Shooter takes aim: Toting an exciting mix of metal and rock-and-roll, the son of two country icons has his own brand of rebellion
By Chris Richards
The smell of chlorine drifts in the breeze while Shooter Jennings talks about frustration and hope. The 30-year-old singer is sucking down cigarettes and nursing a Diet Coke on the poolside patio of a house he shares with his fiancee, actress Drea de Matteo.
The tangled stretch of road that leads to the couple's front door seems as if it were drawn up by dropping a plate of spaghetti on a map of the Hollywood Hills. Jennings likes it that way. The son of country icons Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter describes himself as a loner who cherishes his family, but thrives in isolation.
"If it weren't for Drea and the baby, and my family and my mom, I'd probably be [expletive] hanging from that tree over there," he says. Then he laughs. The ice cubes in his glass jingle like tiny wind chimes.
Behind his aviator shades and a scraggly black beard, is an artist leading a life of contradictions. He's a singer who has embraced his late father's legacy while continuously bucking Nashville's definition of it. He's a heavily tattooed computer geek. He's a dad who takes his 2-year-old daughter, Alabama, to dance class when he's not writing songs about the end of the world.
(Read the rest of this story and view more photographs, after the jump)
His new album, "Black Ribbons," feels in tune with the rebel spirit of his father -- but certainly not the sound. Arriving Tuesday, it's a wildly ambitious, 70-minute rock opus splicing heavy-metal bombast with freedom-rock harmonies. There are pulsing synthesizers and Allman Brotherly guitar solos. There are songs about fame and Armageddon. There are backup vocals from Colter and skits narrated by novelist Stephen King. It feels like a country album mutated into something darker, even vicious.
"I think the whole thing is a metaphor for how hard it's been to get my voice heard," Jennings says of the album he's been laboring over since 2008. "Whether it's a success or not, at the end of the day I know that I didn't play by anyone's expectations. This is the anti-expectations album."
As the youngest child of one of country's most mythic figures, Jennings knows all about expectations. And while Nashville has often been friendly to the progeny of its heroes -- Hank Williams's bloodline has enjoyed successes not seen by the musical children of Lennon or Dylan -- Shooter hasn't felt the same embrace.
His 2005 solo debut, the crudely and cleverly titled "Put the 'O' Back in Country," was a promising meld of rock swagger and country twang, but it failed to find a larger audience. "When I was in the Nashville world, they let me in and they tore me to shreds," Shooter says. "I was either too rock for [country] radio or too country for rock."
And while he's always felt trapped in that gray-area purgatory, he has never shied from his heritage. He still performs tribute concerts to his late father and donned a "Waylon Forever" T-shirt while performing at the 9:30 club last fall. It feels natural. But it's not easy.
"When you go out there and say 'I love my dad, I'm very proud of my dad,' there's a certain expectation that people have: To relive your dad through you," Shooter says. "That, I think, can be your downfall if you don't have a clear vision for what you want to do."
A different sound
The vision for "Black Ribbons" took shape in the final throes of the aughts, but its sound first took shape in the mid-'90s. Raised in Nashville, Shooter was the only child of Jennings's marriage to Colter. (Shooter has siblings from Waylon's previous marriages.) And while Shooter grew up surrounded by country music, he had no desire to be a part of it. He liked Guns N' Roses.
At 15, Shooter begged Waylon to let him attend Woodstock '94, the anniversary mega-concert held in Saugerties, N.Y. Years of notorious hard-living had turned Waylon into a protective father and he wouldn't allow it. But as a consolation, he ordered the concert on pay-per-view.
The entire family ended up bonding over a performance from Shooter's favorite new band, Nine Inch Nails. ("And my dad fell in love with Primus," Shooter adds.) If his latest music is any evidence, Shooter still holds Trent Reznor's cathartic howl as a prime influence -- certain tracks on "Black Ribbons" mimic Nine Inch Nails down to the snarling Reznorian vocal tics.
Shooter took up music years earlier, though, bashing away on the drums. Colter was proud, but didn't praise her son unconditionally. Speaking from her home in Arizona, she remembers the first song Shooter recorded when 11 years old: "I said, 'Son, this sounds like bowling balls hitting garbage cans.' "
Bright lights were calling
But she and Waylon remained supportive and bought a teenage Shooter a mixing board for his band to record with. "That was a very smart move on Waylon's part," Colter says. "It was a way to keep [Shooter] at home."
They couldn't keep him home forever. Upon graduating from high school, Shooter was itching to take his music toward the brighter lights of a bigger city. "L.A. and New York were the places that you went if you had a rock band," Shooter says. "For me, L.A. seemed my speed. When I was young, I would come here with my dad and I would see the palm trees and all the pretty women walking around. . . . I was 18, 19. I can't say it was the soundest plan."
So when he took his band Stargunn to Hollywood, Shooter says he wasn't trying to flee his father's shadow in Nashville so much as migrate to a scene that spawned his rock-and-roll heroes. "We played a show at the Viper Room and the Whiskey, and we thought we were on top of the world," he recalls of his earliest days in Los Angeles. (Waylon attended the latter gig and was reportedly more nervous than Shooter.)
But by 2003 Stargunn had split up and Shooter was mourning the death of his father, who had lost a fight with diabetes in 2002. The young songwriter had to reassess who he was and where he was headed. "It definitely made me look at his roots a lot," Shooter says of his father's death. "I had questions I wish I had asked."
He returned to music in 2005 with his solo debut and followed up with "Electric Rodeo" in 2006 and a more traditional album, "The Wolf," in 2007 -- each release gaining less and less traction.
"The music he was making was not really aimed at country radio," says David Ross, publisher and editor of Music Row, a trade publication dedicated to Nashville's record industry. "Even though he has such stellar country roots and family ties, it's not totally unexpected that country radio wouldn't totally embrace something that was served up without them in mind."
By early 2008 Shooter found himself on the cusp of another identity crisis. "I had let go of my management, I had let my label go," he says. "They really collapsed the walls on me and I had to dig out and figure out who I was."
His own man
Throughout his career, Shooter has been defined by his stubbornness -- a trait that made him fast friends with fellow country bellower, Jamey Johnson. "I think if anybody out there feels like someone is trying to bend them into someone God doesn't intend for them to be, you'd be a fool to follow that person," Johnson says. "Thank God Shooter Jennings is stubborn enough to be his own man. There are so few people left that even have that audacity these days."
"Black Ribbons" is nothing if not audacious. It's a sprawling, 20-track concept album bristling with end-times paranoia and a labyrinth of unexpected left turns. "Triskaidekaphobia" sounds like a futuristic Lynyrd Skynyrd probing deep space. "God Bless Alabama" finds the intersection of Southern rock and Brit pop. "All of This Could Have Been Yours" is a breakup ballad aimed straight at Nashville via David Bowie.
And Stephen King's role? The horror writer drops in to narrate every few tracks, playing the role of a late-night DJ named Will o' the Wisp, delivering sobering monologues on the eve of the apocalypse.
"Black Ribbons" makes it nearly impossible to imagine where Shooter is headed next -- which might be the point.
"This album right here is hardcore rock-and-roll," Johnson says. "But the next might be old, classic country. He might slap us all around a couple years from now and put out a bluegrass gospel record. That's the thing about Shooter: You tell him he can't do it, he's gonna do it."
Which is why he's struggled so much in a record business that often seems allergic to risk. And while Shooter has strived to cultivate his audience online, it's been tough going. Last year, a poll conducted by the Country Music Association said only half of country music consumers have a home Internet connection, and Shooter says 80 percent of his album sales have been physical copies.
But that hasn't kept him offline. In addition to a tour that'll hit the Coachella festival in California in April, he's releasing an adventure-themed video game (that he programmed), along with other interactive elements on his Web site, shooterjennings.com, all in an attempt to reach fans that he thinks must be out there.
"I may get completely silenced on this record and get no response," he says. "But for my own personal survival, I know I put forward something that I really believed in. . . . The people around me believe in it and that keeps me doing it."
He takes one last drag off a dwindling cigarette.
"Also, saying '[Screw] you' to everybody keeps me doing it."
February 26, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
Categories: In today's Post | Tags: Jamey Johnson, Jessi Colter, Shooter Jennings, Waylon Jennings
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