SHOOTER'S BLUES Shooter Jennings

Flipping the
bird at critics who say he’s riding on his late father’s coattails, Shooter makes a
record with… his late father.

 

BY ANDY TENNILLE

 

 

 

“I gotta figure out a way to get rid of that thing.”

 

 

Shooter Jennings shakes his head in disbelief before taking
a hefty drag off a joint circulating on his front porch. Across the street from
the beautiful 1920s Spanish-style bungalow he shares with actress girlfriend Drea
de Matteo high up in the Hollywood Hills, a neighbor has recently built a tree
house that blocks his previously panoramic view of downtown Los Angeles.

 

“They did it when we were in New York,” Jennings says,
stepping up on the top step of his porch to reveal the full extent of the
injustice. “How fucked up is that, to come home to this?”

 

It’s been a while since Jennings has been in Los Angeles, a
city he’s called home for nearly a decade. For the better part of 2007, the
29-year-old country rock star and son of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter was
on the road with his band, the .357s, leading up to the release of The Wolf, his fourth album for Universal
South. In the weeks before the record hit the street in October, guitarist and
co-songwriter Leroy Powell left the group to pursue a solo career and was
replaced by new guitarist Ryan Wariner and long-time Waylon associate Robby
Turner on pedal steel. In late November, de Matteo gave birth to the couple’s
first child – daughter Alabama Gypsy Rose – in Manhattan, and the young family
spent the baby’s first months at their apartment in the Big Apple.

 

Tonight, Jennings is back in
the City of Angels
for his Tonight Show debut, rocking
out the title cut off The Wolf on a
writer’s strike fright night that finds him paired with unfunny guy Adam Carrolla,
film critic Richard Roeper and a pair of acrobatic cats. A few hours after the
Leno taping, as bandmates, family and friends gather inside his house to
celebrate the show’s airing in a few hours, the son of one of country music’s
most notorious outlaws is outside, fuming over his multi-million dollar eyesore
and considering taking matters into his own hands.

“Fuck it,” he says, exhaling a cloud of smoke before
pretending to jerk a chainsaw to life. “I might have to just cut the
motherfucker down.”

 

***

 

Waylon Albright Jennings was born an outlaw on May 19, 1979.
According to his famous father, Shooter earned his nickname before he even left
the maternity ward.

 

“I apparently pissed on a nurse,” Jennings says with a wide
grin. “Dad always liked to tell that story. Mom also knew someone at church who
had a son named Shooter and liked the name, so they ran with it.”

 

Jennings’ home is a virtual shrine to his legendary father,
who died of complications from diabetes in February 2002. Concert posters and
pictures of the country music icon abound. A white, baby grand piano draped in
a Confederate flag stands in an office that doubles as a home studio. Old
Waylon vinyl is strewn across the mixing board in the corner. Across the room –
painted floor to ceiling in the rebellious colors of the Stars and Bars – a
giant Waylon emblem (a “W” in the shape of an eagle with wings) fills one wall.
Fifteen gold and platinum records ring the walls of the living room, a tribute
to the more than 40 million records the elder Jennings sold during his
five-decade career. Conspicuously, there’s a single gap in the rows of records
that catches the younger Jennings’ eye.

 

“That’s for my record,” he says, pointing at the vacant
space with a smile. “Hopefully I can put one up there one day. Who knows, maybe
it’ll be this new one?”

 

The “new one” is Waylon
Forever
, a nine-song album that finds Shooter and the .357s backing his old
man on some of the country icon’s favorite concert staples as well as a few
unlikely covers the father and son recorded more than 10 years ago.

 

“This album really got its start back in 1995,” Shooter
says, easing in behind the baby grand. “At the time, I was sixteen years old
and way into Guns N’ Roses and alternative rock. I’d been playing drums for a
few years and was in a band with some high school friends that was like the New
York Dolls meeting Nine Inch Nails. We played my high school battle of the
bands, and our claim to fame was that right as we went onstage, the power went
out.”

 

Shooter wasn’t the only Jennings exploring rock music.
Around the same time, Waylon struck up an unlikely friendship with Metallica, a
relationship that began when frontman James Hetfield interviewed the elder
Jennings for a college radio station. Jennings returned the favor when he
called Hetfield’s father, a huge country music fan, while he was ailing in the
hospital. The goodwill culminated in an invitation to the country music legend
to join the Lollapalooza tour in ’96 as an opener. The time proved ripe to
collaborate with his alt-rock-oriented son.

 

The Downward Spiral had come out a few years before, and that record really inspired me to start
making drums tracks and recording my own music,” Jennings says of Nine Inch Nails’ quadruple-platinum
1994 album. “So when Dad asked me to do a record with him, I started pulling
together some tracks: a couple of things I made, some different versions of his
songs and a few covers. Dad was really excited to do this with me and seeing
his energy inspired me to come up with all these ideas.”

 

While most of the tracks the duo recorded were familiar to
the elder Jennings – such as concert staples “Jack of Diamonds,” “Lonesome,
Orn’ry and Mean” and “Waymore’s Blues” – Shooter brought some ideas to the
table as well. On “Outlaw Shit,” a remake of the 1978 Waylon classic “Don’t You
Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out Of Hand,” the younger Jennings slowed the
song’s tempo down, which, when combined with Dave Campbell’s soulful string
arrangements, gives the tune a nostalgic, ballad-like feel.

 

“I got that from hearing Johnny Cash do ‘Hurt,’” he
explains, recalling the Man in Black’s infamous version of the Nine Inch Nails
hit. “I really liked what Rick Rubin did with that and how Johnny Cash sounded
so raw, so I tried to write a similar chord progression to get the same feel
with Dad.”

 

Flipping through the radio dial one day in Nashville
inspired the cover of Cream’s classic “White Room.”

 

“I didn’t listen to much classic rock and didn’t know shit
about Cream or Disraeli Gears, but I
heard that song one day when I was driving down the street and knew Dad could
do it,” Jennings
says. “This was back before the Internet days when you could just get the
lyrics online, so Dad listened to it a few times and just wrote down what he
heard. The best part was that he changes the words a little bit here and there.
Some people might think it was a mistake, but I think it’s just cool.”

 

After the sessions were complete, the duo considered
shopping the finished product, but the idea was shelved when Waylon began work
on his next solo album —1996’s Right for
the Time
— and Shooter moved to Los Angeles to start Stargunn, which he
describes as “Lynyrd Skynyrd meets Guns N’ Roses.” The band played the L.A.
club circuit for six or seven years and recorded two albums before splitting up
in March 2003.

 

“We’d gone for a long time and played a lot of shows,”
Jennings explains. “Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine produced our last
EP, which never came out. We’d almost gotten a deal with Epic, but that fell
through. I was feeling stifled and wasn’t getting along with the guys in my
band. I started feeling outside of them and there was some in-fighting going
on. It was just time.”

 

Around the same time, Jennings fell back in love with
country music. Whether or not this change instigated the break-up of Stargunn
is debatable; Jennings won’t say. But the passing of his father in 2002
certainly played a role in his rekindled love of country. “I had been around
country music all my life, but just after my Dad passed, I started listening to
it again. My roommate at the time was a big country music fan, so I started
listening to a lot of Hank Jr. and Dad’s stuff. I wasn’t planning on playing
country music or even going by my own name. I was at this point in my life
where I didn’t really know what I was going to do.”

 

Jennings left L.A., moving to New York to be with de Matteo
and figure out his next move. In a short time, he accepted an invitation to
play a show at the House of Blues and a backing band was needed: the .357s —
guitarist Powell, drummer Brian Keeling, bassist Ted Kamp — were born. As Jennings puts it the
group “just clicked from the first time we played together.”

 

After the successful House of Blues gig, Jennings took his new band into the studio
and recorded Put the “O” Back in
Country
, his first release on Universal South. The album – which featured
appearances from George Jones, Faith Evans, Ce Ce White and Jessi Colter – was
released in March 2005 and charted on both the Billboard 200 and Top Country
charts. Jennings
followed up the success of Put the
“O” Back in Country
in 2006 with Electric Rodeo, a sophomore effort that expanded on the rowdy
country rock of his debut with the .357s.

 

“I thought that Electric
Rodeo
was more country than the first one, to be honest,” Jennings says. “Put the “O” Back in Country was a culmination of a lot of
years and a lot of shit and not really knowing where I wanted to go. I honestly
didn’t think anyone would listen to the record or even really give a shit.
Those records were just an extended version of what we did in Stargunn and a
country label ended up picking us up. So we ended up in that box.”

 

While Jennings describes his move to country music as “just
a jump into the great wide open. There was never an official decision made,”
he’s very cognizant of the skeptical eye with which music critics view his
post-Stargunn work and the assertion that he is merely riding his father’s
lengthy coattails.

 

 I’ve always just wanted to play the music that I want to play,
whether it’s country, rock or really, really weird psychedelic shit,” he says.
“Sometimes, the reviews are written from such an angle that it’s like the
writers aren’t even listening. It’s tough. People say that I’m just trying to
just copy what my Dad did. And I’m not. I’m not at all. And if they actually
paid attention, someone who knows the records isn’t going to say it’s all a
bunch of Waylon hacks. Even if it’s not great, it’s still not… that.”

 

With the release of Waylon
Forever
later this year, critics will likely revive the debate of whether Jennings is just cashing
in on his famous pedigree or is an artist in his own right. While he won’t
dispel the notion that the album is likely to excite Waylon fans worldwide, the
irony is that Waylon Forever wasn’t
even Jennings’
idea to begin with, but a brainstorm from his producer Dave Cobb. “After Electric Rodeo and before we did The Wolf, Dave and I talked about the
tracks I did with my Dad, and he was the one to suggest that we take the tracks
and re-record them with the .357s on it. So that’s what we did. I went to
Nashville and transferred the tracks to a click-track. We got the band together
in the studio and within a month and a half, it was done.”

 

In addition to “Outlaw Shit” and “White Room,” Waylon Forever features a reworked version
of “Are You Ready for the Country?”, a Neil Young cover that the elder Jennings
originally recorded in 1976 for his gold album of the same name. Country singer
Lee Ann Womack guests on “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This” and Waylon staples “Jack
of Diamonds,” “Lonesome, Orn’ry and Mean” and “Waymore’s Blues” all receive new
treatments backed by Shooter and the .357s.

 

“It was one of the easiest records I’ve ever made, but it
was also really hard – there were a couple of times where I just got worn out
working on it, physically and emotionally,” Jennings confesses. “But I kept
thinking about how excited Dad was when we did the original recordings and just
knew that we needed to finish it. There’s definitely a magic to it.”

 

Magic. It’s a word
often invoked when promoting
posthumous collaborations from Celine Dion (Elvis, Sinatra) to Carlos Santana
(Miles Davis) to former American Idol contestant Paris Bennett (Dean Martin). Critics
used it when Hank Williams Jr. dueted with his dear old Dad on “There’s a Tear
in My Beer” in 1981 and in 1991 when Natalie Cole’s  Unforgettable:
With Love
, with her father Nat King Cole, worked multi-platinum magic. Alicia
Keys’ duet with Frank Sinatra on “Learnin’ the Blues” at this year’s Grammy
Awards had critics going in the opposite direction, however, and Jennings,
mindful of how slippery a slope such collaborations can be, says there’s one
key thing that separates Waylon Forever from
the rest.

 

“The biggest difference between some of those and this album
is that I was there for the original recording. I was there with him,” the
younger Jennings says. “This album is all about revisiting and re-appreciating
the time we had together during the original sessions. The intent of those
sessions back in ‘95 was all about us getting together to play some music, and
it really had nothing to do with money or trying to sell records. Dad was just
happy to be doing a record with his son. I may not have appreciated it as much
as I should have then, but I couldn’t be happier to be doing a record with him
now. It’s like I’m finishing the job we started together.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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