Shooter Jennings – Nevermind the O, here’s the W
The cover of Shooter Jennings’ debut album, Put The ‘O’ Back In Country (more on that title shortly), depicts a vinyl LP in a yellowed inner sleeve. To the left of the spindle hole is a stylized letter W, the longtime logo of his dad/mentor, the late Waylon Jennings. It accentuates an undeniable sense of continuity, of picking up the torch from Waylon’s death in 2002. “To the minute he died,” his son says, “he wanted to cut another record.”
Today, Shooter and his band, the 357’s, are at CBGB in Manhattan readying for a soundcheck. He’s running late when he phones, yet sounds focused and confident. Two years ago, he dissolved Stargunn, the Los Angeles rock band he led for six years, to reconnect with his country foundation. For he and his Stargunn bandmates, those roots became too strong to ignore.
“I’d be writing songs and referencing country things and they’d all say, ‘That don’t make any sense!’ and they were right,” he admits. “When that band broke up, we had a posse and circle of several hundred people that just disappeared. You got to see who your real friends were.”
It was another grade level in the ongoing musical education of Shooter, who was born Waylon Albright Jennings in 1979. The child’s presence helped his dad kick a stubborn cocaine habit.
Shooter spent much of his pre-adult life touring with his parents (his mother is singer Jessi Colter, best-known for “I’m Not Lisa”). Longtime Waylon sideman Richie Albright taught him drums. When Waylon began composing children’s poems, Shooter’s declaration — “they look like songs to me” — resulted in Waylon’s 1993 kids’ album Cowboys, Sisters, Rascals And Dirt.
Waylon imparted ample musical wisdom, including the essence of the Outlaw philosophy. “He always told me, ‘Creative control and artistic freedom — as long as you got that, you’ll have everything. The minute you’re afraid to try something new, you should just pack it up and go home.'” Today’s producer-driven Music Row, where “everything sounds the fuckin’ same,” Shooter declares, is an obvious regression from Waylon’s ethos, yet he views neither himself nor Waylon as alt-country.
“I like traditional rock ‘n’ roll and traditional country,” he says. “I like to mix that all in there and get that rowdiness out there.” That blend, which permeates his album, is one his pal Hank Williams Jr. pioneered on his groundbreaking And Friends album nearly 30 years ago. Jennings speaks of it as “the first time that rock and country got bridged in that way. Every song on that record blows my mind.”
Shooter’s album was recorded a year ago at producer Dave Cobb’s newly built Los Angeles studio. Jennings used guitarist/steel guitarist/harmonica player Leroy Powell, bassist Ted Kamp and drummer Bryan Keeling on the sessions. Today, they make up the 357’s.
“They’re the best southern rock country band I’ve ever heard,” Jennings boasts. “We go out there, have a good time, try to do it the real way ’cause there ain’t no other way to do it.” Cobb, he says, “wanted to get that kind of feeling where it was real raw, emotional — about the vibe of the record and not perfect takes.”
Not surprisingly, Jennings focuses on direct, uncomplicated story-songs. “Busted In Baylor County” recounts the band’s real-life Texas pot bust. The title song, a battle cry against Music Row conformity, features a cameo by George Jones, a family friend. The tune gets its tag from Carlene Carter’s notorious performance at New York’s Bottom Line where she loudly proclaimed, “Let’s put the cunt back in country!”
Jennings shopped the completed album to several labels; Universal South head Tony Brown responded positively. “Tony was the only one that said, ‘I’m gonna put it out just like it is,'” Jennings explains. “He’s the best, man. He believes in that creative control, and that’s been a blessing because we’ve been able to do what we want to do — write the songs I wanna write.”
The next album, he says, will be “even more along the lines of Outlaw — more traditional. It’s gonna have a lot of that southern rock mixed in.”
This November, Jennings plays his dad in Walk The Line, the film tale of Johnny Cash’s life up to his 1968 marriage proposal to June Carter (starring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash). During their pill-popping younger days, Waylon and Cash shared an apartment.
“I’m only in three scenes,” Shooter says. “It was pretty wild because it was easy to relate to all the situations at the apartment him and Johnny lived in — pretty damn close to the apartment I lived in with my buddies a year ago. So it was kinda surreal. Joaquin and I started to roll with it.”
As his mother records a new album with Don Was producing, Jennings vows to continue his dad’s vision for another generation. “I know there’s that audience out there that was the same audience that listened to his music,” Shooter says. “They didn’t care about boundaries. And that’s exactly what I want to do. He taught me and trained me and I’ll work as hard as I can till I’m dead.”