LOS ANGELES — Jeff Bridges took home the lead actor Academy Award for his portrayal of down-and-not-entirely-out country singer Bad Blake in the film “Crazy Heart,” but that star turn on the big screen wasn’t entirely an act.
Bridges has been as passionate about music at least as long as he has been about acting, and he’s about to push that passion center stage as he heads out on a short tour with his country-rock band, the Abiders. The band plays this weekend’s Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio, Calif.
“After the success of ‘Crazy Heart,’ I thought, if I’m ever going to realize the teenage dream of having a band and going on the road and making records, now is the time,” Bridges, 63, said earlier this week.
Two major film projects and one album later, Bridges is now part of a three-day lineup at Stagecoach featuring Toby Keith, Lady Antebellum, the Zac Brown Band, Hank Williams Jr., Dwight Yoakam, Dierks Bentley, Darius Rucker and a couple dozen other acts.
Bridges plays on Friday — “We haven’t done many festivals,” he noted — and said he hoped while he’s on the festival grounds to be able to catch Norah Jones’ set with her country side project, the Little Willies, as they are slated to follow Bridges’ performance at the Palomino Stage.
Leading into Stagecoach, Bridges and the Abiders have played nearly a dozen shows down the West Coast in the last couple of weeks, with many fans turning up more out of curiosity than from a working knowledge of Bridges’ musical history, which also includes his 2000 solo album, “Be Here Soon.”
“You get a little bit of that,” he said with a chuckle, “but music has been such a part of my life for so long, it doesn’t occur to me that way.”
Not that Bridges’ dominant career path as an actor will be any hurdle to his acceptance by the Stagecoach audience. Country fans historically relish seeing performers from other artistic arenas and in previous years have turned out in force for actors-turned-country (Kevin Costner with his band, Modern West), new-to-country rockers (Darius Rucker, Sheryl Crow) and even hip-hop stars (Kid Rock).
Bridges was introduced to rock ‘n’ roll by his big brother, actor Beau Bridges, who was fully plugged into the revolution going on in pop music when they were growing up in the 1950s.
“Kind of vicariously I lived the birth of rock ‘n’ roll through Beau, who was listening to Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly,” Bridges said. “He got one of those Danelectro guitars, and I picked one up at some point. I maybe inherited two kinds of artistic expression.”
The other, of course, being acting, which came to Beau and Jeff from their father, Lloyd Bridges, best known originally for his starring role in the 1950s TV series “Sea Hunt” but later in life as a comic actor in “Airplane!” and other films.
But there was a musical connection there too.
“Not many people know that my father was quite a singer,” Bridges said. “He replaced Richard Kiley on Broadway in ‘Man of La Mancha’ and did quite a few musicals — ‘Guys and Dolls’ — so we listened to a lot of that Broadway stuff growing up too.”
Bridges isn’t one to divorce himself from his identity as an actor while he puts music at the forefront, in part because he sees many parallels between the two.
“They’re more similar than they are different,” he said. “It’s almost like each (musical) performance is like you’re doing a big scene. You get that same kind of excitement from it — it’s a funny thing.”
Bridges also has the good fortune to have traveled in first-class musical circles. He’s been friends with musician and producer T Bone Burnett, who produced his 2011 solo album, “Jeff Bridges,” and was executive producer of “Crazy Heart.” They’ve known one another for more than three decades, going back to when they met on the set of Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate.”
So far on tour he’s been doing several of the cornerstone songs from “Crazy Heart,” including the Oscar-winning best song “The Weary Kind,” and songs from both his solo albums. He’s also incorporating touchstone songs from other films he’s done, among them Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” from “The Big Lebowski,” and Tom Waits’ “Never Let Go” from 1992’s “American Heart.” Plus there are a few new songs he and the Abiders have worked up.
“It’s a bit surreal, doing this so late in life,” he said. “The truth is, I’ve been doing it all along; it’s just cresting now. I’m so glad the muscle hasn’t atrophied. It’s working well, I’m playing with my buddies, and we’re all out there having a good time.”
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