Kiefer Sutherland – Yes, the Actor – Is Playing Outlaw Country, and It's Not Bad

Kiefer Sutherland brings his outlaw country act to Boulder's Fox Theatre on Wednesday, May 10.
Beth Elliot
Kiefer Sutherland brings his outlaw country act to Boulder's Fox Theatre on Wednesday, May 10.
Few words will make a music fan cringe more than “actor turned musician.” And with good reason. From Keanu Reeves’s Dogstar to the Steven Seagal Blues Band and, more recently, the hilarious debacle that is Corey Feldman & the Angels, the results of these projects are rarely anything more than excruciating. Leave it to Feldman’s fellow Lost Boys alum and Jack Bauer himself Kiefer Sutherland to at least put the brakes on the trend.

The man who currently portrays a president we wish we had on Designated Survivor released his debut country album, Down in a Hole in August, and while nobody is claiming that he’s the next Merle Haggard — or that he should quit thwarting fictional terrorists and focus on his twangy guitar work — he’s certainly not embarrassing himself.

Rather, Sutherland has taken the approach of opening himself up to a public that previously only really knew his characters. We adore Jack Bauer, David Powers in The Lost Boys, Doc in Young Guns, and, most recently, President Kirkman in Designated Survivor. But our knowledge of Sutherland himself has been limited. He’s never been one to soak up tabloid attention. He was actually considered a fairly private dude until he took on this dual career.

We were invited to sit in on a phoner press conference with Sutherland. These things are always a bit weird. A bunch of writers get to hang out on the phone and listen as we’re called on, one after the other, to ask one question each, and we’re all hoping we get called on before the time runs out. It’s far from ideal, and it certainly doesn’t afford us the opportunity to get to know the interviewee at all. But, hey, it’s better than nothing. Plus, we have to deal with people asking questions like, “What would Jack Bauer do?”

But Sutherland has been surrounded by showbiz and the press since birth, initially thanks to beloved father Donald. He knows this game, and he plays it like a pro, hitting one question after another like the bases are loaded. And right now, he has to. He basically has two careers, running simultaneously, both thrusting him into the public eye. You’d think he’d want a break, take a weekend or two off and chill with the family rather then hit the road and perform his country tunes for a few hundred people at venues across North America. Not the case.

“The experience of playing the live shows and the touring ended up being the thing I love the most,” Sutherland says, directly to us. “You have to understand — I really loved writing the record and loved making the record, but the touring woke something up in me. If something matters to you, you just figure out a way to do it. I’m sure I’ve taken a couple of years off of my life because I haven’t taken a break, but for right now, this is exactly what I want to be doing – so you just figure out how to do it. It’s hard to explain, but I feel so lucky to have had this opportunity. The last thing I’m gonna be able to do is complain about the hours.”
In fact, Sutherland says that touring ended up being one of the most exciting experiences of his life, once he was able to get over the initial, and very natural, nerves. While acting and singing share the common thread of storytelling, the two art forms are very different when you’re actually out there doing them.

“At the beginning, I doubt that anything made me more scared,” Sutherland says. “It ended up becoming a full new way for me to partake in telling a story about something. That’s the driving force of what excites me about working as an actor as well. In many ways, it’s transferred over to the acting. I think I approached Designated Survivor with a more open sensibility than I have done before. It’s re-energized me in a creative way.”

At fifty years old, and having achieved so much success on the big and small screens as an actor, it’s perhaps natural that Sutherland would look for a fresh challenge. And while some might say that he was born into a position of privilege and doesn’t have much of an insight into blue-collar life, he’s loved and lost like the rest of us.

“I spent a lifetime playing characters,” he says. “When I started writing, the things I would draw on were the personal experiences I had gone through. Like anybody else, they were very general things. Loss of love, finding love.... I’ve unfortunately, over the course of my life, lost some really good friends way too early, so I would write about that. The only song on the record that is really not a personal story is called ‘Shirley Jean,’ which is about a man’s last night before his execution. I never kept a diary in my life; this ended up being that for me.”

While Sutherland’s music is clearly country at its core, with outlaw elements borrowed from greats like Willy Nelson, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, he’s also pulled from the songwriters that he considers the best, including Tom Petty, and Elton John and Bernie Taupin.

Sutherland says that he’s aware of the stigma actors face when going a musical route. How could he not, with Corey Feldman doing the same thing right now? But he’s also aware that, if he’s honest with the audience, if he writes from the heart and tempers his expectations, he stands a better chance than most. As of now, he’s doing just fine, and he’s already working on his second album.

“I don’t know if my family will like it, but whenever I start writing about personal experiences of mine, I started writing about personal experiences of my family,” he says. “I don’t know how appreciative they’re going to be of that. We’ll finish this tour, then I’ll go back to Toronto and start Designated Survivor again. Maybe we’ll start finishing up the second record, and hopefully have it finished by spring.”

Kiefer Sutherland, with Rich Brantley, 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 10, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, 720-645-2467.