If there's one sound that represents North Texas music around the world this year, it has to be the alternately soothing and urgent voice of 26-year-old Crowley soul singer Leon Bridges.
In recent months, Bridges has been the talk of the South by Southwest music festival, played the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, released his debut record and wowed many a TV audience with exquisitely arranged R&B tunes like "Coming Home," "Smooth Sailin'" and "River."
The incredible buzz only continues to build as Bridges makes his Saturday Night Live debut this weekend (UPDATE: scroll down to see Saturday's performances) and looks ahead to Monday's Grammy nomination announcements. "Coming Home" was featured in an iPhone ad, and he's got a song in the Will Smith drama Concussion, which could conceivably land Bridges an Oscar nod early next year.
If you haven't tracked his appearances and press mentions, you might be wondering how Bridges came to have such a breakout year. The singer (born Todd Bridges) wasn't simply an unknown restaurant busboy plucked from obscurity, as some oversimplified profiles suggest.
"I'd always loved soul music as a kid, but it wasn't until I was about 23 that I started to go down that path," he said.
Bridges started writing and singing more in that style, playing open-mike shows and song swaps whenever he could -- even taking a guitar outside to sing for passers-by.
"It's funny when people say, 'He doesn't deserve what he has now because he wasn't working long for it,'" Bridges says. "They don't know about the time I spent in the street busking. A lot of folks wouldn't even do that."
Yet Bridges is rarely outwardly bothered by such misconceptions when you talk to him about his success. His bandmates, manager and friends will tell you that it's Bridges' humility and quiet confidence that have helped him navigate the wild ride so gracefully.
A lifelong music fan who started learning guitar at 21, Bridges realized that his voice and his songwriting sensibility lent themselves well to a classic midcentury soul sound, the kinds of music Sam Cooke and Otis Redding helped make popular decades ago. When he wrote the song "Coming Home" in his bedroom, "I just wanted to paint a picture of faithfulness in that setting of classic soul music."
The singer gave plenty of musical performances around Fort Worth in the last few years, but August 2014 was when everything shifted into overdrive.
"It has been an incredible year," says Bridges' manager, the New York-based, Houston-rooted Jonathan Eshak of Mick Management. "I've been managing artists since 2003, helping out with John Mayer and Ray LaMontagne among others, but Leon's rise has been exceptional."
"There's a trajectory to it that almost reads like some fake history timeline," says Bridges band member Austin Jenkins. Indeed, Bridges' sudden ubiquity has prompted a few rumblings that he's overexposed, the latest in a long line of hyped-up media darlings.
Those who have been there with Bridges since before he broke out see his success as a hard-earned transition from local-music struggles.
The big change started to come, naturally, at one of the open mikes Bridges played to gain more performing experience. The singer befriended Sam Anderson of the Fort Worth band Quaker City Night Hawks and asked Anderson if he might grab a spot between regular sets of Anderson's band at Magnolia Motor Lounge.
Bridges borrowed Anderson's guitar and took the stage during a break, accompanying himself on a stirring original that was still a work in progress. Anderson was blown away by the clarity and strength of Bridges' voice.
"It was a little bit of a rambunctious crowd, but as soon as he opened his mouth, I think everyone shut up -- this beautiful R&B-soul voice cut through everything," Anderson says. Soon, "people were coming to see him play between our sets as much as they were coming to see us."
It was around the same time that Jenkins, a member of the critically acclaimed Austin band White Denim, had become friends with Bridges and bonded with him over their mutual affinity for retro-style Wrangler jeans. He didn't realize that Bridges was a fellow musician until he walked into Magnolia Motor Lounge during one of those Quaker City Night Hawks shows.
"He was up there playing solo," Jenkins says, "kind of workshopping his original material as he went. Most people are frightened at the prospect of doing that, but he seemed really fearless."
When Bridges stepped off the stage, their talk now focused on music.
Jenkins and Josh Block, his White Denim bandmate, were setting up a recording studio space in an old golf supply warehouse in Fort Worth, a space next door to the Shipping and Receiving bar. They'd christen the joint Niles City Sound and fill it with classic recording equipment and gear that would help them and Bridges achieve an authentic sound to match his singing and songwriting styles.
Bridges enlisted friends to sing backup for him, including Brittni Jessie. "The music we were making was refreshing, from this guy who looked like he came out of a time capsule," she says. "And to this day I still never tire of singing his songs with him."
As the recording sessions continued at the Fort Worth studio in late 2014, Eshak became Bridges' manager and began hatching a strategy to get his music in front of record labels. They agreed on showcase performances for interested agents and labels in both Fort Worth and Nashville, but they also reached out to Gorilla vs. Bear, a world-famous taste-making music blog that happens to be based in North Texas.
The Gorilla vs. Bear bloggers' reaction was similar to Eshak's upon hearing Bridges' just-recorded demos: "They were like everyone else: 'What the hell is this and where is it coming from?'"
That's where the grind became significantly smoother for Bridges' management. Once Gorilla vs. Bear posted two demos, "Coming Home" and "Better Man," the calls started rolling in and interest peaked for the already scheduled label showcases.
"In about five minutes of them putting up the download, I had A&R guys and industry people emailing -- from both sides of the Atlantic," Eshak says of talent scouts and developers.
In October 2014, Bridges played what Eshak calls an "epic label showcase" in Nashville, one that ultimately resulted in him visiting and signing with Columbia Records.
Block at first didn't know how Bridges would handle the pressure. "Before he went on to start the show by playing 'River' solo, I looked at him to see if he was nervous and he was like, 'No, man, I'm fine.' And he got up there and nailed it."
Growing interest in Bridges was timed perfectly to his entry into Austin's South by Southwest in March. He was the most buzzed-about act there that week, and days after leaving Austin, Bridges and his new band -- including Jenkins and Block -- were making their late-night TV debut.
"It was emotional for me," Block says. "He went from zero to 60; seeing how White Denim had developed much slower, I couldn't even put myself in his place."
Before the debut album Coming Home even hit stores in June, Bridges had already appeared at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony alongside several greats, he'd visited The Tonight Show, and "Coming Home" had been used as the soundtrack for an Apple iPhone 6 ad.
Yet for Bridges, the pinch-me moments happened during live shows, in front of his growing fan base.
"Hearing a crowd sing my whole songs, that was just wild to me," he says.
His old friend Sam Anderson -- the one who let him borrow that guitar back at Magnolia Motor Lounge -- says Bridges has stayed grounded and comes back home to see friends and family as often as possible, given his schedule of around 150 live dates by year's end.
"He'll go to a little dive bar in Fort Worth and we'll all hang out," Anderson says. "You usually see him dancing in a crowd."
Jessie says it's remarkable how well Bridges has handled being away from his family, especially his mother, for whom the gorgeous biographical song "Lisa Sawyer" is named.
"He's doing really well with that," Jessie says. "I was in the same situation as him, sheltered and never having been out of the country, so it's nice to be able to experience it all with him."
Bridges has stayed true to his circle of Fort Worth friends and family. As he told interviewers on the red carpet for the recent American Music Awards, "I'm just trying to make it where my mom ain't gotta work no more. We're all trying to get that."
Six things to know about Leon Bridges
• Born Todd Bridges in Atlanta in 1989.
• Lived with family in New Orleans for a year as a baby before they moved to North Texas.
• Attended schools in Crowley, just south of Fort Worth, and studied dance briefly at Tarrant County College.
• Left college to work various jobs in Fort Worth, including busing tables at Rosa's Cafe and washing dishes at Del Fresco's Grille.
• Picked up a guitar and started learning to play at age 21.
• Chose the stage name "Leon" because he resembles Leon Robinson, an actor who played David Ruffin in the 1998 miniseries The Temptations.