Before he was an Oscar-winning actor—before he was even nominated, before he was known as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood, before Lebowski, before that magnificent, flowing grey hair and crackling baritone voice that ends sentences with the incomprehensible address, "man..." were pop culture tropes—there was Jeff Bridges the musician, a reality most fans caught wind of after his dark and devastating performance as jaded country musician Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, for which he performed all his own musical parts and won a long overdue Academy Award.
But, Bridges has been a musician for decades, he remembers his father, Lloyd Bridges auditioning for the lead role in the Music Man in the early '60s, taking piano lessons at the insistence of his mother, and the background of his childhood home being filled with his eight-year-senior brother Beau's music.
"Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly...and those guys..." Bridges said recounting his musical roots in an interview with the Source.
Best known for his acting work in The Big Lebowski, Crazy Heart, True Grit, Tron and so many other grand and nuanced performances, Bridges has now fully embraced his musical side that was always a part of his off-screen life throughout his acting career.
"I thought, 'If I'm ever going to go to the next level in music, now's the time,'" explained Bridges of the time after 2009's Crazy Heart with his characteristic squeak permeating his low voice. "T Bone [quintessential American songwriter and soundtrack producer T Bone Burnett] was up for another album."
It was 2011 when Bridges released his namesake album. And in 2014, he and his backing band known as The Abiders released a second, titled Live and recorded as such.
Live features songs from Bridges' preferred collection, including "To Live is to Fly" by Towns Van Zandt and "Never Let Go of your Hand" by Tom Waits, among other covers and originals.
"It's pretty eclectic," explained Bridges. "We've got some songs from Crazy Heart, and T Bone and I, we wrote together. There's quite a few written by John Goodwin, a dear friend of mine, an old friend, and Nashville songwriter. We do an eclectic mix of country and rock, rootsy American music and a little jazz. The kinds of music I enjoy listening to."
It's generally understood when an actor or actress is a part of a musical project (Kevin Bacon and The Bacon Brothers, Jared Letto and Thirty Seconds to Mars, Jack Black and Tenacious D) that those are different worlds so, accordingly, during interviews promoting said music project, it's polite to avoid chatting about their filmography. However, in Bridges' case, his music and his acting are so intertwined that it's nearly impossible. His band goes by The Abiders, and the liner notes on Live even read, "This album is dedicated to all of my musical heroes: thanks for the inspiration, man..." in the archetypal Lebowski vernacular proving that, just as I've always expected, Bridges is Lebowski. He even performs "Lookin' Out My Back Door," by John Fogerty from the Lebowski soundtrack on Live. And Bridges, being basically the chilliest dude in Hollywood, seemed OK with, and was more than willing to talk about the crossover when I ill-advisedly asked about the similarities between acting and playing music.
"There are a lot of similarities. You've got the solo aspects, learning lines as an actor and working on scenes or practicing your guitar or writing a song alone," said Bridges. "And then the collaborative thing is also similar. I look at the performances as improvisations that I'm doing with the audience, we're in the scene together."
The result of those improvisations is quintessential dad rock as Bridges' familiar voice takes on an uncharacteristic, but perfectly suited, sweeping pop-country twang as he sings about the loose clutch in his old blue car.
Even with massively recognizable roles under his belt, and a rejuvenated and hybrid career in music and screen, Bridges said he still can't choose one role that defines him.
"Haha, gee ya know, these days, I don't think too much about that stuff," he laughs when I ask about his defining role. "When I was just starting out I did think about that quite a bit. My father, Lloyd Bridges, in the early in the '60s he had a TV show called 'Sea Hunt' where he played a skin diver and pulled that part off so well that he got a lot of skin diving part offers, but not much else...and he was a very accomplished Shakespearean actor and musician. I saw his frustration, and when I started my career, I really concentrated on not developing too strong a persona because I thought it would presently confuse the audience on who I was so they could project the characters I was playing, and let the financiers know I could play different things. Now, I let people think what they wanna think, and I do what I want."
And despite a head start as a musician and actor, he said an EGOT (winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) is out of the question.
He lets out an oh-so-cool laugh that still feels as if he knows something that I don't, that pleasant confusion he has mastered over the years, "I'm not that ambitious."
Jeff Bridges and The Abiders
6 pm & 9 pm, Mon., Nov. 24
Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St.