Shooter Jennings wipes the sweat off his face as he sits down at an old piano on the sparse stage and begins to tinker out some boogie woogie notes for the crowd at One-Eyed Jacks in New Orleans. That simple act draws a round of cheers and whistles and the son of Waylon eases into “Wake Up” from his experimental 2010 album Black Ribbons. This is new territory for Jennings. Choosing not to cancel the show because of some unforeseen issues, he headed to the Crescent City after playing SXSW while his band headed on to the next shows in Florida. He has done solo before but never quite like this. It is just him, alone, except for the black guitar he whips into a frenzy during the first half of his set, and an old piano that the venue had on hand.
The young man is on fire as he roars through a heartbreaking rendition of Audioslave’s “I Am The Highway,” every ounce of his soul draining out through his pores and it leaves you completely speechless. If you think this outlaw progeny is all country and twanging steel guitar, then you haven’t been paying attention. Shooter Jennings has a hell of a lot more in his arsenal than following his parents’ straightforward path. His “All Of This Could Have Been Yours,” also from the Black Ribbons album, ventures into surrealism and he plays it in New Orleans with a bitter breathy longing. He is not your grandma’s country music.
Welcome to the world of Shooter Jennings, who sprang onto the scene with a true country soul and rascally rock & roll heartbeat. “4th Of July” brought him recognition as someone to watch on the scene and although he bleeds country he wanders astray to play in the rocker’s paradise with fierce guitars and prog rock mind-benders. This is definitely someone you can’t judge by one song alone. Leaving Nashville, he headed to LA and did some rocking with Stargunn before going back to his roots with Put The “O” Back In Country; following the metaphysical Black Ribbons he went back home with Family Man and now he has The Other Life, released on March 12th, featuring rockers like “The White Trash Song” and “The Gunslinger” amidst a lovely “Wild & Lonesome” with Patty Griffin, and the shit-kicking “Outlaw You,” which had originally been meant for Family Man but just didn’t quite fit in with the vibe even though it was actually released as a video and garnered tons of hoots & hollers.
So if you haven’t given Shooter Jennings a chance because his name conjures up images of a musical genre you think doesn’t know how to get down in the dirt, then it’s time to have your image readjusted to the REAL Shooter Jennings. Take some outlaw Waylon, mix in some sweet Jessi Colter, stir with a metal-studded spatula and spit it all out with a husky whisper and you’ve got a musician who will knock your socks off, especially live on a stage. He owned that small club in the French Quarter. With the sweat pouring off of him as he wailed through songs from his repertoire like “Gone To Carolina,” “4th Of July,” and his father’s “Lonesome, On’ry& Mean,” through new songs from The Other Life– “A Hard Lesson To Learn,” “The Outsider,” “The White Trash Song” and the title track -before coming to a rip-roaring end with the hell-raising “The Gunslinger,” Shooter Jennings knows how to put on a show; even with nary another musician in sight.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Jennings a few weeks ago while he was in Carolina making some music with friends. “I’m down here in Fayetteville, North Carolina, at this studio, Rebel Roots,” he told me while taking a break. “I’m down there with a bunch of cats. It’s JB Beverley, Jake Cox and a bunch of other artists and we’ve been working on some stuff.”
Are you recording with them?
Yeah, I came down here and JB Beverley, I don’t know if you know him, he’s a really great artist and I’ve been friends with him for a while .And I had a string of shows I was doing and I’ve been meaning to get down with him. So this guy named Buck Thrailkill, who owns this studio down here and always puts up bands and stuff, we kind of made a trip out of it and now we’re just going to hang out for a couple days and just write and record stuff and see what happens. Another guy named Husky Burnette, who is great, is down here too. So about six or seven different artists, all hanging out in the studio and we got a hog running around and all kinds of shit. It’s fun (laughs)
The Other Life is your new album but weren’t these songs originally supposed to be for your last album, Family Man? You had all these songs but then you kind of split them up into two albums. Why?
“Wild & Lonesome,” “The Other Life,” “White Trash Song,” “The Outsider” and “15 Million Light Years Away” were recorded during the sessions that we recorded Family Man in. When it was kind of coming together, I sent all the material to a friend of mine, this guy named Jay Frank who used to be programming head of CMT in Nashville and he is a good friend, and I sent it to him and he said, “Well, you should split this up and put it out in one year, two records in one year.” We kind of talked about that and the more time went by the more I kind of could feel which songs belonged on what record and whatnot. So really, some of the songs that I saved for this record were kind of my favorites. But I just kind of saved them and then went in and finished some other songs I was writing and we finished the record. It was kind of a cool different approach because I already had half the record done so I kind of knew what I wanted to fill in to kind of make the record what I wanted it to be; what kind of sounds and styles of songs and whatnot.
Right, because you put out “Outlaw You;”did the video and everything.
Yeah, that came out before Family Man. We put it on this album 'cause it actually never came out on a physical album and there were a lot of people still looking for it. I didn’t feel like it belonged on the other record but I felt like it fit pretty well on this one.
What finally aggravated you enough to write that song?Who pushed you over the edge?
(laughs) Oh man, it was just a bunch of these guys being all, you know; it really was just people, a younger generation not really knowing the outlaw thing, why they were called that, you know. You got all these young new country dudes that are Nashville corporate products kind of billing themselves as outlaws and stuff. To me, it was kind of a history lesson in the song, in a way. But I just got annoyed I guess (laughs) and then I wrote it. I wrote it when we were done with Family Man but it wasn’t coming out for a while and I just kind of wrote it and put it out there. And Jay, the guy I was telling you about, I sent it to him and was like, “What do you think about this?” and he was like, “Ok, here’s an idea for a video, shoot it this week and we’ll put it on CMT next week” and I was like, “Ok,sounds good to me.” (laughs) So that’s what it was. But really that song has been one of my more popular songs, I think,so I was just kind of happy to get it out.
I hear you don’t like to act but really all you had to do was walk down the street for the video.
(laughs) Yeah, it was pretty easy. It was about 102 degrees that day and the director, Blake Judd, who is a good friend of mine, it was our first project together, and he had to walk down the street backwards while we were doing it and getting the whole thing in one take. After about the fourth or fifth time walking down the street, it was like, burning up and everybody was just beat, you know.
Where was it filmed?
16th Avenue, Nashville, right down Music Row (laughs)
On The Other Life you sing with the wonderful Patty Griffin. How did you get her to sing with you on the track “Wild & Lonesome”?
I had done that song and around that time we were recording is when one of the Waylon: Music Inside tribute records had come out and the first one had Patty and Kristofferson doing “Rose In Paradise” and I just loved her voice so much and I’d been listening to that and in the moment I was like, “Hey, see if we can get Patty to do this thing” and she did. She sent it back with the vocals on it and I was like, “Well, damn, it’s awesome.” (laughs) It was a real honor to have her on it.
The title track has a really beautiful melody but at the same time it’s also forlorn almost.
(laughs) Right, well, it’s just a sad country song about love, you know. That’s the best ones. But writing songs, it’s like how you kind of get through things and you write them and get them out there and next thing you know it’s like you’ve got a bunch of either happy songs or sad songs. But that’s why I kind of think with Family Man, the songs like that fit on this record more than they did on the other one.
Why did you pick “White Trash Song” as the first single?
Cause I love that song. Steve Young is a writer and he wrote “Lonesome, On’ry& Mean” and “Seven Bridges Road” and “Long Way To Hollywood” and “Montgomery In The Rain,” all these beautiful songs. I’d become obsessed with him and somehow through the internet I ended up on his website and reached out to him and we became friends. He sent me his whole catalog and stuff and he became a very big influence on me, especially during that period I was just listening to him nonstop. And that song was a song that he wrote way back that nobody really cut and I just loved it and was hellbent on doing this song anyway. Then when we did, I had my buddy Scott H. Biram sing on it, which was awesome, and so when we were coming to put stuff out, that was always kind of like the thing I wanted to put out first; just cause it’s a really awesome kind of country upbeat jam and has a lot of energy and had always been one of my favorite tracks on the record that we recorded. So I thought it was a good taste of the record to get out there first.
You have some wonderful songs that are very haunting, like “All Of This Could Have Been Yours,” “Black Ribbons” and “Black Dog,” and they’re not really country. Where do you pull those kinds of songs from?
Man, you know, I like dramatic music a lot. Like, it’s funny, with “Black Dog” and “All Of This Could Have Been Yours” specifically, I wrote the lyrics to those songs first, without any music, and then kind of paired them with music, which I don’t normally do. I usually kind of write all at once. But in the case of that, I write on my Blackberry a lot and I wrote “All Of This Could Have Been Yours” just kind of stream of consciousness. It didn’t really have a chorus or anything like that and I kind of remember just sitting down at the piano and kind of building it and wanting it to feel very dramatic, like almost putting a soundtrack score to it as opposed to just kind of basic songwriting, you know.
Same with “Black Dog” a little bit. I wanted to come up with something that would be kind of creating a mood based around a lyric. So I was really happy the way they turned out. “All Of This Could Have Been Yours” is still one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever done. I love that record a lot but that song is still to this day one I’m real proud of.
With Black Ribbons you went in a new direction for you.
Yeah, in that case of that record it was like this fictional band so I could kind of do anything I wanted sonically; not that I can’t do that anyway but it was encouraged based on this set-up of it to just go crazy. I spent about six months building the music to that record before we even started actually bringing the band in and putting vocals down and stuff. We were really building the mood on that record. It was a blast to do.
Who did you like listening to when you were growing up? Because although you were surrounded by all this great country music, I’ve heard you were a rock & roll fan.
Yeah, you know, growing up Nine Inch Nails’ Downward Spiral was a huge record for me. That was probably the record that pushed me to play music because I was really into the way Reznor did records and the fact that he was doing it all himself was really a cool thing to me and inspiring. I was an MTV kid so I was watching MTV nonstop, like I had it on all the time. Rock & Roll for sure was my first love. As a kid, I really liked my parents’ music cause I was around a lot of that stuff and I liked it but it wasn’t till I got older that the lyrics in country music hooked me and I got it. After that I was kind of in love with that. It was kind of all over the place, you know, musicophile kind of geek. So I liked to collect records and bootlegs and all kinds of stuff. Why didn’t you stick with the drums? Why did you give it up?
Oh the drums? I still play them. I just actually played the drums for Wanda Jackson on Jay Leno a couple of weeks ago. I had put together the band for her and played drums with it and on a lot of the recording I have been doing lately, I’ve been playing drums. So I’m really into it and I was real bummed that I hadn’t been playing them a lot. So since last year I’ve been do a lot more drumming. Even on the thing I’m doing today I’m drumming. When you moved from Nashville to LA, how did you survive and not get pulled into the bad stuff?
(laughs) I don’t know if I didn’t get pulled into it but it didn’t win. It wasn’t that big of a culture shock, to be honest with you. I’d been visiting there and I loved it and even though it is like Hollywood, I was ready for it at the time. Nashville felt like a small city. I wanted to get out of that and go to a bigger city. I had a band, you know, and we all moved together. It was kind of one of those deals where, that’s where the real bands went in my mind, like with rock & roll and everything. So we just up and moved and never looked back. A lot of guys that moved with me moved back to Nashville, but I didn’t. I stayed.
What would you say was the most important thing that you learned from your dad about being in this business?
Well, he was always just like, “Be yourself.” His thing was, don’t try to fit into anything. And I think that always stayed with me and something I’m still learning but it’s just being true to yourself and caring about what you do. Literally, there is the line in “The Low Road” that don’t try to be one of the boys cause you’re never going to be one, you know. So I guess I didn’t learn that lesson immediately but I did over time.
What about your mom Jessi Colter?
Oh she is super cool. She’s real sweet and spiritual and stuff and she’s always into it that way. Musically, she sits down and plays the piano and it just kind of takes you away.
What would you say was the hardest song for you to write because it was so personal?
Oh I don’t know.That’s hard, they’re all personal, you know. I don’t like break down crying when I’m writing a song or anything (laughs) but they’re all personal.
So you don’t feel any qualms about writing something so deep?
No, no, because to me the more personal it is the better it usually is, especially if you’re trying to get an emotion out you’re dealing with.It’s part of the process for me.
You produced Family Man. Was that the first time you really produced?
Yeah, the first time I did one alone and now I’ve done four other records for other artists this year and I’ve really been doing a lot of that, which I’m really enjoying. Being in the studio is very natural for me. I’ve always worked on records but recording records long before I met Dave Cobb. He and I had a partnership and I learned a lot from him. So to me it was pretty natural but it was also like a new step. But now I love it and I’m used to it.
What do you have coming up this year?
Hopefully, I’m going to work on some more records with some other people. Lukas Nelson and I are working on a record together, which is really fun. I’m going to try and record as much as possible, basically. That’s kind of what I’ve always been doing. A lot of records that I produced are coming out this year. Jason Boland has a record coming out that I did. This band, Fifth On The Floor, has a record called Ashes & Angels coming out the same day as my record that I produced. There’s a band called Hellbound Glory that I worked with and a band from Chicago called Last False Hope that I did their record. So all those records will be coming out this year. Really kind of excited to keep making more music.
I read something about The Other Life having a film accompanying it. What is that about?
Yeah, we shot like a thirty minute long short film that goes along with it. It’s basically set to the music on the record for the most part. It just kind of tells a story. It’s pretty out there, pretty dark.
Yeah, the trailer looked pretty creepy
Yeah, it’s pretty creepy (laughs). We’re just finishing it as we speak. It’s getting color corrected right now and we’re really just working on doing some other things and trying to get it all lined up.But we’re excited about it. However we’re going to get it out there, we’re excited about it. Last Question: When you did the Warped Tour in 2009, did you feel like a fish out of water?
(laughs) Absolutely. It was very strange because we didn’t know how to get those kids. We ended up flyering at the adult daycare tent where the parents go when their kids are at the show to get the parents over to our show cause I think our music was speaking way more to that than the other stuff. That was weird. It was fun but it was a nightmare. It was burning hot and you had more time till you were going to play the show and it was crazy. I don’t know if I will be doing that again (laughs) Kevin Lyman was very nice to us and treated us really good but it was still crazy.