Having another string to your bow is probably the expression to use here. Actors who sing are not so rare. Actors who make a genuine claim to be treated as a singer mid-career however is certainly something that isn’t done too often. John Travolta did rather well with ‘Grease’ and David Soul had a few hits here in the UK during his seventies ‘Starsky and Hutch’ days.
More recently, Gwyneth Paltrow has demonstrated that she can hold a note and Joaquin Phoenix did a fine job in ‘Walk the Line’. Sutherland has gone a stage further. He has released an album that deserves to be treated solely on its musical merits. This isn’t someone who has used his fame on the big screen to open a few doors. He has moved in more traditional circuits.
His love affair for country music goes back a long way. He founded Silverlakes Studio Ironworks in 2002 with Jude Cole, a singer songwriter, producer and manager. It was part studio and part storage for Sutherlands immense guitar collection. They invited musicians to use the studio and a label was gradually developed.
The ideas for this album began to form at least 6 years ago but Sutherland didn’t feel it was the right time to push them at that stage. He admits to be aware of the stigma that comes from actors releasing music but states that he has reached a point in his career that he now doesn’t give a damn. All he asks is that the album is treated on its merits
He recently said that the record was “the closest thing I’ve ever had to a journal or a diary. There is something very satisfying about being able to look back on my own life, good times and bad and express those sentiments in music”.
It follows that Sutherland has co-written all of the 11 tracks on the album. If the attempt is to refashion his career no one can suggest that he isn’t taking it seriously.
Forgetting who he is and treating the music on its merits, the overall impression is favourable. This album deserves the generally favourable reviews and the plaudits that it has received in the week since its release. His raspy vocal delivery and lack of any obvious studio enhancements gives this album an earthy, almost live organic sounding atmosphere.
His influences are rooted in the south but there are significant variations. Sutherland appears willing to express the full range of country music from bluegrass to southern rock.
The opener ‘Can’t Stay Away’ is a mid-paced rocker that he performed on The Jimmy Kimmel Show. This is the chance to be full on Rock and Roll with its screaming electric guitar and is likely to be the next single.
Things get a little more interesting lyrically on ‘Truth In Your Eyes’. A lament to a departed loved one the heavy guitars are replaced by a gentle pedal steel and an incredibly catchy chorus.
It gets very interesting with ‘I’ll Do Anything’. Three songs into the album and the realism dawns that we are not dealing with an actor on an ego trip. We are actually listening to a talented country singer songwriter who has produced some very fine songs. Gentle drum beats and subtle backing vocals complement Sutherland’s delivery which is easier on the ear than on the rock-leaning songs.
The first single ‘Not Enough Whiskey’ relates to the emotional turmoil of a failed relationship and the need for alcohol to deaden the pain. We guess partly autobiographical bearing in mind Sutherland’s well documented battles with demon drink in the not so distant past. This is a subject that is also dealt with in ‘Going Home’ which essentially tells the story of a booze-fest and the less than glamorous side of alcoholism.
Sutherland’s ups and downs have certainly contributed to him being able to tell us a story. His appeal for country music stems from the first person narrative style of song writing. He has spent most of his life playing characters, now he has the chance to play himself.
There is a bluegrass feel to ‘Shirley Jean’. It tells the story of an inmate approaching the death penalty and reminiscing about a lost love, but is told with a waltz beat. An album highlight. Its bleak subject matter is dealt with in an up-beat country fashion with significant slide guitar overlays.
Sutherland’s country-rock vocal style returns on the title track ‘Down In A Hole’. It’s a full-on southern rocker that has an element of blues influence with its hammond organ insets and extended guitar solos. One for the honky-tonks where Sutherland has fine tuned his music.
He has toured extensively in the States over the last year. Almost 100 dates so far. He is certainly in this for the long haul. There have already been Grand Ole Opry appearances and networked TV slots so the movie star name has opened doors that would have remained shut to another 49 year old country singer making his first album.
Let’s not be too harsh however. Sutherland’s late introduction to country music is a welcome one. This album could easily have been met with raised eye brows and indifference. The fact that it has been warmly received and accepted as a mainstream country album is due to the quality of the song writing and the credibility afforded to Sutherlands voice.
He might not care about the bad reviews and has publically stated that he is not looking to sell a million albums or sell out stadiums. The comfort of recording a labour of love without the pressures to succeed is rare and difficult to replicate. Sutherland is uniquely placed to deliver without pressure and has done so handsomely.
An unexpected well-rounded and finely produced album.