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.”


Andy Meek

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Designated Survivor review – Kiefer Sutherland winds up president of cliche
The juicy premise of a lowly politician becoming president after a terrorist attack is mostly squandered in a pilot episode filled with hammy dialogue

Brian Moylan

21, Sep, 2016 @9:14 PM

Article image
Post your questions for Kiefer Sutherland
Toilet breaks, vampires, presidents and country albums: what do you want to ask the actor and musician about?

Rich Pelley

13, Jan, 2022 @4:58 PM

Article image
Kiefer Sutherland review – off-duty star turns country outlaw
Jack Bauer puts on his cowboy hat and uncorks his cask-aged vocals for a gleeful, low-key acoustic set of self-penned songs

Graeme Virtue

08, Apr, 2019 @8:56 AM

Article image
Nashville: the country show that's larger than life
With its array of strong women and willingness to tackle taboos, Nashville, which returns to US TV on Wednesday, is like country music that takes a few risks

Mark Guarino

16, Mar, 2016 @5:00 PM

Article image
24 - Live Another Day review: Kiefer Sutherland is a mesmeric presence
Jack Bauer's on the run, again, but this time he's in London. And it's still as exciting and addictive as ever, writes Sam Wollaston

Sam Wollaston

07, May, 2014 @10:00 PM

Article image
Kiefer Sutherland: ‘My greatest fear is of being humiliated’
The actor and singer-songwriter, 51, on being a twin, playing his first gig and growing up in a political family

Interview by Emma John

14, Jul, 2018 @12:59 PM

Article image
Country Music: how the Ken Burns series celebrates the outsider
In a 16-hour overview of the genre, acclaimed documentarian helps to reframe conversations about inclusivity

Jonathan Keefe

24, Sep, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
Kiefer Sutherland review – trading his Glock for a guitar for a show of grizzled authenticity
The action star’s whiskey-sodden country music set is genuinely poignant. He puts other Hollywood hobby acts to shame

Mark Beaumont

23, Jun, 2017 @12:30 PM

Article image
Kiefer Sutherland: ‘Anyone can be president. That has good and bad sides’
In Designated Survivor, the 24 star is a new US leader thrown in at the deep end. As a second season starts on Netflix, he talks about art imitating life

Vanessa Thorpe

23, Sep, 2017 @11:05 PM

Article image
Hail to the Kief! Sutherland is still TV's best action hero – even as President Dadbod
He may not be tortured terminator Jack Bauer any more, but in his post-24 reboot, Kiefer Sutherland is warmer, cuddlier – but still just as good in a crisis

Graeme Virtue

17, May, 2017 @3:43 PM