Jack Bauer swaps against-the-bomb-timer assassination thwarting for country music? Excuse us if we don’t yeehaw to the rooftops. Russell Crowe, Keanu Reeves, Kevin Bacon, Bruce Willis and Johnny Depp have collectively set the bar for trad-leaning Hollywood hobby albums ridiculously low – they’re the musical equivalent of comedians knocking out godawful novels.
At least Kiefer Sutherland, touring his debut country album, Down in a Hole, has a legitimate grounding in his chosen genre. Turned on to country and western as a rancher and competitive lassoer in the 90s, the boy sure can rope a goddanged steer. His immersion is pure method, too – he arrives wearing a saucer-brimmed hat and skewiff neckerchief, looking like the Lone Ranger after a lifetime of bad choices, sipping whiskey and dropping “y’alls” like no British-born Canadian movie star really should. He turns his grizzled, lived-in baritone to authentic songs of truck-stop romance and hard drinking; I’ll Do Anything is a dreamy vision of finding unexpected love close to home(stead), while the drowsy, malt-sodden waltz Not Enough Whiskey and Going Home, a dirty-heeled country noir about passing out drunk in a Tokyo gutter at 4am, have him falling into the arms of Jack Daniels when it all goes wrong.
When he namedrops Johnny Cash, it isn’t facile window-dressing. Sutherland proves himself a skilful southern gothic storyteller on Shirley Jean, a convict spiritual that lends a sympathetic lilt to the tale of a young death-row inmate writing a letter to his lover on the eve of his execution, and his impressive band kick up a tribute cover of Merle Haggard’s honky-tonk The Bottle Let Me Down so vigorous you can smell the sawdust and shotgun grease.
As Kiefer spins yarns of boozy nights and childhood escapades – notably, the night his father, Donald, reeled in drunk with his trousers torn and, unable to mend them, “painted his ass black with boot polish” – it’s clear that country is the gentle blade that cuts closest to the dark dramas at his heart. That much is evident in Truth in Your Eyes, a devastating ode to an unnamed lover lost too young, and how the ovation that greets gravel-throated ballad Calling Out Your Name, about his first heartbreak, brings genuine tears to his eyes.
Add dashes of modern trucker rock on the new track Rebel Wind and Mark Lanegan-style doomy country on All She Wrote – all hangman guitars and Satan taking a turn on bass – and you have the first Hollywood hobby act unshackled by convention and with a real shot at greatness. Dammit.