Kiefer Sutherland, country singer: 'This is what I want to do with my life'

A sometime rancher, lasso expert and record label owner, the star of 24 has taken on his most creatively risky project – but it’s not so different from acting

Never mind that Down in a Hole, the debut album one of country music’s newest artists is releasing later this summer, is the product of a traditionalist’s love of the genre’s hard-bitten, gravelly voiced storytellers. Or that the singer-songwriter behind it has penned a set of tunes about hard living and miles travelled that sound perfect for cheap honky-tonks – and maybe even the purists in the audience at the Grand Ole Opry.

When the craftsman is Kiefer Sutherland, some things have to be taken on board. Like the critics who will see this as a vanity project: the idea that the 49-year-old actor can successfully refashion himself as a bona fide country troubadour. Or the possibility that some of the fans who come to his shows – he’s been on the road playing a string of intimate dates in the US and Canada in support of the forthcoming album - won’t be able to help seeing Jack Bauer in a cowboy hat staring back at them from the stage.

Even so, this is the creative leap the TV and film star has decided to take, reintroducing himself to fans with a guitar slung around him and belting out throwback country-style tunes in an unpolished voice that gets the job done. That random audience members at times have proclaimed their fandom of Sutherland’s fictional terrorism-fighting agent from the crowd, some even yelling out requests for him to deliver Bauer’s signature “damn it” catchphrase, well, that’s just another indication this is a singular kind of country act.

“We’ve played close to 100 dates in the States so far, and I’ve always made a kind of joke about it,” Sutherland tells the Guardian. “If you want to take our show and make a comparison, it’s like a Nascar race. Some people go hoping they get to see a crash. Our job is to give them a good race.

“I’m aware of the stigma attached to actor-musicians,” he adds. “I promise you, every time I hear someone talk about an actor doing this, my eyes roll in the back of my head, too. For me, though, this is something that is absolutely imperative to what I want to do with the rest of my life.”

Sutherland clarifies that he is not suggesting that he will say goodbye to the TV shows and films where his grizzled tough guy with a low, menacing purr of a voice is so intrinsic to shows such as 24 and ABC’s Designated Survivor. In the latter, a new political drama hitting screens this fall, Sutherland stars as a low-ranking cabinet member who becomes the president after a crippling attack.

Sutherland is also interviewed in AMC’s new documentary series The American West, which chronicles the sweeping industrialization of the late 1800s as well as larger-than-life characters such as Wyatt Earp and Jesse James.

Sutherland started a record label 20 years ago.
Sutherland started a record label 20 years ago. Photograph: Beth Elliott

The through-line that Sutherland says links all those projects, along with his new identity as a touring country singer and fledgling recording artist, is his love of storytelling. Which is why from his noodling around on a guitar that stretches back years and his longtime love of a particular brand of country songwriting – think Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson – has emerged a surprising new identity that represents perhaps his most creatively risky yet personally satisfying project yet.

It’s also one that puts him in the company of actors such as Ed Helms, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner and others who’ve dabbled in music to various degrees – and with varying degrees of success – after making it in acting.

“I got into country music in the early 90s,” says Sutherland. At the time, he was something of a competitive cowboy on the United States Team Roping Championships circuit for a time, and he also ran a ranch for almost a decade.

“I was roping on a competitive level, and I was travelling around in a pickup truck with really world-class cowboys, and I started listening to a lot of country music, because that’s what they were playing on the radio,” Sutherland says. “Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, all of those guys with the first-person narratives who took on those characters. That was the same thing that appeals to me about acting. It was the first-person narrative thing that country does that you don’t really find in rock’n’roll.”

Sutherland remembers playing the guitar as a teenager. He increasingly bottled up the hobby, though, the more he met people – such as his best friend and music partner Jude Cole, a songwriter and producer - whom he considered “real” instrumentalists.

But his interest in music remained. And in 2002, Sutherland and Cole launched a small record label called Ironworks to record and distribute music by local musicians. Sutherland eventually moved on, but something about being around young, hungry bands lingered, and by 2015, he was playing his own compositions to Cole.

Sutherland’s thought had been to record the songs as demos for other artists to use. Cole, however, thought Sutherland ought to keep them for himself. They wrote some songs together, and eventually there were enough for an album.

A flurry of activity followed. They got an album in the can. Sutherland took to the road with a band, and earlier this year he was a presenter at the 51st Academy of Country Music awards show in Las Vegas. Eventually, the title track from Sutherland’s album, Not Enough Whiskey, was released in April. The video opens with a shot of Sutherland’s tattooed arm switching off a radio as a steel guitar sets the mood and Sutherland gets dressed, eventually taking a swig of the titular liquor.

Whether it’s good or bad, Sutherland says he’s not bothered by the critical reception. “It’s gotten to the point, now that I’ve done these songs and an album, it’s like, if somebody wants to be nasty, go ahead,” Sutherland says. “I don’t care. That’s probably why I didn’t put out any music 30 years ago. I wasn’t prepared to say I don’t care. I have to be honest, the audiences have been phenomenal. The experience has been amazing. But I get it. And it’s really important to me for anyone to understand – I’m not trying to sell a million records or sell out stadiums.

“It’s about playing to 200, 300 people a night and telling a story. The ability to do that has changed how I want to approach acting and everything else. It really does live in the same place for me, and it’s not something I have any intention of letting go.”

Contributor

Andy Meek

The GuardianTramp

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