By the time you first heard of Leon Bridges, it felt like you were the last person on Earth to have done so. The 27-year-old from Fort Worth, Texas, started his career in a slingshot. After gaining some buzz on the local music scene, one of Bridges’ songs, the megahit “Coming Home,” was posted on a local music blog called Gorilla vs. Bear. It was listened to more than 100,000 times within 24 hours. Shortly afterward, a gaggle of record label executives gathered in a small Texas bar to listen to the kid live. When he was finished, they nearly gouged one another’s eyes out for the chance to sign him. Columbia Records ended up winning, and now — with an official catalogue of music barely longer than an episode of Seinfeld — Bridges is one of music’s hottest newcomers.
On August 11, President Obama released a playlist of songs he was digging. Bridges’ track “Smooth Sailin’” made the cut.
The softspoken throwback soul singer has had a year that, if portrayed in a movie, would make a viewer scoff: Pssh, yeah, right; this kid’s music made it onto the president’s desk in 14 months. Let’s go watch Will Smith kill some aliens.
It’s all been such a whirlwind that we haven’t really had time to pause, take a moment, and ask just why, exactly, we like Leon Bridges. Because, make no mistake, we like him. His success has been earned, owing no thanks to hashtags or scandalous music videos. You won’t catch Bridges on TMZ anytime soon. He hasn’t taken any of the cultural shortcuts many stars opt for these days.
So what is all the love about?
Perhaps it’s easier to begin with what it’s not about. Leon Bridges did not become Leon Bridges from raw talent alone, and that might sound like a dig, but it's honestly not.
As a vocalist, Bridges certainly stands out. His voice is deep and rusty but rose-petal soft all at once. It feels like Bridges found it in a thrift store, gave it a good once-over, and then swallowed it whole with a shot of bourbon and honey. But is it mind-blowing? Not exactly. At least, not in an immediate way, like when Frank Ocean melted thousands of pairs of underwear with the godly falsetto in the chorus of his breakout hit “Thinkin Bout You.” Most first-round American Idol castoffs boast a wider range, vocally speaking.
So what else?
His guitar playing? Hardly. Bridges has admitted to a casual acquaintance with his axe. His mom bought him his first guitar in college, a friend taught him a few simple chords, and these days he uses it as a gentle supplement, strumming along with a finger-picking technique that can kindly be described as lazy.
How about his songwriting?
We’re getting closer. Bridges prefers a storytelling method when he pens his songs, opting for the simple and straightforward: a little about me, a little about where I’ve been, a little about where I’m going. It’s kind and honest but not groundbreaking. We’ve seen it before.
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So, Leon, why do we love you? Here goes nothing:
Because we believe him. Because he’s genuine and authentic and has been, according to just about every source, his entire life. Bridges’ throwback vintage style isn’t a marketing stunt. In high school, Leon Bridges wore his grandfather's coat almost everywhere he went and brought home his first pair of high-water pants from a thrift store. His mom told him he looked "like Urkel,” but Bridges didn't seem to care. When he started to gain traction as a musician, the obvious comparisons to Sam Cooke came flooding in. And Bridges kindly and graciously accepted them, but there was one problem: He’d never even heard of Sam Cooke. He had to Google the soul singer.
When we see bands like Mumford & Sons take the stage in overalls and knitted coats, looking like they just opened for a jug-blower in a 1934 Oklahoma dust bowl, it’s so painfully obvious their look is the result of a team of PR professionals and stylists working to create a focus-group-tested aesthetic. But with Leon, it feels different, like he would be doing it regardless of whether any of us — the president included — were listening. And that sort of authenticity is rarer than a glass-shattering voice or otherworldly musicianship. It can’t be taught or cultivated. It has to come from the soul.