If you were to choose a middle name for Shooter Jennings, it just might be unconventional. What else do you call the offspring of late honky-tonk legend Waylon Jennings and his country chanteuse spouse Jessi Colter?
While he got his start in the early 2000s as part of Stargunn, a rock band that recorded an unreleased album, Jennings later went on to record a dystopian rock opera (2010’s Black Ribbons), a spoken-word release tied to an interactive horror series (2014’s The Magic). He even released a tribute album to disco/synth-pop composer/producer Giorgio Moroder (2016’s Countach [For Giorgio]). So after all these off-kilter creative dalliances, what could be more counter-intuitive than going back to his roots by releasing Shooter, a platter of hardcore country music gems? It all started on a whim when the Nashville native hooked up with producer Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell), a longtime friend Jennings had worked with on a few other projects.
“It’s funny, but I had another record almost finished. I went down to [Dave Cobb’s] studio, and I hadn’t done that in a long time. Dave and I go way back, and it was kind of a reuniting of me and him and about bringing the process of doing another record together,” Jennings explained. “It just kind of fell in place. I had songs like ‘Living in a Minor Key’ and ‘Fast Horses and Good Hideouts’ that I’d had for a while. But for everything else, I kind of wrote for this record and I wanted to do something straightforward that tapped my favorite country stuff.”
Clocking in at a tight 31-and-a-half minutes, these nine songs are loose and guaranteed to have you hitting the repeat button consistently. Opening with the rip-roaring shuffle “Bound Ta Git Down,” the combination of horns, wailing guitar and rollicking piano is perfect accompaniment for this semi-autobiographical earworm that ties in Jennings’ move to L.A., playing clubs, kicking it with Guns N’ Roses and Marilyn Manson and living high in the Hollywood Hills.
Elsewhere, he tosses in a salute to the Lone Star State (the sing-along twangfest “Do You Love Texas?”), the requisite tear-in-your-beer ballad (a pedal steel-kissed “Living In a Minor Key”) and the invariable tale of alcoholic excesses (the bar anthem “D.R.U.N.K.”). Arguably, the most evocative track is the ethereal “Fast Horses & Good Hideouts,” a song best described as what Ziggy Stardust might have sounded like had he made a pit stop in Nashville circa 1975, long enough to pen a tune. The title was actually from an offhand comment made by actor Randy Quaid, who deservedly received a songwriting credit.
“So, Randy Quaid and I became friends after he sent me this message because he heard me talking on my (SiriusXM) radio show. “It was a Twitter DM, and I’ve never spoken to him on the phone or met him,” Jennings said. “It’s kind of my thing with famous people. I’ve never met Stephen King or talked to him on the phone, but we did a thing where he was on my record [Black Ribbons]. Randy wrote me a thank you note and signed it, ‘Here’s to fast horses and good hideouts.’ I thought that was great. That [could be a] song [idea] and I asked him if he minded if I wrote a song around it and he was into it. He was really supportive. And I love that [Bowie] analogy, [because] I’ve really been listening to Diamond Dogs and Aladdin Sane a whole lot.”
For the 39-year-old singer-songwriter, working with Cobb was a treat, given how close the two had become after being introduced by the latter’s manager back in the early 2000s. In addition to producing Jennings’ first five studio efforts, Cobb and his longtime friend also co-helmed Brandi Carlile’s current outing, the most-excellent By the Way, I Forgive You. A longtime fan of Carlile’s (“I met her backstage and felt an instant kinship with her, in addition to being a big fan of her music”), Jennings teaming up with Cobb on By the Way wound up being a happy accident for Carlile.
“We started talking and shooting the shit about 1980s movies and 1980s kids, and how somehow the 1980s kids have grown up to embrace this kind of throwback anti-generation of writing songs about things they never experienced, when we know we’re all 1980s kids and play the same video games,” Carlile said. “We were joking about that and we made kind of a fast friendship. I started thinking about the next time I made a record, I wanted to be involved with Shooter Jennings, because I want to make a record that speaks to my generation about what’s really happening in our time right now. So I kept that in the back of my mind. The two of those guys seemed like a really exciting combination of people to make my next record with. Only after I decided to do that did I find out that they’re best friends.”
As someone who grew up on the road with memories of being warned, as a 6-year-old, by his pop not to venture into the back of Willie Nelson’s bus, Jennings’ inclinations not surprisingly led him down a musical path. And it was those early years with Stargunn that prepped him for where he is today.
“When I moved to L.A., it was me and two other guys and we drove cross-country and set up in a house and went through many different generations. The last thing we did, Tom Morello produced a record that never came out, and it’s still sitting around,” he said. “I learned so much from Tom Morello in those years. He was a friend, and he taught me about music production and how to get the most out of your songs. It was my college, man.”
For the immediate future, Jennings will be on the road, slaking the thirst of fans yearning for authentic country music, with the occasional twist thrown in for good measure.
“We’re definitely going to be touching on everything. We’ve been delving into the Black Ribbons album and some of the Giorgio stuff,” he said. “But it’s the whole new record and stuff from the first record that will be a major focus. We’re just trying to make a sound that really flows and kills it. I just can’t wait to get out there on the road and play with this band. We’re ready to slam-dunk it and put on a big show.”
Shooter Jennings’ favorite honky-tonkers