Guitar Aficionado

Kiefer Sutherland Finds a New Role with His Country-Rock Album

The actor gets up close and personal with his debut album, 'Down in a Hole.'
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This is a feature from the November/December 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on Jerry Garcia's famed Doug Irwin Tiger and its encore appearance with Warren Haynes and the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration, Scott Tennant’s project that brings together Andrés Segovia’s guitar and the master’s unheard works, electric guitar pioneer Charlie Christian and his impact on the instrument’s importance, the annual Guitar Aficionado Holiday Gift Guide and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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HONKY TONK HERO: When writing, recording, and performing songs for his debut country-rock album, Down in a Hole, Kiefer Sutherland decided the best approach was to get up close and personal.

By Chris Gill | Photos by Tina Picard

It’s difficult to imagine Kiefer Sutherland ever being intimidated. After all, he’s the actor who portrayed Jack Bauer, one of television’s greatest badass heroes of all time. Yet when Sutherland was 19, he had a daunting experience that caused him to suddenly abandon something he had loved dearly for most of his life—playing the guitar.

“I had already been working as a professional actor for quite some time before I moved to California when I was 17,” Sutherland recalls in his luxuriously husky voice (the man could read Kardashian tweets and make them seem like Steinbeck). “But playing guitar was something that I always had in the back of my head. If my acting career didn’t take off, I would have been very happy pursuing a career making music instead. Then when I was 19, I met Jude Cole and heard him play. He was an absolutely stunning guitar player. I thought to myself, Well, if you’re not able to play like that, don’t play at all. I literally put my guitar under my bed for two years.”

Shortly after that, Sutherland started landing high-profile acting roles that included Ace Merrill in Stand By Me and David in The Lost Boys, so he never really needed to rely on music to make a living from that point onward. Regardless, his passion for playing guitar remained irresistible.

“Over time, I pulled the guitar back out and started playing again,” Sutherland says. “Jude and I became friends, and he helped me out a lot with my playing. I was always very nervous and shy about my guitar playing because I was friends with Jude and a lot of other professional and studio guitarists that were genius players. I didn’t feel comfortable playing in front of those people.

“What helped me get over that was when I started to write my own songs. Then I could play guitar parts for those songs the way that I wanted. My guitar playing took another jump at that point.”

While Sutherland wrote numerous songs over the years, he tucked most of them away while he offered a handful to performers he thought were a good match for his material. Sutherland and Cole opened a recording studio called Ironworks in Los Angeles’ Silverlake area, which soon inspired the duo to form their own record label with the same name in 2002. That experience caused Sutherland’s songwriting skills to blossom.

“Several different artists came through Ironworks, including Rocco DeLuca and the Burden, Billy Boy on Poison, and HoneyHoney,” he explains. “They all wrote songs in very different ways. It was interesting to see how they worked. When I saw these other writers and how they approached songwriting, I realized I could use different approaches. Before that time, when I was writing a song everything had to come at once, which is not a very prolific way to write. But after that I started to take one little piece from one song and another piece from another until I came up with an idea that I liked and could structure something around it. That was a really long process for me, but in the last few years I’ve managed to write a lot. Now I try to allot time to songwriting every day.”

Sometime in 2015, Sutherland decided to show some songs he had recently written to Cole. As before, his initial intention was to pitch these songs to other artists, and he wanted Cole to work with him on the demos. However, the more songs he recorded with Cole, the more the two of them thought Sutherland should consider recording his own album instead. Over time, those demos turned into finished recordings, and the end result was Sutherland’s debut album, Down in a Hole, which was released on August 19.

“All but one of the songs on this album were very personal and based on experiences from my own life,” Sutherland admits. “Because of that, I think I may have been hesitant to give them away to someone else. These songs are almost the complete opposite of what I do as an actor, where I’m hiding behind a character.

“I put a band together,” he continues, “and played about 70 shows before the album was released, mostly in small venues and bars—some of these places held as few as 200 people. Before playing the first shows, I thought that the fact that I had worked as an actor for 30-some years was going to help me as a performer, musically. It was actually the opposite. That was shocking for me. I was going onstage and saying, ‘When I was 24, I had my heart broken. I wrote this song about it almost 15 years later because I hadn’t completely gotten over it and I wanted to get that out somehow. After writing this song, I felt better about it.’ And then I would play that song. I was telling a very personal story that I wouldn’t have even told someone in an interview. To go onstage and actually have to open up as myself and peel back a curtain, if you will, completely reinvigorated how I approached my acting. The touring re-energized and refocused things that I wanted to do as an actor. I was really surprised by that.”


At Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, May 31, 2016

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Down in a Hole is a refreshingly honest country-rock album reminiscent of the work of several of Sutherland’s favorite country artists, including Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. Songs like “Not Enough Whiskey” and “Calling Out Your Name” come from the same lyrical well of lovelorn desperation as Waylon and Willie’s most soulful Outlaws moments. Other songs, like the rocking guitar-driven title track with its extended dueling guitar solos, or “Going Home” and “Gonna Die,” which could be mistaken for long-lost Tom Petty gems, have more of a roots-rock aggression than a countrified twang. Ace session musicians like guitarist and pedal-steel player Greg Leisz, keyboardist Jim Cox, and drummer Brian MacLeod—as well as Cole’s own multi-instrument prowess—provide expert backing with a rough-and-ready vibe that perfectly complements Sutherland’s smoky, dusky vocals and driving rhythm guitar work.

While the album may be a stark and decidedly mature contrast to the bro-country and slickly produced pop-inspired tunes that dominate country radio today, “Not Enough Whiskey” was considered bona-fide enough to earn Sutherland an invitation to perform at the Grand Ole Opry on May 31, 2016. “It was an amazing experience,” Sutherland recalls. “The Opry is the church of country music. To be invited to do something like that meant the world to me and the band. It was also the only time that Jude and I have ever played onstage together. It was special on so many personal levels.

“Apparently some people from the Opry had seen my show and really enjoyed what we were doing,” he continues. “CMT was also playing the video for ‘Not Enough Whiskey,’ and the support we got from them seemed to justify the invitation. What I really enjoyed about that venue was the incredible sense of community, which was like going back in time. Every band was so excited and supportive of whoever was playing next. We were the only first-timers there, but all of the other artists sincerely wished us to do well. That started from the first moment we walked backstage through the moment we walked onstage and off again. There is a sense of community that I haven’t experienced in other dealings in the music world or in the film world. It’s always reassuring when I come into contact with that. And it’s really sincere. That’s what impressed me the most.”

Over the years, Sutherland has earned a reputation as a discriminating guitar collector. His collection of Gibsons alone was so impressive that the guitar maker approached him about collaborating on an “inspired by” signature model, which resulted in the Gibson Custom Shop KS-336 Kiefer Sutherland model, introduced in 2007. Just like his guitar playing and songwriting skills, Sutherland has Jude Cole to thank for inspiring his collecting obsession as well...

This is a feature from the November/December 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on Jerry Garcia's famed Doug Irwin Tiger and its encore appearance with Warren Haynes and the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration, Scott Tennant’s project that brings together Andrés Segovia’s guitar and the master’s unheard works, electric guitar pioneer Charlie Christian and his impact on the instrument’s importance, the annual Guitar Aficionado Holiday Gift Guide and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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