Leave it to Shooter Jennings to zig when everyone else is zagging.
Always the rebel, Jennings had an album nearly complete. Then after reuniting with Dave Cobb, the hottest producer in Nashville today and with whom Jennings made his first four records, Jennings scrapped that album to go in a completely different direction.
“But all of a sudden, the landscape in new country has changed, and lots of people are putting out concept records, near psychedelic records, things like we were doing six, seven years ago,” Jennings said in a recent phone interview. “So I thought the most outlandish thing to do is make a Hank (Williams) Jr. record. A straight-ahead drinking, rockin’ record.”
That album, titled “Shooter,” was released last August. The first two songs from it, the shimmering “Fast Horses & Good Hideouts” and the gentle rocking love song “Rhinestone Eyes,” are straight country – melodic, filled with steel guitar and backing vocals. And there are some rowdy numbers, too.
Jennings said he wanted to the make “Shooter” in the vein of a Hank Williams Jr. album in part because of today’s bitterly divided social and political climate. He has no interest in making any kind of statement with his music, and he’s convinced that people come to music for different reasons than getting some kind of political lecture.
“I don’t care if people like (President Donald) Trump or hate him, if they voted for him or not, people just want to have a good time,” Jennings said. “They don’t want to hear about immigration or whatever on a record or at a show. So let’s do something happy, fun and boogie woogie. We’ve done a really (expletive) good job of it. It’s the most outlaw thing I could have done. I hate to use that word.”
Outlaw, Jennings said, was worn out by the time his dad, Waylon Jennings, sang “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand” in 1978, the year before Shooter was born. But the label has lived on – and even provides the name for the Sirius/XM radio channel, Outlaw Country, on which Shooter has a program every weekend.
Jennings’ “Electric Rodeo” show is as likely to feature a metallic hard rocker as a country weeper, evidence of the musical taste he’s developed since the crib, when he’d ride the tour bus with Waylon and his mom, Jessi Colter.
The elder Jennings, with whom Shooter was very close, died in 2002. He remains very close to his mother and takes his children to visit her in Arizona when opportunities arise.
Jennings enjoys being able to take trips with his children and the times when the young Jennings get to meet other musicians – an experience that little Shooter got growing up.
“My kids don’t travel with me on the road very much, so that’s important,” Jennings said. “They’ve been able to be around Kris Kristofferson, a lot – they were 2 or 3 when they first met him. It’s really important they meet those people. My kids are deep. My daughter plays music. My son, Black Jack, doesn’t forget anything.
“They get to be around these people, my friends, my parents’ friends and learn from them. That’s really important. They’re getting to know my dad, (although) they never met him, through those people.”
Jennings still draws on things he learned from Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and others who were around Waylon and Colter when he was a kid.
And he’s taken plenty from others he’s met along the way, including the Oak Ridge Boys’ Duane Allen, who had a chat with Jennings while they were waiting for a revolving restaurant at the top of a Nashville hotel to move around to where they could step off to use the restroom.
“It was one of the most Obi-wan Kenobi, Mace Windu talks I’ve ever had,” Jennings said. “He was telling me ‘Nothing matters. Don’t worry. If you think a song is good, the song is good. If somebody else thinks it’s good and throws money behind it, it can be a hit. Just make your music.’ He’s right – and that’s what I’m doing.”
After a few minutes of conversation, it’s clear that Jennings, now 40, has become a family man. In fact, he says his best-known song has inadvertently become the best gift he could give his children.
That song is “Fourth of July,” a rocking number that documents a drive he took through Texas with his then-girlfriend during which “We sang ‘Stranglehold’ until the stereo/Couldn’t take no more of that rock ’n’ roll/we put on a little George Jones and just sang along.”
“It was a real thing for me. It was a real trip I wrote about. I was dumb enough to write a song about,” he said. “Now, I’ve figured out it was smart. … The smartest thing I’ve done for my kids is writing a song about a holiday. Every year after that, even after I’m gone, they’ll get a small check from the play it gets around the Fourth.
“That’s got me thinking. When I was younger, I wouldn’t think about making a Christmas record. That wasn’t cool,” Jennings said. “Now my wife’s always saying, ‘You need to make a Christmas record.’ Maybe I will.”
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