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"This album is a natural extension of the love of music I've had all my life," says Jeff Bridges. And, in fact, "natural" is as good a word as any to describe the feeling of Bridges' self-titled major label debut. Featuring a roster of magnificent songwriters and musicians, and produced by Bridges' friend of three decades, Grammy-award winner T Bone Burnett, the ten-song disc is soulful and heartfelt. It may mark a switch from the six-time Oscar nominee's usual day job, but the performances on Jeff Bridges consistently feel both comfortable and true.
The album is a logical follow-up to Bridges' Academy Award-winning portrayal of grizzled former country music legend Bad Blake in the 2009 film Crazy Heart. "I actually passed on the movie at first because it had no music in it," says Bridges, "but when I found out that T Bone was interested, I was like, 'Let's do this thing.'
There are numerous echoes of Crazy Heart to be found on Jeff Bridges. In addition to Burnett's participation, songwriters Stephen Bruton, John Goodwin, and Greg Brown contributed to both projects, and Ryan Bingham (who won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy Award for co-writing the film's “The Weary Kind”) adds vocals to the opening track, "What a Little Bit of Love Can Do." Bo Ramsay's "Either Way" had been considered for the movie, and "Slow Boat," co-written by Bridges and Burnett, is actually the title of a Bad Blake song that's mentioned in Thomas Cobb's original Crazy Heart novel.
But Bridges' involvement in music goes back a lot longer, and far deeper, than just this one film. "I've been into music ever since I was a kid," he says. "My mother forced me to take piano lessons, maybe when I was around 8—I got as far as 'Fur Elise' and I bailed, and I've regretted it ever since." But then he discovered his brother Beau's Danelectro guitar, and starting in high school, joined up with his grade-school buddy Goodwin and a group of other friends for a Wednesday night jam session—which they continued, every week, for the next fifteen years. ("We recorded everything we did on a reel to reel," says Bridges. "We've talked about mining that stuff, seeing if there's anything worth polishing up.")
Though his parents, actors Dorothy and Lloyd Bridges, encouraged their kids to pursue the thespian track, Jeff was more interested in music and art. But when he started to see some success in the movies at a young age, he says he was "drawn to the path of least resistance, and music took a backseat—but I was still writing all that time."
As he made more films, and became one of the most prominent and respected actors of his time, Bridges found that music was often a key element in his projects. "Different assignments would come up and turn me on to different types of music," he says. "The Fabulous Baker Boys was all about getting steeped in jazz, learning about this Bill Evans style of piano playing.
"On movie sets, so many actors also play music. A great example of that was Heaven's Gate—Kris Kristofferson brought along many of his musician friends, like Ronnie Hawkins, Stephen Bruton and T Bone, and our down time was all spent making music. That movie was really the birth of the music that came out in Crazy Heart."
That 1980 film marked the beginning of a long-time relationship between Bridges and Burnett. The guiding hand behind such Grammy powerhouses as the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack and Robert Plant and Allison Krauss' Raising Sand, as well as recent albums by Gregg Allman and the duo of Elton John and Leon Russell, Burnett selected the songs for the soundtrack to the incomparable 1998 film The Big Lebowski. After they reunited for Crazy Heart, Bridges approached Burnett about making a record together.
"Jeff is an honest-to-God artist," says Burnett. "And he's also a most readily-directed person—if you say something, he absorbs it and takes it in."
"I look at T Bone the same way I relate to a director on a movie," says Bridges. "I empower them to help me to transcend myself and take me further than I think I can go. I see him as an aspect of myself—I try to create as thin a membrane between each other as possible, and become one entity and let it rip."
From an initial group of fifty songs, they narrowed down their choices and wound up cutting sixteen songs in just over a week. Burnett assembled his usual team of ace musicians—including drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist Dennis Crouch, keyboardist Keefus Ciancia, Russ Paul on pedal steel, and guitarist Jackson Smith, along with the astonishing Marc Ribot adding guitar on some tracks—plus guest vocalists Rosanne Cash, Sam Phillips, and Benji Hughes.
"All these musicians were wonderful – real masters," says Bridges. "You show them the chord changes once and the song is immediately not just played but interpreted beautifully."
Perhaps the most notable element of Jeff Bridges, though, is the extraordinary songwriting. Writers like Greg Brown and the late Stephen Bruton may not be household names, but they are true musicians' musicians. Their contributions, next to four songs that Bridges wrote or co-wrote, add up to a unified voice for the album—simple but philosophical, concise but profound.
Bridges is especially pleased by the inclusion of several compositions by John Goodwin, his friend since fourth grade. "It was really joyful to have my dear friend there when we were recording," he says, "and to realize some of these songs of his—like 'Everything But Love' or 'The Quest'—that I've been playing for years."
After finishing work on this album, Jeff Bridges concludes that there are strong connections between his two passions of acting and music-making. "There are more similarities than differences," he says. "They're both very collaborative, you're working with different artists, but there are also solo aspects in the writing and the practicing. You prepare, and then you let go and give it up."