“I had no intention of making an album. I hear about an actor wanting to do music and my eyes roll back too,” he tells PEOPLE exclusively with a grin. “I’m completely aware of the stigma and that’s why I never did it.”
Until now, that is. Despite his apprehension, Sutherland, 49, is embarking on a second career in music with an intensity and dedication that would make Jack Bauer, his alter ego from the hit TV series 24, very proud. Sutherland’s debut album, Down in a Hole, releases Friday. The video for his new single, “Can’t Stay Away,” recently premiered on CMT’s Hot 20 Countdown.
“People have asked, ‘Oh, what girl is that about?’ It was never about a girl,” Sutherland says of “Can’t Stay Away.” “It was about a bar up the street, walking in the wrong direction when I should be walking home. There was a period, for better or worse, I spent a lot of time there around 2002 or 2003.”
Seated in the office of his Nashville publicist, wearing jeans and a fitted, charcoal gray V-neck pullover, Sutherland is warm, friendly and possesses a self-deprecating sense of humor. He’s obviously passionate about music and anxious to discuss Down in a Hole. He co-wrote every song on the 11-track album with longtime friend/producer Jude Cole.
Sutherland credits Cole with encouraging him to record his own album. His original intent was to pitch the songs he’d been writing to other artists to record.
“I went up to Jude’s studio to record them and we did two songs in the first couple of days,” says Sutherland, who is also starring in Designated Survivor, a new ABC series premiering Sept. 21. “At the end he said, ‘I really like your songs and they are clearly yours. You should do them. You should make a record.’ I laughed at him and said, ‘That’s never going to happen,’ and somehow we had a few drinks and at the end of that night, it seemed like a better idea.”
He continues, “We ended up recording a couple more, always with the caveat that if I didn’t like the way it was going, then we’d just send them off to someone else and see if they’d want to do them. It wasn’t until we were about four or five songs in that I started to get a sense of the shape of what we could do as an album.”
Music has always been part of Sutherland’s life and he started writing songs at 15.
“Music was something that I became really seriously attached to as a really young person because I had an older brother who I idolized and he was the biggest music fan in the world,” he tells PEOPLE with a grin. “I just wanted to be exactly like him. I made the joke that I was probably the only third grader that was listening to Aerosmith, so country music was not the music that I certainly grew up on.”
Sutherland fans got a taste of his debut album when he hit the road this spring for an extensive tour.
“We didn’t play any major markets,” he notes. “We played Birmingham, Alabama, Sellersville, Pennsylvania, Wilmington, Delaware and other cities. 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, didn’t play L.A. We didn’t play Chicago, Nashville and Austin. We’ll earn our way to those spots.”
Sutherland enjoys life on the road. He spent 10 years traveling the rodeo circuit as a team roper and says the life of a touring musician suits him.
“The nicest moments I’ve had have been after you play a show. You get back on the bus, go to bed, wake up the next morning and you’re in a new town,” he tells PEOPLE. “Everybody else is off the bus because they don’t sleep as well as you did on the bus. You hop off and step outside with a cup of tea and a cigarette. ‘Okay, here we are today.’ It makes you feel like a kid. It’s just that exciting for me. That’s been something that I really, really enjoy – waking up in a new town every day.”
Sutherland is also excited about portraying Tom Kirkman in Designated Survivor, a man who assumes the presidency after an explosion kills the President and all members of the Cabinet.
“David Guggenheim wrote a script that was incredible. There’s a parallel that you can draw from Designated Survivor to 24,” he says.
“You are dealing with a guy who is faced with an unbelievable circumstance that has to be better than he is, so there’s common ground there on some level. What this show affords me that 24 didn’t, as opposed to running and chasing and finding out who the bad person is, it deals much more with the political ramifications of what would happen if our government ceased to exist. How do we re-stabilize the country? What is important to this country? How does it affect this country on a national level? How does it affect the rest of the world on an international level?”
He continues, “By virtue of that story, there are amazing discussions to have that clearly on the most bizarre election cycle of my lifetime, that discussion needs to be had. So I’m very excited about the show. It’s an extraordinary cast and I’m very hopeful for it.”
Sutherland plans to continue his music career even as he films Designated Survivor. “We’ll still tour during the show, we’ll just be able to do about four or five dates a month,” he says. “We don’t ever intend to completely stop. There’s going to be some navigation required, but we are going to do it.”