Chatting with the Dude
A Phone Call with Jeff Bridges
The Oscar winner has gone country. Bridges and his band the Abiders arrive in town next week.
The Dude is on the phone. And unlike The Big Lebowski’s Donny, actor Jeff Bridges never seems out of his element. Whether he’s chatting with us about the Coen brothers with that smooth, carefree demeanor—the kind we'd expect from a friendly regular at a neighborhood bar—or stepping offscreen to sling a guitar, the whole thing seems surprisingly natural.
Bridges has been playing guitar since his early teens, but his Oscar-winning turn as down-and-out country singer Otis “Bad” Blake in 2009’s Crazy Heart proved the momentum he needed to relaunch a music career with some additional cred. (His first record, Be Here Soon, came out in 2000.) He headed into the studio with famed producer T-Bone Burnett; the result, 2011’s self-titled album Jeff Bridges, is a collection of slow-cooking country odes about love, longing, and free living peppered with Bridges’ gravelly vocals. After taking some time away to focus on his day job, Bridges hits the road again this spring with his band the Abiders. The tour stops by the Moore Theatre on April 5.
We chatted with the multitalented actor last week about his love of country music, his only groupie, and obscure Lebowski references. And hey, if you don’t enjoy Bridges’s music… yeah, well, that’s just your opinion, man.
How did you initially get into country music?
I think my love for country music probably started with doing The Last Picture Show in the early ’70s down in Texas. Peter Bogdanovich, the director, really just put a lot of great country music, a lot of Hank Williams, in that film. That was probably my first really big gulp of country music.
Do you have any favorite country records?
Well, those early Hank tunes are favorites. Waylon Jennings’s songs. Kris Kristofferson. I had a great time working with Kris on Heaven’s Gate 35 years ago. That’s where I met T-Bone Burnett, who produced the last album. And we played a lot of music on that set; there were some great country pickers on that show. Stephen Bruton, a dear friend of ours, was instrumental in Crazy Heart and wrote a lot of the tunes. We played a lot of music together.
One of the things that really stood out about Jeff Bridges was its deliberate pacing. Is there something that draws you to more slow-burning songs?
Gee, I don’t know. But you’re right, that album has more medium-tempo songs and some slower arrangements. I’m a fan of Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. Leonard Cohen is another guy who’s got that slower vibe. I like up-tempo. I think this concert we’re going to be doing some more up-tempo tunes.
What should people expect from the show?
We’ll be doing some stuff from Crazy Heart, we’ll be doing stuff from the album, we’ll be doing some new stuff, maybe play a little Credence, some Dylan. But hopefully their expectations aren’t too strong. Being curious and showing up is probably the best. Whenever I’ve had expectations I’ve always sensed some trouble. It’s actually kind of similar to the same place when I’m performing: creating that emptiness. Showing up with an open heart and an open mind, I kind of encourage that mindset and that heartset.
If the show will feature new songs, does that mean there are plans to do another album?
I would love to do another album. We’ve got a lot more material to realize that way and I’m kind of gearing up. I don’t know when we’ll actually go into the studio and do it, but I certainly would love to.
How has your own guitar playing evolved over the years? How would you rate your own playing?
I wouldn’t rate myself too high. [Laughs] There are some great players around, but when I was doing Crazy Heart, Bone hired Stephen Bruton to be on the show. He was my mentor, he was my guitar teacher; he was with me every bit of the way, teaching me guitar licks and how to play and all that stuff. That was wonderful. He’s no longer with us, but he was a wonderful guitarist and songwriter. I think doing that movie improved my playing quite a bit.
When do you carve out time to practice? Just during down time on set?
Yeah, it’s not even a struggle. I’ve been playing music since I’ve been about 12, 13 years old, so I love it. And when you love something, you find that you do it a lot. I’ve been very fortunate these last three movies—my daughter, Jessie Bridges, has been my assistant. She’s a great songwriter. We love to sing and play together. When we’re working together between shots, we’ll break out the guitars and play.
How does acting compare to performing as a musician?
On a good day, it’s very similar. You’re there and you’re creating an emptiness for the moment to fill up. That goes for acting and performing on stage. There’s always performance anxiety whichever way you’re going—if you gotta laugh or cry and make it real in a movie, or if you show up on a stage and deliver a song with sincerity and truthfulness. There are more similarities than differences.
Considering you haven’t spent most of your career as a touring musician, how is life on the road?
There are aspects of it that are like being on the road when you’re making a movie. It’s wonderful to be with a group of people you dig being with. All the Abiders are dear friends of mine, so driving around with those guys we always have a good time. Also, my wife comes along with us and that’s a lot of fun. I guess she’s my one and only groupie. Actually, she comes along on the music tours a lot more than she does on the movies, so I enjoy that.
How did the band name “the Abiders” come about?
We were sitting around a table saying, what are we gonna call ourselves? And we were going though Lebowski references. I wanted us to be known as the Royal We, another Lebowski reference, but the guys thought that was too obscure. So a guy named Bill Flores, who plays petal steel, said, “Oh no, the Abiders, man.” And everyone liked that, so that’s what we’ve became.
It seems like you’ve done a great job embracing the iconography of the Dude. Is it still fun to be identified with that role?
I’m a big fan of that movie. I think it’s really kind of a masterpiece. The Coen brothers, they’re just geniuses. All their movies are so, so wonderful and I think Lebowski is right up there with their best. I’m just thrilled to be part of that movie. I think it’s funny as hell, but it’s just put together so well.
Jeff Bridges and the Abiders
April 5 at 8, Moore Theatre, $37–$65