When Jeff Bridges phones, its apparent he’s on the road — possibly en route to the ESPY Awards ceremony for which he will serve as a presenter that evening — the crackle and hiss of a tenuous connection threatening to drown out his familiar and at-once-welcoming drawl.
The voice is there, though, punctuated by cool, casual utterances of “Yeah, man” that immediately call to mind the role he has become synonymous with — the bowling, White Russian-swilling slacker nicknamed “The Dude” from the Coen Brothers’ cult classic “The Big Lebowski.” Then, a moment later, the voice is gone — swallowed up by the road and replaced, on the other side of the receiver, by a hesitant patter of “Hello?” and “Are you still there?” and “Can you hear me, now?”
And suddenly the interviewer realizes he is caught up in a pseudo cellphone commercial with an Academy Award-winner. And Starman. And “Tron” designer Kevin Flynn. And Bad Blake.
“I might go in and out,” Bridges, 64, says. “We’re kind of going through a sketchy area right now.”
He apologetically breaks from the interview to confer with his driver, ensuring that they are headed in the right direction, the ambiguous landmark of the Santa Barbara veterinary hospital hanging in the balance.
“Alright,” he’s heard happily validating the man behind the wheel. “You know where you’re going.”
For as laid-back as Jeff Bridges sounds, the Dude is in control.
Such attention to detail extends to all facets of Bridges’ career, particularly his music, which he will share with Birchmere audiences on Aug. 31.
The song has long been in the entertainer’s heart, from 1980s-era jam sessions with his “Heaven’s Gate” co-star Kris Kristofferson to his recording debut in 2000, “Be There Soon.” But it wasn’t until his acclaimed performance as a charming country music star chasing demons and his fading celebrity in the 2009 film “Crazy Heart” that the actor dove in feet first, and hasn’t looked back. He released his self-titled follow-up to “Be Here Soon” (not to mention the bestselling soundtrack to “Crazy Heart”) in 2011 with Blue Note Records/EMI Music Group, and embarked on a tour with his band, aptly named The Abiders in tribute to his “Lebowski” catchphrase.
“They’re all guys from Santa Barbara. Dear friends, who have been together for — God, what? Four or five years, now,” Bridges said. “My music director Chris Pelonis produced — with Michael McDonald — my last album ... He put this band together. They’re the cream of the crop.”
This month’s Birchmere performance will be one of the band’s first along the East Coast, nestled in among stops in New York and New Jersey as part of a summer jaunt that kicked off on June 20 in Las Vegas.
“I’m so excited about it,” Bridges said. “We’ve gone to California and Texas. The West — New Mexico, Arizona, Seattle, Oregon and Washington. This will be the east side. We’re really excited about that. We’re heading out to Nashville, too. A dear friend of mine, John Goodwin, who writes a lot of songs for our show, [is going to be there.] We’re looking forward to the whole tour.”
To Bridges’ most recent album, frequent collaborator Goodwin contributed a trio of tunes that alternate between sweet, somber and sweeping — “Everything But Love,” “Maybe I Missed the Point” and “The Quest” — perfectly complimenting the performer’s subtle delivery. It’s synchronicity; arguably lightning in a bottle, which, not surprisingly, Bridges sounds laid-back about, too.
“Just kind of an openness and, of course, talent,” he said in regard to what he looks for in a creative partnership. “Johnny, my friend — he and I have been collaborating since I was a kid. T Bone Burnett, too. That’s a nice collaboration. You know, just kind of a looseness and a talent.”
Openness and looseness and, of course, talent — all were readily evident on June 26 during an all-star benefit concert for “Austin City Limits” in honor of the series’ 40th anniversary. The sold-out concert, which will be broadcast as a two-hour primetime special on Oct. 3, took place at The Moody Theater in Texas. Hosted by Bridges and Sheryl Crow, the concert boasted performances from luminaries such as Kristofferson, Jimmie Vaughan and Bonnie Raitt. Burnett, who has been a longtime confidant of Bridges’ and shepherded the score for “Crazy Heart,” was scheduled to appear but had to cancel due to a family emergency.
But for Bridges, the event was yet another chance to remember a beloved colleague.
“It was terrific,” Bridges said of the benefit. “Especially because it allowed me to pay tribute to my dear friend Stephen Bruton, who died shortly after [“Crazy Heart”] came out.”
Bruton, who died in 2009 following a years-long battle with cancer, crafted much of the music for the film alongside childhood friend Burnett. For Bridges’ latest recording, he penned the raucous opening number “What a Little Bit of Love Can Do.”
“He was an incredible guitar player,” Bridges said.
Throughout the course of his musical rediscovery, it seems Bridges has been surrounded by all of the right people, at all of the right times.
Some, perhaps, a bit closer than others.
On Aug. 31, he and The Abiders will be accompanied by singer-songwriter Jessie Bridges, 31, his daughter.
“Oh, it’s so much fun,” he said, a beaming smile imagined in his lilt. “Jessie is a wonderful songwriter and has been for quite a few years, now. She’s really taken off. She knows what she wants. It’s really fun to work with her and to have her on the tour.”
Bridges promises a third album is in the works — a live project which he hopes to release this year, and while his on-stage antics are never more than a guitar pick away, he continues to entertain on the big screen, as well.
He takes on the title role in “The Giver,” opening nationwide today and based on author Lois Lowry’s acclaimed dystopian tale. The film is a passion project, of sorts, for the actor, who originally envisioned the part being played by his dad, the venerable, late actor Lloyd Bridges.
“It’s a movie I have been working on for about 18 years now,” he said. “Originally, I wanted to direct my father in it. ... I’m glad that the Weinstein Company and Walden Media finally picked up on it. It was a great experience. I got to work with Meryl Streep and a group of really wonderful young actors. So I’m looking forward to it.”
It’s a testimony to his adaptability that despite his salt-of-the-earth, guitar-strumming goings-on, Bridges remains a fix throughout the fanboy community, with projects such as “Iron Man,” the 2015 swords and sorcery entry “Seventh Son,” and continued talks of a possible return to “Tron.”
For his part, Bridges says he keeps in touch with Steven Lisberger, the saga’s original director, but his knowledge of sequels extends no further.
“I always hear rumors about it,” he said. “I don’t know, maybe it will come out and I won’t be in it.”
It’s a tragic thought. Somewhere, there’s a country song to be written about that.