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Jeff Bridges Abides, in or out of Character

When it comes to music, Jeff Bridges is not some dilettantish actor noodling around with a guitar. Inspired by Bob Dylan and the Beatles, he and a friend would play hootenannys at L.A. clubs like Ledbetter's while still in high school. Years later, while filming the infamous 1980 western Heaven's Gate, Bridges met a couple of co-star Kris Kristofferson's musician buddies from Texas: Fort Worth natives Stephen Bruton and T. Bone Burnett.

That friendship culminated almost 20 years later with Crazy Heart, which won Bridges a Best Actor Oscar for his role as down-but-not-quite-out singer Bad Blake and former Austin singer-songwriter Ryan Bingham a Best Original Song statue for "The Weary Kind."; it couldn't help but renew Bridges' interest in his own musical pursuits as well. Over the phone, though, he comes across much more like his bathrobe-Zen character from 1996 1998 Coen Brothers classic The Big Lebowski, who might have even been a musician himself. Rocks Off was lucky enough to pick Bridges' brain last week while he waited for someone to bring his car around one California morning.

Rocks Off: Did you have a musical hero growing up? Jeff Bridges: Well, the first guys that come to mind when you ask that question are Bob Dylan and the Beatles. My brother Beau, who's eight years older than I am, he turned me on to the early rockers: Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry and Little Richard, those guys.

What about now? Now? Gosh, who comes to mind? A lot of my favorites are guys that I know who are slightly obscure, like my dear friend John Goodwin; we go back to the fourth grade [and] I play a lot of his tunes in my set these days. I got a buddy Benji Hughes, I play a few of his tunes. He's got a wonderful album out you might check out called A Love Extreme. But, you know, I love Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, a lot of guys. I've got pretty eclectic tastes.

The conversation turns further toward roots music, Hank Williams -- "A lot of guys don't think of Hank Williams as kind of a rocker, but I don't think that was the case," he notes -- and Bridges' fateful meeting with T-Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton while filming Heaven's Gate.

Jeff Bridges: Kris Kristofferson, who starred in that movie, invited a lot of his musical buddies like Norton Buffalo and Bruton and Bone. We used to jam a lot in those days.

That must have been quite a crew. Oh, it was amazing.

You're in so many movies -- how do you even have time for music? Or do you just make it? Well. Gosh. You know, Crazy Heart really set fire to my music, and I figured if there was ever time to get a little bit more serious about it and make an album, Crazy Heart really fueled that fire. And T-Bone was up for making an album, so we made an album after Crazy Heart [2011's Jeff Bridges].

And then when there's not a movie in the air, I'll look to my band the Abiders; we're all local Santa Barbara guys. I love getting together with them and playing local shows and getting gigs from time to time.

What were the circumstances that led to Crazy Heart? T-Bone and I have kept up our friendship ever since Heaven's Gate. He did all the music for Lebowski, and we worked together not long ago on a thing called A Place at the Table, about hunger here in America. Crazy Heart, I was given the script quite a while ago and I turned it down originally because there was no music set to it. No matter how good the story was, there was no good music [or else] that movie wouldn't have worked.

And then I ran into T-Bone and he said, "What do you think about this Crazy Heart script?" I said, "Oh, you read that? Are you interested?' He said, "Well, I'll do it if you'll do it.' I said, "Oh, let's go, man." But there was no music. We had to figure out what the music was going to be from the get-go, so that was kind of exciting. And Bruton was very involved in the movie. It's dedicated to him. [Bruton passed away in May 2009.]

Interview continues on the next page.

Was working with T-Bone on Crazy Heart similar at all to the way you would work with a director on a movie? JB: Uhhh...yeah, there are similarities. Certainly. One that comes to mind is [how] T-Bone did a wonderful thing for me. Bad Blake is supposed to be from Fort Worth, where Bruton and T-Bone are from. T-Bone gave me a list of all the music that he listened to growing up, which was music that Bad would have listened to. It was a very eclectic kind of mix.

It wasn't just Hank Williams and Merle Haggard, it was Ornette Coleman, who's also from Fort Worth, of course Dylan and the Beatles and Leonard Cohen, all those guys. So when we were putting all the music together, he wanted to kind of create a kind of alternative universe - something that wasn't exactly what we think of as country, but something that maybe alluded to that but wasn't copying those guys.

Was there ever a moment when you thought Crazy Heart might not get quite as big as it did? Yeah. We were fortunate enough to have Scott Cooper as our writer and director. It was his first film that he directed, and he was so talented and skilled at that. It was a wonderful environment for all of us to work. From the very beginning we thought, "Oh, this is going to be cool." But you never know how a movie's going to turn out, creatively and artistically or financially, successfully putting [people] in theaters.

Then all these elements started to fall into place, with T-Bone and Stephen, Scott Cooper, Maggie Gyllenhaal was so great [and] Colin Farrell was so great. Fox Searchlight was our distributor, and they did a brilliant job of getting the movie out. All those elements came together and we hatched a good one, but you never know. One of those elements could have fallen out and the thing could have fallen apart.

And also we've got to mention Ryan Bingham, who wrote "Weary Kind." That was making Bone real nervous. We had to get that song and Ryan, who was originally cast as an actor in the film, came over one day and said, "Hey, I wrote this song -- maybe it'll work in the movie." I remember that day when we listened to that cassette tape, and the big smile on T-Bone's face - the sigh of relief, knowing that we had our tune.

Not just Bad Blake, but how closely have you personally identified with the musician roles that you've played? Oh, quite close. I love music. Another movie that comes to mind is The Fabulous Baker Boys. I'm a big fan of [jazz pianist/composer/arranger] Bill Evans, who was kind of my role model for that particular film.

Do you think the Dude might have been a musician at some point in his life? Oh, the Dude picks, I would imagine. I can see him playing an old Dan Electro or something, with a little Princeton amp. We should have had that on the set.

Jeff Bridges & the Abiders play Warehouse Live Saturday night with Run Over Twice and the Vinyl Ranch DJs. Doors open at 8 p.m.


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