Kiefer Sutherland on His Grand Ole Opry Debut, Meeting Merle Haggard & How Music Made Him a Better Actor

Kiefer Sutherland performs at the Grand Ole Opry
Beth Elliott

Kiefer Sutherland performs at the Grand Ole Opry on May 31, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.

Kiefer Sutherland has won an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a SAG Award and earned his spurs as a competitive team roper on the rodeo circuit, but last week he added an accomplishment that humbled him to the core when he made his debut Tuesday night on the Grand Ole Opry.

“The depth of humility I felt standing there was quite overwhelming,” says Sutherland, who is releasing his debut album, Down In a Hole, this summer. “It made the show go like a blur. It was over so fast. ... The audience was so incredibly gracious and the people backstage were so nice. It was such a huge experience. [I have] great reverence for the historical meaning of that place.”

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Though it was Sutherland’s first time on the stage, it wasn’t his first time at the Opry. “I was here directing a music video about 12 or 13 years ago and came to the Opry,” he says. “I was just sitting in the audience enjoying the music.”

When it came time to make his debut as a performer on the Opry, Sutherland wanted to deliver traditional country music. “They were the oldest-school country songs that we have,” he says of “Shirley Jean” and “Not Enough Whiskey,” which both appear on his debut album.

He concluded his set with a cover of Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down.” “I had had the pleasure of meeting Merle Haggard via Skype in Bakersfield three weeks before he passed,” Sutherland tells Billboard. “He was so generous with me in talking, and he wanted to give me a guitar, and I was embarrassed by that and said, ‘No, it’s just a pleasure to talk to you.’ He said, ‘When you get back, we’ll visit for awhile.’ I never got to say another thing to him, but I thought he would get a kick out of us singing one of his songs that night, so I wanted to do that.”

Sutherland admits he had heard so much about the Opry that he had high expectations -- and he wasn’t disappointed. “Everybody was so polite, but I knew that they would be. I had heard all that for years,” he smiles. “I had heard all about what a family that is. Everything I’d heard about it was true.”

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He says he was especially impressed with the camaraderie and support among the artists. “I’ve always been discouraged about the lack of community among artists,” he says. “When I hear the stories from my dad and my mom back in the '60s and '70s, artists really pulled together. They took care of each other. I think that is something that’s in decline, and it’s not in decline at the Opry. Every band is rooting for the other band to do well. Everybody was aware it was my first time being there, and they told me not to be nervous and all that stuff. It was great.

“And the audience was great too,” he continues. “We’ve been playing bars for the past year, and people are rowdy. They’ve had a bit to drink and are ready to have a night. This was an audience that was listening to the songs and was really attentive. That was a special experience for me.”

Sutherland has been touring extensively this spring and plans to continue to tour when he’s not filming Designated Survivor, the new ABC show he’s starring in which debuts this fall. “We didn’t play any major markets,” he says of the current trek. “We wanted to go to places where most people don’t stop by, and those people were incredibly generous to us. We didn’t play New York, L.A., Chicago, Nashville or Austin. We’ll earn our way to those spots.”

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Performing for a live audience is an entirely different experience from filming a movie or TV show, and Sutherland says the tour has informed his approach to acting in a way that surprised him. “When playing these shows, it required a level of openness I was maybe guarded against,” he admits. “There was something very freeing about doing it in the end, and when I went to go shoot Designated Survivor, I was more open with developing that character, and so there were more parts of me in it as opposed to my judgment of what I thought that guy should be. He was more human to me. That’s really what I took away from playing those live dates when I went to start shooting. I was surprised that it had that kind of a profound impact on me. I would have thought my 30 years of experience as an actor would have informed the touring, but it was the other way around.”

Sutherland enjoys life on the road in a tour bus. He and his band have given fans a taste of their tour through the eyes of Rockin’ Rabbit, a stuffed animal that was a gift from a fan. “You kind of expect you’ll go on tour and you’ll be crazy and have this crazy time, then you realize: If you’re going to do 36 dates in 42 days, that’s not possible,” he says with a grin. “So we let Rockin’ Rabbit have the good time and get into a whole bunch of adventures. We thought it was funny one night in a bar in Pittsburgh, and it took off from there. We tortured him ever since.”

When last seen on Twitter, Rockin’ Rabbit had retired from the road and taken a position as a TV remote caddy at a Ramada Inn, but Sutherland says he will likely return. “He’ll come back,” he laughs. “He’ll definitely be back.”

Sutherland is set to continue filming Designated Survivor next month, but plans to continue touring as his schedule permits and is also already working on his next album. “We’re not done, and I don’t expect to be done until I die. It’s something that’s ongoing,” he says of playing music. “It feels infinite. There’s no crossing of the finish line, and I like that. It doesn’t feel like a race. It’s a constant thing to move forward and get better at.”


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