Arts & Culture

Fort Worth’s Leon Bridges is the music man of the moment

The website Grantland summed up Leon Bridges’ South by Southwest experience in just eight words: “Watching Leon Bridges Get Famous in Real Time.”

There is no more succinct way of describing the Fort Worth-based singer-songwriter’s whirlwind showing in Austin last week.

The man and his music were seemingly on everyone’s lips, and his final showcase of the festival, an intimate performance at St. David’s Episcopal Church, drew so many people it was very nearly shut down by the fire marshal.

The 25-year-old Atlanta native and Columbia Records signee earned raves from Billboard (“ Bridges was one of the small handful of acts that everyone you talked to seemed to have either been blown away by or crestfallen that they’d missed,” wrote Alex Gale) and The New York Times (“A voice steeped in Sam Cooke and a kindly stage presence that deserves to connect with a radio-friendly song,” wrote Jon Pareles).

That’s just a taste of what’s been written about R&B revivalist Bridges in a host of other national publications, a veritable coast-to-coast chorus of unanimous praise.

Even the festival itself bestowed an award upon Bridges, giving him the prestigious Grulke Prize for best developing U.S. act, intended for “artists who are breaking new ground with their creativity and show the most promise in achieving their career goals,” just days after SXSW concluded.

The prize includes a two-day recording package at the Sunset Marquis Hotel’s NightBird Recording Studios in West Hollywood, as well as a two-night stay at the hotel.

“The singer, whose sounds are a throwback blend of gospel and soul, has been likened to legends Sam Cooke and Otis Redding,” read a statement from SXSW organizers. “Throughout his many performances, he captivated attendees with his singular style.”

National TV debut

On Wednesday, Bridges takes yet another step, making his national television debut on CBS’s new Late Late Show With James Corden.

Given everything that’s happening to him — and the breakneck speed with which it is transpiring — it would be perfectly understandable if Bridges was a little rattled, a little frazzled or a little exasperated at the hectic pace of his burgeoning career.

After all, a year ago, the Tarrant County College graduate was working shifts as a busboy at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle in downtown Fort Worth, picking up gigs here and there — all but unknown outside Fort Worth music circles.

Seated on a banquette at Perla’s Seafood & Oyster Bar on South Congress, hours before his last SXSW gig at St. David’s, Bridges looks anything but unnerved.

He is calm, he is gracious — I’ve interrupted his late lunch of fried fish and red wine — and most of all, he is humble about the torrent of accolades tumbling his way.

“This is amazing,” he says, setting down his knife and fork. “The [people’s] reaction from all the music, recognizing me on the street — it’s amazing.”

Equally as astounding is watching Bridges go to work, as I did the day before at Willie Nelson’s ranch, during the annual Heartbreaker Banquet.

He embodies sheer effortlessness.

For someone in his position — newly signed to a major label, playing his first-ever SXSW — Bridges betrays absolutely no nerves. (“I was [nervous],” Bridges admits to me the next day. “This is all new stuff for me.”)

Backed by a seven-piece band, Bridges spun gold during his crisp 40-minute set, showcasing the familiar (Coming Home) alongside as-yet-unreleased tracks like Flowers, Pull Away and Brown Skin Girl.

“It’s such an honor to be out here right now,” Bridges said from the stage, but the pleasure wasn’t entirely his.

The chance to see an artist in ascendance — and watching him work the stage, his retro dance moves, stone-cold soulfulness and all, is to know that Bridges is bound for very big things indeed — is rare enough.

But at a festival built on so much promise, it’s all the more rewarding to see someone like Bridges fulfill and then exceed expectations.

“I’ve always wanted to come here,” Bridges says of SXSW. “In the past, I was like, ‘I’ll come down here and play some unofficial shows,’ so it’s cool to come here.”

Staying in Cowtown

As with most out-of-nowhere successes, none of this was planned.

A year ago, as Bridges was beginning to work with White Denim’s Austin Jenkins and Josh Block at Shipping & Receiving, a popular Fort Worth bar that doubled as the studio where Bridges recorded what would become his major label debut, the goal was simple.

“When we got into the studio, I wasn’t thinking about management, a label [and I] wasn’t thinking about a tour,” Bridges says. “I was like ‘Let’s make a record and see what happens with it.’”

What happened next is easy to trace.

Bridges caught the attention of Brooklyn-based Mick Management (which, coincidentally or not, also handles business affairs for White Denim) and in October, the tastemaking blog Gorilla vs. Bear posted the track Coming Home, at which point, Bridges says, things went “boom.”

His management told him around that same time he could go ahead and give his notice at Del Frisco’s (“They were real cool about it,” he says).

Bridges signed with Columbia Records on Christmas Day.

“It was hard to believe, like, wow, I was just in total shock,” he says five months after that initial Gorilla vs. Bear post. “Seeing all kinds of people from different festivals pick me up, seeing all the label interest [40 labels were reportedly pursuing Bridges] — I felt like I was dreaming the whole time.”

The reverie continues, as he prepares to release his major label debut, which will take its title, appropriately enough, from the track that changed everything.

Coming Home is due out on Columbia Records this summer, and Bridges will keep very busy in the meantime, touring with Lord Huron. That tour includes a stop at Dallas’ South Side Music Hall on May 10 and a headlining date at New York’s Bowery Ballroom in June, a concert that sold out in six minutes.

But amid all this seismic change, there is one aspect of Bridges’ life that will stay the same.

“I’m going to stay in Fort Worth for a long time,” he says, “because the studio is right by my house and Austin Jenkins lives there and he’s not going anywhere. He’s a guy I can lean on for creativity and parts and arranging songs, he’s my go-to.”

People are certainly a big part of the reason he’s not pulling up stakes and heading for New York, Los Angeles or elsewhere.

There’s also the sense that Bridges likes surprising audiences, along with the admirable desire, rather than selfishly absorbing his new-found fame, to reflect the spotlight back on his hometown.

“It’s cool that people are looking at the music and being like, ‘Wow, I never expected this type of music to come out of Fort Worth, Texas,’” he says. “So I want to shine light on some of my friends that I love and my inspirations that are in Fort Worth and Dallas.”

That gratitude extends to the hectic blur that was South by Southwest, a frenzy of performances, interviews and leaving town an even bigger deal than he arrived.

“Being able to do this for a living and continuing to grow as a musician is it,” Bridges says. “I’ve got a record that’s done that I’m satisfied with — I’m done; I’m here.”

Well, there is one more thing.

“I do need to meet Rosario Dawson, though.”

Preston Jones, 817-390-7713

Twitter: @prestonjones

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