On Saturday morning (Sept. 29), Leon Bridges woke up in Montreal after playing a sold-out gig the night before. Two flights and a brief drive later, Bridges was checking into his hotel in Austin, Texas by 4; by 7, he was on a modest stage on the bank of the Colorado River, where a crowd of approximately 10,000 -- one that would swell to five times that size before the end of the night -- was closing in during a brief sunset soundcheck.
He ditched his dark denim jacket for a baseball jersey with Texas embroidered in script across the front, and by 9:30 p.m., he was standing side-stage as his band took their places. He looked out over the grounds of Auditorium Shores -- or as far as he could, as the glare from the spotlights blinded him to the masses behind them -- before he took a deep breath and danced toward his microphone.
It was hardly a day off, even if his touring schedule said so. But considering how close Beto O’Rourke, a Democratic congressman from El Paso, is to unseating Ted Cruz, the incumbent Republican senator, in the upcoming midterm election, Bridges was all too happy to take that detour home to Texas and show up to support the underdog on the night of his biggest rally yet.
“This is not just another show,” said Bridges in the lobby of his hotel before the performance. “I really put this performance in high regard. I’d even say this is more important than maybe my whole tour.”
Two weeks prior, the soul singer and Fort Worth native threw on a “Beto For Texas” t-shirt, snapped a photo and posted it to social media. The caption announced that he would be joining other Texan musicians playing the rally on Sept. 29 -- including Willie Nelson, who headlined the event and drew ire from conservative fans for backing O’Rourke.
“Have you been asleep?!” he says, chuckling when I bring up those who, apparently, did not realize that Nelson -- the pot-smoking outlaw country star and founder of Farm Aid, an annual concert to raise money for farmer’s staring down staggering mortgage debts -- would side with the progressive candidate. (He notes that the feedback he received on his own social media posts for the endorsement was overwhelmingly positive.)
Unlike Nelson, who’s long since made his liberal leanings known, Bridges had previously avoided overt discussions of politics or endorsing a particular politician, in his music or otherwise. His debut album, 2015’s Coming Home -- which made him quick favorite on the late night TV circuit and scored him a coveted Saturday Night Live debut that December -- favored a timeless resonance, one less anchored in the present than the gospel-shaped inflections and low-lit romance of old-school R&B.
The real world seeped into his creative one with the 2016 music video for “River,” the Miles Jay-directed visual that paired the stripped-down spiritual with a powerful Black Lives Matter message. His sophomore effort, 2018’s Good Thing -- which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 -- has a soulful spine and a current backdrop, one that further explores his experiences living as a black man in America while staring directly into its complexities.
“I get asked, ‘Are you ever going to make political music like Kendrick Lamar?’” he says, referring to the Compton rapper as one of his heroes. “I believe I should do it because it’s the right thing to do. But with me, it’s easy to see a problem, but it’s even harder to translate that in a song… you look at songs like ‘Bad Bad News,’ and that just implies that America wasn’t built for people of color to succeed. ‘Bad Bad News’ is a celebration of being a black man to break past barriers and do something amazing by the grace of God.”
It’s one of the reasons why he worked “Bad Bad News,” and “River,” into his brief set at O’Rourke’s rally. “The way I crafted it, I wanted to make the most impactful jams in the short time that I have,” he says.
Bridges was a fitting opener for O’Rourke, and sang through tracks off Coming Home and Good Thing as “BETO FOR TEXAS” and “VIVA BETO” signs were passed from the stage to the back of the crowd. The “don’t wear the T-shirt to the gig” rule was apparently suspended at Auditorium Shores, as there were too many Willie Nelson and Beto tees to count. (Nelson himself wore a Beto shirt.)
O’Rourke has been serving the people of Texas as the state representative for the 16th congressional district since 2013 -- the year Cruz was sworn in as junior senator -- and was a member of El Paso’s city council before that. Bridges met him at a benefit event last summer. Since then, he’s noticed not only an uptick in interest in Texan politics on his news feed -- Dallas friends were vocally thrilled when Bridges signed on for the Austin rally, he notes -- but on a national level.
“I just don’t think people would be as involved if it weren’t for Trump being in office,” he says. “I think it’s important to exercise our right to vote. I look at my grandmother, who had to sneak out of her mother’s house to vote during Civil Rights because my grandmother wouldn’t let her vote out of fear, out of something bad happening. I think the government can be flawed, but problems can’t fix themselves -- and I think it’s important we support people like Beto.”
Throughout his campaign, and especially before the crowd in Austin, O’Rourke’s approach has been radically inclusive. Few Democrats would declare “Republicans: you’re in the right place!” in the middle of an impassioned speech with genuine sincerity, when sarcasm and spite are obvious and justifiable instincts, and that’s exactly what he did when he reached his crescendo at the rally. The prison industrial complex and disproportionate rate of incarceration for people of color, the economic hardships and environmental plight facing Texan farmers due to global warming, the status of Dreamers, immigration, the wall (which Trump wants built on Texan soil), family separation at the border (that Trump’s administration continues to carry out on Texan soil), universal healthcare, affordable education peaceful protest, the Second Amendment and gun control are all topics O’Rourke is eager to roll up his sleeves and unpack -- with the press, with constituents, with his opponent.
On Sept. 20, O’Rourke made a point to bring up the majority of these in his first debate against Cruz; in Austin at the rally before introducing Willie Nelson, he did it again, and the optimism and intent of his questions left Bridges awestruck: “He’s a very passionate person.”
“What if we decided that we’re going to get behind every single one of our world class public school educators, and pay them a living wage so they don’t have to work a second or third job just to make ends meet?” O’Rourke shouted, cheers filling in the space when he’d pause to catch his breath. “What if we said, that those kids, when they graduate from the twelfth grade, cost will be no object to their ability to continue to get an education and better themselves so they can do better than every single one of us? What if we have the backs of our farmers, and our ranchers, and our rural communities, who grow the food and the fiber that feed and clothes not just Texas, not just this country, but so much of the world?”
This genuine concern for Texans -- all Texans -- and the day-to-day stressors that impact their daily lives is what brought O’Rourke to every single one of the state’s 254 counties to meet those living far from his native El Paso, and farther from the reaches of metropolitan areas like Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin. This is why Bridges signed on to do this, travel day from hell and demanding schedule be damned. He threw on a vintage-inspired Texas jersey -- one he picked up in Austin the last time he was in town -- on the chance that he could convince someone on the fence to brave the crowds and hear O’Rourke speak on a Saturday night.
“It shows his love for Texas and, honestly, what it boils down to, that’s the reason I support him,” says Bridges of the congressman’s commitment to listening to voters across the state. “I’ve never been a political person, but I stand 100 percent behind someone who’s going to be an advocate for minorities and the poor, and someone who’s going to help create jobs and bring affordable education to Texas and beyond that.”
The deadline to apply for an absentee ballot in Texas is 11 days before Election Day (Nov. 6), so Bridges has a little time to square his away, as he’ll be a few dates into the next European leg of the Good Thing tour by then. (The deadline to register to vote in Texas is Oct. 9.)
That’s the top item on his to-do list, though, as being a part of the rally and seeing how engaged O’Rourke’s crowd was has reiterated why he threw his weight behind the candidate in the first place. And it was a good, good thing at the end of a week full of bad, bad news.
“I felt like I was transported to the ‘60s on some Woodstock vibes,” he said. “It’s driven me to pay more attention to what’s going on in this country. One of the reasons why I haven’t been huge on politics is because it seems very complex to me. There’s so much happening that’s moving so fast. It’s hard to have an opinion about everything. I need to digest it first and sometimes I don’t even know how to articulate that in an argument. It’s driven me to just pay more attention and educate myself more about what’s going on.”