Shooter Jennings and Yelawolf Question Musical Semantics with Sometimes Y

Referencing the grade-school linguistics lesson of how the letter “y” is considered both a consonant and “sometimes” a vowel, Shooter Jennings and rapper Yelawolf gave themselves creative freedom to explore whatever genre possible with Sometimes Y. “When you’re a kid in school, they teach you all these rules about spelling, but then they tell you about ‘sometimes y,’ which calls the entire system into question,” Jennings tells American Songwriter of the origin of the duo’s moniker. “Suddenly everything’s out the window and you can do whatever you want. That’s what it felt like making this record.”

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Also the name of the duo’s self-titled debut, Sometimes Y ricochets around ’80s synth and pop with eclipses of metal, country, and a sole orated piece. Recorded during the pandemic during a summer of social and political upheaval within the country, Sometimes Y weighs on personal and pervasive struggles, spinning out from the futuristic rock of the title track to croon-pop of “Hole in Your Head” and sermonized “Make Me a Believer.”

“Sometimes Y is the name of the group because of the question we bring to music and the listener,” says Yelawolf. “It also gives us the freedom to do anything and make any style we choose.”

Midway through, Yelawolf offers a spoken word excerpt, “Shoe String.” On “Jump Out the Window,” a nod to Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ “American Girl” opening riff, Yelawolf battles good and evil singing I’ve been a missionary for the devil through the more solemn piano-led ballad “Catch You on the Other Side,” a song addressing Yelawolf’s relationship with his wife. The duo ends their oeuvre with arena rockers “Fucked Up Day” and “Moonshiner’s Run.”

Though Jennings and Yelawolf knew one another for more than a decade, a new friendship flourished during the making of the album. “Although we’ve talked for years, we didn’t really know each other as intently before we started making this record,” shares Yelawolf, real name Michael Wayne Atha. “When we started making this record, we really started to unravel how closely tied we are culturally through movies, music, humor—and fucking fashion. We unwrapped our friendship making this record. We were friends before, but you never really know someone until you make an album with them.”

Yelawolf added, “I think that’s the ultimate reason why it works is because we agree pretty quickly, and we disagree pretty quickly on certain sounds and ideas. We could spend six hours on an idea then immediately say ‘that’s not working. Let’s move on.’ The ability to let something go when it’s not working is a major reason why I think our album came out the way it did.”

Jennings remembers the first time he and Yelawolf discussed working together, with both immediately falling down a rabbit hole of childhood pop culture connections—how they both loved the Legend soundtrack by German band Tangerine Dream—and the shared musical they were gravitating towards at the time.

“There is an intimacy that happens in music,” says Jennings. “I remember telling him ‘I think we are meant to work together.’”

Initially slanted in a more roots direction, the album quickly took sharp turns into every other genre. “Once it started formulating, the sound was apparent,” says Jennings. “When you have two people that don’t have to communicate, they’re seeing the finish line in the exact same place, and that is very rare. It’s especially rare with people who haven’t worked their entire lives together.” He adds, “For us, we immediately had a consensus of what we liked and didn’t like, and there was never a point where either one of us said to the other ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ Every step of the way, there was this feeling that we were doing some important work.”

Going into the studio three days after the murder of George Floyd and the onset of the Black Lives Matter, movement emotionally charged the songs the duo was working on. Set at Sunset Sound on Sunset Boulevard, outside the studio were 100,000 people marching and helicopters circling overhead daily. “The world exploded and changed overnight, so when we got to the studio there was this feeling of a cultural shift and change,” says Jennings. “It was so much bigger than what we were doing, but in a way, we were in the middle of it. We were affected by it because we were absorbing it.”

The result was the pair’s connection to more positive energy throughout most of the tracks. “It just kept happening, and it kept feeling right that by the end of it, we were high from it,” adds Jennings of the energy working with Yelawolf and the band. “That doesn’t happen in the studio a lot.”

Affected by what was happening emotionally and spiritually, Yelawolf says the track “Fucked Up Day” was a result of a particularly affecting session. “That song encompasses what I think we were all going through,” says Yelawolf. “Everyone in the band, including myself, really bled out on that song. We let it out. The album has a level of seriousness to me. There was no time to play around—all fucking killer, no filler.”

Working around the intention to have a different vibe to each song including pop-rock “Radio,” which started with a song Yelawolf began singing around some chords John Shreffler started playing during a moment of downtime.

“There were three or four different tracks that kind of could have filled that space, but we knew we liked that song,” says Jennings. “It had this vibe to it, this Blondie, ’80s Joy Division thing happening.” Little by little, whatever rules were in place, were scratched out when writing. “The chorus for ‘Make Me a Believer’ was us saying ‘let’s try this same vibe but let’s drive the drums to the wall, just an unapologetically car wreck on the interstate.’ After that, we didn’t try to chase anything else. It was just straight-ahead rock and roll.”

Yelawolf admits that he initially felt overwhelmed before heading into the studio with Jennings. “For me to step in a studio with these amazing musicians and Shooter with his history of producing amazing records, I had to really find myself in that session, and I had to warm up to what he referred to as leadership,” reveals Yelawolf. “For me, it was becoming a member and having an opinion. It took me a minute to earn that respect from the guys… that I had ideas worth listening to. I had to really earn that within myself, even if they didn’t feel that I needed to earn it. I was intimidated by their musicianship, period.”

Prior to working with Jennings, Yelawolf was already manifesting Sometimes Y, with a cover, logo, and other ideas sketched out before he stepped into the studio. “I was already mapping out the vibe,” shares Yelawolf. “It helps me to compartmentalize what an album could turn into. I don’t want to chain it down into something specific, but it does help if I start with the cover of the book and the back of the book. We already have a title for the next album.”

He adds, “We know what magic we’re going to try to go for already. We have a sixth sense about where we could start. It’s already there.”

Photo: Jesse Lirola

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  1. Shooter Jennings is one of those talents that understand different takes on various music, and appreciates them, while holding onto his own style uniquely.

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