Album Review: Family Man by Shooter Jennings
I sing the blues and I make rock ‘n’ roll
I might make jazz or punk or metal or r&b or soul
Either way I take the music that I make very seriously
Waylon Albright “Shooter” Jennings covers a lot of ground in the music world. His 2005 debut was titled Put the “O” Back In Country, but a few records later, in 2010, he released Black Ribbons, a rock opera concept album featuring Stephen King. If you listen to Electric Rodeo, his SiriusXM radio show, you might hear hard rock or hard-core country. Jennings has been a big supporter of XXX, the movement for non-mainstream country leaning to the rock side of the ledger. Some of it leans rather hard. As the Family Man press release says, Jennings has “done everything from sharing the stage with Alice in Chains to writing songs for the Oak Ridge Boys.” With that history, we had to wonder what Jennings had in mind when he formed a new band (The Triple Crown) and went into a Soho studio to record his new record, Family Man. As it turns out, he was thinking country.
Family Man is a first class country record, with a little bit of rock thrown in for good measure. Given the title and the family theme (over half the tracks have some direct or indirect reference to family), it is hard not to think of Waylon as you listen. This is particularly true with The Family Tree (quoted at the beginning of this piece), a song that references Waylon and includes an open response to critics, including those “hipster purists” and all the others who would tell him what to write, play and sing. Or what not to. “Every slick’s entitled to his slanted point of view,” he sings, while making it clear that he’s going to do it his way, regardless.
Jennings wrote Family Man’s songs on an acoustic guitar, then turned them over to The Triple Crown to flesh out. The new band is the result of his reunion with keyboardist Erik Deutsch (here’s a recent interview with Deutsch). Also playing on the record are The Mastersons (Chris Masterson on guitar/vocals and Eleanor Whitmore on vocals/mandolin/fiddle) as well as Tony Leone (drums), Jeff Hill (bass/vocals), John Graboff (pedal steel/mandolin/guitar/vocals). Mickey Raphael also sits in with his harmonica, to great effect.
Track one, The Real Me, is honky-tonk Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The way the song is put together gives us a pretty good idea of what Jennings is up to with this album. The good-humored lyrics include a chorus you’ll have trouble figuring out without a lyrics sheet, and you can forget about singing along. Later, there’s a bridge that changes pace, with Jennings singing “I’m mean when I’m lonesome, I’m lonely when I’m high,” finishing with “I’ll chase that nightmare until I die” and then repeating that line, and then again, the last time almost at a shout, making you think he might take this whole thing somewhere outside the boundaries. Then John Graboff smokes us with a steel guitar solo and we’re in a classic country jam. Chris Masterson adds some electric guitar, reminding you that it ain’t all classic country. It’s all there in the first cut, a near-pop country song with a musical interlude that says, no, this song is something more, I am something more. This is the real me.
The first single of the record is The Deed and The Dollar, a real country love song without sappiness (I’m paraphrasing a tweet from my buddy at www.FarceTheMusic.com on that observation, but I agree with it). Deed solves the problem of rhyming dollar, hollow, follow and collar just fine, thank you, which by itself should credential the song as authentic country, even if it was recorded in NYC. Here’s the video:
My favorites on Family Man are Summer Dreams (Al’s Song) and Daddy’s Hands. Summer Dreams is a wistful tune about the frustrations of modern life in the city. “Gonna throw this ol’ phone off the downtown bridge, leave my briefcase on the train.” As a country boy who often wears a suit in this world of iPhones and laptops, I can relate, and can’t help but get the feeling that Jennings has chunked a phone or two or at least given it some consideration. Daddy’s Hands is poignant, while maintaining the sense of humor that’s so important as we navigate the tough times. The illness of fiancee Drea’s father during the previous Christmas holidays caused Jennings to reflect on that experience as well as all the time in hospitals with his own dad. “Spent New Year’s Eve in a hospital bed, Daddy’s sick but he’s far from dead.” The song is less about avoiding death than delaying it, a theme so many of us have dealt with as our grandparents and parents age. “Daddy’s hands just kept getting older, reminding us how much we don’t know. . . . Come on, Daddy, one more Christmas, it ain’t your time to go.”
Family Man is musically sophisticated without being showy. The members of The Triple Crown have seen their share of rodeos, and as a band, they sound like they could do anything. Jennings shows great restraint as producer, deploying this incredible talent where and when needed, giving us an album that works very well sonically. With lyrics that move from accessible rhymes to more complex structure, sometimes in the same song, Family Man hooks you and keeps you interested. The result is a great record, great in the ways that records used to be great: impeccable musicians playing well on a variety of songs that work well together.
Family Man releases March 13 on Black Country Rock.