THE WALK OF LIFE: Shooter Jennings’ Big Hope

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

n a grimy Brooklyn neighborhood, seemingly exempt from the gentrification that has engulfed much of the borough, a small crew sets up lights and cameras against the brick-fronted side of a warehouse. It could be a location shoot for Mean Streets or The Sopranos, as used condoms litter the sidewalk while the street itself is pockmarked by foot-wide craters emitting a billow of sulfurous fumes. The few passersby look like Hells Angels alumni-long white beards, guts struggling to burst out of metal-studded belts-and here and there an 18-wheeler sits abandoned, propped atop a corroded steel frame. Through it all the gleaming Manhattan skyline, visible just across the river, offers a shiny white contrast.In a grimy Brooklyn neighborhood, seemingly exempt from the gentrification that has engulfed much of the borough, a small crew sets up lights and cameras against the brick-fronted side of a warehouse. It could be a location shoot for Mean Streets or The Sopranos, as used condoms litter the sidewalk while the street itself is pockmarked by foot-wide craters emitting a billow of sulfurous fumes. The few passersby look like Hells Angels alumni-long white beards, guts struggling to burst out of metal-studded belts-and here and there an 18-wheeler sits abandoned, propped atop a corroded steel frame. Through it all the gleaming Manhattan skyline, visible just across the river, offers a shiny white contrast.

It’s an appropriately rugged setting for the myth of Waylon Albright “Shooter” Jennings, son of the legendary Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, and an emerging star in his own right.  After years of fronting rock bands and struggling to find his true musical voice, Jennings has returned to his country roots with a fine series of albums for the Universal South label. His latest, The Wolf, hits even closer to his artistic mark. It’s a stirring blend of tough rockers and heart-on-the-sleeve country, inspired by the music of his father, but by no means defined by it. In the past, Jennings has written material showcasing a wild life of drugs (in 2006’s “Little White Lines,” he sang of a “brand new vice”), booze and women. And, while The Wolf doesn’t exactly disappoint in this regard, it is marked by a greater degree of contemplation and self-regard.

All the same, that hell-raising persona is never far from view. In “Higher” (which, incidentally, is one of the four songs on the disc Jennings didn’t write), he sings, “I wanna get drunk, get stoned, get loud….”  It is, perhaps, this sense of frankness that most tellingly sets him apart from his country peers. Kenny Chesney he isn’t.  But, likeable or not, Shooter Jennings is unquestionably his own man and stands poised for a career that promises to be every bit as interesting-if undeniably different-from those of his great forebears.

Jennings arrives to the shoot promptly, looking the part of the outlaw in dark glasses, long black hair and his family’s identifiable “W” logo stamped onto his belt buckle (similar images adorn his earlobe and fingers). His forearm is tattooed with the long image of a gun, and the letters “CBCS” (“A Country Boy Can Survive”) are inked below it. On the surface, the message is clear: “Don’t mess with me.”

But it soon becomes apparent that the person behind this renegade imagery is, somewhat unexpectedly, well-mannered and gentle.  Now in his late 20s, Jennings proves an easy, affable talker with a willingness-so rare in young performers-to laugh at himself.  During the photo shoot, he scowls appropriately whenever the lens is pointed, but then smiles once the shot has been taken, patting his mildly protuberant stomach with self-deprecation. In the end, the paradox of Shooter Jennings suggests that, in today’s climate of sensitivity, outlaws can also be nice people.

“I started playing drums when I was very young, about five or six,” he recalls.  “As I got older, I started to realize how much I cared about it. I chose not to go to college; I chose to take a year off to try and pursue my own music, which turned into two years, which turned into me just going, ‘I want to move to L.A.  I don’t even want to take college.’ My dad and mom were really cool about it. I was really lucky to have parents like that. A lot of guys in bands that I played with during that time, and throughout my life, still had parents who didn’t really understand music…and didn’t believe that you could make a living doing music-which you can’t.”

Jennings laughs. Even with the pedigree, he hasn’t had an easy time getting his music across in a commercial way. The first two albums, for instance, yielded just one modest country hit, “4th of July,” from 2005’s Put the O Back in Country.

“The thing about it is, with me, and with country radio and country music…it really doesn’t come down to the song anymore. It really comes down to them accepting me as a country artist.” Still, Jennings doesn’t regret his choice. “I don’t want to be over in rock and roll. Those people wouldn’t accept me at all.”

He learned this the tough way, spending six years in Los Angeles fronting his own band (the Guns N’ Roses-influenced Stargunn), before eventually leaving it and the city behind in frustration. On The Wolf‘s biting title track, Jennings alludes to the feeling-one which has persisted his entire musical life-of being stuck somewhere between country and rock.

“The thing about rock and roll is that there’s the freedom and artistry of the music there that’s not as ever present in country. With me, a lot of what they often say is that it’s either too rock and roll for country, or too Southern for rock and roll. So there is this place that I, and a lot of other artists, get thrown into. It’s what I’ve tried to fight against…with country. If they let these doors open for me and Hank III, and a lot of these other artists, it would really broaden country to a place that I feel like it needs to go.

“The hardest thing is being heard,” he continues.  “If we can get our music out there and the masses can hear it, I think that they’ll like it. It’s all just kind of a big…hope.”

The Wolf‘s first single, and the song on which Jennings’ immediate dreams are pinned, is a driving version of the old Dire Straits hit, “Walk of Life.” On an obvious level, Jennings’ interpretation works so perfectly because it welds his two musical impulses into an instantly likeable whole. But looking deeper, this tale of a disciple who sings “the song about the sweet-loving woman” and “the song about the knife” offers a personal journey that mirrors Jennings’ own.

“Once I realized it was about this street-smart guy who was trying to make his music work, not necessarily to any great success, but working hard at it…I could really identify with him-telling the story about a guy who just keeps on pushing.”

At this point, the sun emerges and Jennings returns amiably to the camera, which has now moved across the street, alongside a rustic factory wall. Once the next round of shots is finished, he picks up with a discussion of his songwriting.

I don’t think I’ll ever be the kind of guy that’s going to be able to write a No. 1 hit.  Writing, to me, is an autobiographical journey…to some degree. I just kind of get better at admitting my own faults and knowing myself.  If you’re a songwriter and you lie to yourself about who you are in life, then you kind of lie in your music. Even with my first two records, in comparison to this one, I hadn’t learned a lot about myself. Or I hadn’t admitted a lot about myself that I needed to.

“That’s why I like this record so much. There’s a lot of failure, and there’s a lot of emotional distress and conflict based on things that I’ve lost or gained. The one thing that I want to do is always get a little better at being able to tell my side of the story-my way. That’s what will make it different. Being honest.”
The album’s opening track, “This ‘Ol Wheel,” contains an arresting line: “In the last nine or ten/old Ah Pook waltzed in/put his slimy gun to my head and said/‘Son, this is the end.'”  Jennings explains how “Ah Pook,” taken from a William S. Burroughs story, figures as a kind of mythic leveling figure, intent on screwing up any good situation.

“It’s really kind of personally specific. I had this dream, and my dad was in the dream. I asked him when I was going to die, and he said, ‘In the last nine or ten.’ And I was like, what is that supposed to mean? That whole segment is about this really dark period, and me saying, ‘No, you’re not going to break me.'”

Other compositions on the new recording find Jennings exploring equally personal territory.

“‘Old Friend,’ about my buddy, is one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. It’s opening up and letting him know that I probably would have gone crazy a couple of times, hadn’t it been for him.  And ‘The Wolf’…that song is a real self-discovery, realizing that I’m different and nobody’s going to help me out. There’s a lot that you have to deal with when you’re in this situation…from being in the spotlights, to just personally dealing with people that say they’re your friends, but really have it out to undermine you and push you out of the way.  There’s been a lot of that in my life recently, and so I think that a lot of the theme of the record is a stance of independence.”

A couple of years ago, another country scion, Hank Williams III, made some extremely critical comments about Jennings during an interview. To his credit, Shooter refused to hit back with the same degree of contempt.

“I’m a fan of his, and I don’t know why he’s starting shit. I believe that if we got together and had a drink, we’d be friends. I only met him for five seconds, maybe six years ago. I’m anti-drama; I don’t make a big fit out of nothing. But I’m starting to learn how to stand up for myself.  My whole life, I’ve let people walk over me and do shit, and I just kind of say, ‘Oh, it’s cool.’  Now I’m learning how to stand up and just be a man about things.”

Always, there are the comparisons with his father. “It never was something that was looming over me until the two records came out, during that time. We had a Rolling Stone review of Electric Rodeo (2006), and they didn’t even mention one song-not anything about the record. They just said it was going to take better songs to live up to my dad’s stuff. That kind of stuff makes me frustrated, because I feel like I have to keep putting out records until they can’t write the same review every time. But it’s not so much about pressure. I don’t feel like I have to be an icon.”

In the future, Jennings hopes to finally release an album he recorded with his father years back, although any immediate energy will naturally be centered upon getting “Walk of Life” the promotion it deserves.

“I know that there was a period of time when I felt like I didn’t know what was going to happen, but now I feel so rejuvenated,” he states, allowing himself a moment of optimism.

“I just want to keep making music until they either kill me, or until we make it.”  Here, Shooter Jennings chuckles, letting loose the dark flash of humor that stands as his personal trademark-perhaps his way of keeping control over the many forces at play in his life.

“One of the two.”



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