit—or doing an earnest voice-over for a Hyundai TV commercial. Some people turn into somebody else as soon as they open their mouth to sing. But one of the joys of listening to Jeff Bridges, the 61-year-old actor’s debut album with a major label, is that he sounds just like the guy onscreen. He’s not acting—playing a singer—he is one.
Unlike a lot of actors who spin off a music career as a hobby, Bridges has been a lifelong musician, ever since he picked up his dad’s Goya guitar at age 12. (Dad being the iconic Lloyd Bridges, star of the TV series Sea Hunt, who ushered Jeff and brother Beau into the family business.) So it’s fitting he finally won the Oscar for Crazy Heart (2009), a film that entwined his twin passions of music and acting. Asked if he feels music is the road not taken, he says, “No, it’s always been with me. Ever since I can remember, it’s been a great buddy.” And it’s a lot like acting, he adds. “They’re both about making yourself vulnerable and creating with other folks. They’ve got more in common than uncommon.”
Inlaid with silky pedal steel, and backing vocals by Rosanne Cash, the pearl-handled production of Bridges’s new album is so polished a casual listener might assume he just dipped into his millions to hire a crack session crew. But the actor has been friends for over 30 years with T Bone Burnett—the ace producer/musician/songwriter whose Grammy-winning hits range from Robert Plant’s duets with Alison Krauss on Raising Sand to soundtracks for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Crazy Heart. They met on the set of Heaven’s Gate (1980), along with songwriter Stephen Bruton, who was in the movie’s band with Burnett—and who wrote songs for Crazy Heart and the new album. Heaven’s Gate may be etched in American cinema as a landmark flop, but in their off-hours musical cast members like Kris Kristofferson and Ronnie Hawkins were forging another kind of frontier legend. “We used to jam every night,” says Bridges. “They were wild times.” When asked for details, he demurs. “There’s a whole pile of stories. I just don’t know how many I want to tell you.”
On the new CD, Bridges’s smoke-and-whisky voice conveys the true grit of a life well lived. It’s a country album, but it spans a rich repertoire of styles. Oh What a Little Bit of Love Can Do is a slick country rocker on a shameless mission to be a hit single, a song you could imagine Shania Twain doing. But many of the cuts are more whimsical. Falling Short, one of several songs he wrote himself, is an atmospheric ballad with barometric shifts reminiscent of Beck’s Sea Change. Tumbling Vine, another of his, is an existential maze dappled with Leonard Cohen-lite aperçus (“Here is my seat / I do not pay rent / I’m delighted / I’m Buddhistly bent”). Bridges’s voice often lurks in the shadows of Burnett’s lush arrangements, but in Nothing Yet it surfs the upper register with a yearning tenderness. And in Slow Boat, it drops into a sepulchral rumble that seems to channel both Cohen and late Dylan—he says he’s a fan of both.
The prevailing mood of the record is cosmic humility, a reckoning from a space cowboy who’s found his comfort zone as a sagebrush elder. Living on a 19-acre mountaintop spread a sane distance from L.A., sitting pretty with a 34-year marriage and three children, he’s one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars. Yet he still enjoys the risk of baring his soul, in music or onscreen. “It kinda goes with the scene, that vulnerability,” he says. “That’s not something that necessarily goes away, that fear of failure. You just befriend that thing as best you can.” So what would Jeff Bridges do if someone put a gun to his head and forced him to choose one door, acting or music? “Let me see…I would spin around, get myself real dizzy, then just step forward, and whichever door I went through, that would be it!”