Shooter Jennings is not an easy man to pin down. “Man, sorry I’m late,” he says over the phone, “but we were in the studio, and we were really on a roll.” His voice is slightly gristly, like many men who make a living with their voice boxes, with a drawl stranded somewhere between the South and Southern California. It lacks the distinctive cadences of a region, instead sounding like everywhere at once. He’s a wanderer, a man in-between.
Like the man himself, Jennings’ music is hard to wrestle into any category. By blood, Waylon Albright Jennings, a.k.a. Shooter, is a country man. His father, Waylon Jennings, was the inimitable country icon. He played bass for Buddy Holly, recorded with Willie Nelson in the ’70s, and was even roommates with Johnny Cash for a spell.
Waylon left some huge boots to fill. But Shooter wasn’t afraid to strike out on his own. After college, he left Nashville for Los Angeles, where he eventually formed a Southern rock band, Stargunn. His father died in 2002, and he broke up the band a year later. Then, in 2005, Shooter took up the country mantle with his solo country debut, Put the “O” Back in Country. That same year, Shooter portrayed his father in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line.
With high-charting, follow-up country albums, Jennings’ path seemed set, his future headlines already written: Son of Country Legend Keeps Family Legacy Alive. But, remember, Shooter is not afraid to defy convention.
In 2009, he started a hard-rock group called Hierophant, abandoning most vestiges of country for a hybridized vision smattered with stoner rock, industrial and hardcore sounds. Their concept album Black Ribbon eschews expectation and presents the story of a midnight radio DJ, spewing his last truths on the airwaves before a totalitarian government shuts him down.
The voice of the DJ proffering these dark images and darker tone? None other than horror patriarch Stephen King. Shooter was connected to the writer through a friend; King liked Shooter’s work and offered some words and a voice to bring the story to life.
“The funny thing was, I never met him in person,” Shooter says. “It was all done over e-mail, so in a lot of ways, he was like that DJ, just putting his words out into the world.”
Country music, this is not.
Shooter says he grew up on MTV just like everyone else. “I listened to harder stuff: Ministry, bands like that. I’ve been listening to Joy Division a lot now while we’ve been recording,” he says.
He remembers playing ’90s alt-rock for his father, who shared Shooter’s love of rhythms and the drums. “My dad loved Tool. He loved Danny Carey on the drums,” Shooter says. “I remember when I asked him to go to Lollapalooza, and he was like, ‘You’re too young, but I will watch it with you on TV,’ so we got it on cable and watched the whole thing. There was the mud throwing and the mosh pits, but for some reason, my dad really loved Primus.”
Shooter was a self-professed nerd who preferred computers to lassos and rodeos. The vision of the downhome-country dream was just that—a fantasy. Today’s country-star façade is mired in mythos, anyway. Rappers have a stronghold on the totems of bravado, and country music’s days of gun-toting, hard-living iconoclasm are over. You could argue that these days, country music is all just posturing and pomp (not that rappers pose any less, mind you).
“Real rednecks today listen to Slipknot and use Facebook all day,” Shooter says.
He says his father even struggled with the image and expectations placed upon him. Waylon was subsumed into the “outlaw” league of country stars. He worked outside the Nashville music machine and fought his own demons with drugs, which turned into new demons themselves.
The “outlaw” label stuck. “My father hated that title: ‘the rebel.’ He was never Bad Blake,” he says, alluding to the down-and-out country singer played by Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart.
And, by extension, Shooter refuses to believe he has that rebel blood in him. “I was such a straight shooter growing up,” he says. “I’m not a rebel.”
Okay, but . . . a Nine Inch Nails-inspired dystopian concept album narrated by Stephen King? An album that many of his established fan base—country fans around the world—would probably hate? Working outside the system? Sound familiar?
In the words of another country-music dynasty, it sounds like a family tradition.
Shooter Jennings performs with Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and more at Hootenanny at Oak Canyon Ranch, 4700 Santiago Canyon Rd., Silverado Canyon; www.thehootenanny.com. Sat.; call for times. $39-$100. All ages.
This article appeared in print as “Rebel Blood: Shooter Jennings lives up to his father Waylon’s legacy by not following his footsteps.”