Clip: Shooter Jennings
It's All About the 'O'
Shooter Jennings returns the danger, the volatility, and the bad
attitude to country music. His daddy Waylon would be proud.
By Cole Haddon
Published: Wednesday, December 7, 2005
Waylon Jennings had given up on country music by the time he died in
2002, exhausted by its abandonment of the '60s and '70s outlaw
movement he helped start and dismayed by the pop-friendly sound that
replaced it. His explained it to his son, Shooter, this way: "Garth
Brooks did for country music what pantyhose did for finger fucking."
Shooter laughs about it now, but the weary frustration remains. "Garth
turned country into this big explosion onstage, more about the show
than about the music," he explains, unwilling to bear how Nashville,
as he sings on his own tune "Solid Country Gold," built Music City by
sacrificing soul. "It happened with rock, too. You had Led Zeppelin
come out, then ten years later everyone was fucking Whitesnake. The
machine just grabs onto something."
Now a 25-year-old prodigy in his own right, Shooter might be a country
boy -- check out the CBCS ("Country Boy Can Survive") tattoo on his
forearm -- but he has the street cred to pontificate about Zeppelin,
too. After abandoning Nashville around 2000, he crashed the seedy club
scene in Los Angeles, where his rock band Stargunn labored three years
for a record deal before imploding with Peyton Place aplomb. Along the
way, Jennings realized virtually no one in LA knew who his father was;
on the bright side, he learned the benefit of not getting a free ride
like he would've back in Nashville, and also landed for a girlfriend
the only New York-bred Italian woman alive who knows more about
country than he does -- actress Drea de Matteo, of Sopranos and Joey
Jennings freely confesses the role his girlfriend played in his solo
Southern rock/country reinvention, encouraging him to simply follow
the direction in which his heart had been leading him ever since his
father died. "That was definitely the moment when I knew I had to get
my shit together," he admits. "But I was also getting older too, and
as I was, I was getting obsessed with country. I realized, 'God,
[Stargunn] can't play music like this.' I knew what our limitations
were. Then I started exploring the kind of music my dad liked, like
the Jimmie Rogers and Hank Williams Srs. It took me becoming an adult
to understand it."
And then, of course, there was Waylon -- the original outlaw who
spearheaded country's own late-'60s counterculture revolution along
with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Townes van Zandt.
"When I was young, man, I loved his records," Shooter recalls. "I'd
call them 'Daddy Tapes.' Now, they remind me of him, but they also in
an entirely different way teach me things. It's kind of like a big
puzzle, and I'm getting it piece by piece every day." (To further that
father-son psychic connection, Shooter actually played his father in
the current smash Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line.)
Live, Shooter often covers "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way," one
of Waylon's best (but not best-known) songs. It's the same old tune,
fiddle and guitar/Where do we take it from here? Waylon sings.
Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars/We've been the same way for
years/We need to change. Shooter's own new record, Put the "O" Back in
Country, is just as critical of the Garth-fattened mainstream: They
say in country music/It's either hit or miss/Well, if you're talkin'
'bout record sales/You can SoundScan this.
"All I'm saying is, 'Come on, bring the energy back to country
music,'" Shooter explains of his album's raunchy title (Drea liked it
too, just for the record). "I just miss the realness and characters.
We had such a fruitful era in the '70s. Now where is all that? Where
are the Merles, the Waylons, and the Willies?"
Other 2005 country outsiders echo that concern. Chris Knight, a
singer-songwriter out of Slaughter, Kentucky -- the town is so small,
his address is "4" -- shares Johnny Cash's gift for straightforward
narratives about the morally challenged (give Murder a spin). Still,
he can't bring himself to listen to country radio these days, either.
"There's nothing to identify with there, unless you like going to bars
or riding around in your pontoon boat drinking beer on a Saturday," he
says. "If it's not a drinking, silly-ass redneck song, it's almost
bordering on Christian radio or a beauty pageant song."
Newcomer Shelly Fairchild is a bit more optimistic, or maybe it's just
the spunk in her Mississippi twang. "Honestly, I think that country
music is making a turn for the better in a lot of ways," she says,
pointing out country's recent diversification thanks to the likes of
Shooter Jennings, Gretchen Wilson, and Lee Ann Womack. Fairchild
herself packs a bluesy growl and Gretchen's foot-stompin' sound,
though sans the redneck silliness Knight abhors. "It's good to hear
some old-school country coming back," she concludes. "I'm talking old,
like Southern-rock-influenced. Like John Cash and Hank Jr."
Or like "Steady at the Wheel," a raucous Southern rock number Shooter
chose as his next single, rather than a more commercially palatable
country tune. "It's almost to say that I think country music should
stand up and play this kind of music because nobody else is," he
explains, dismissing rock radio as a bunch of emo crap. "Anybody that
makes Southern rock or music that isn't Kenny Chesney -- real rock 'n'
roll, real American music -- has no home to put it. If country music
expanded its borders and took in all these homeless Southern fuckers,
it would be huge."
A final note: "Outlaw country is dead, as far as I'm concerned," he
counters. "The 'O' in country doesn't necessarily stand for 'outlaw.'
It died with Waylon. With me, I'm clearly Waylon's son. I'm doing my
own thing musically, which is similar to him in that way. But I'm
merely just an extension of what he did. This is music, and we're
talking about the changing of music. Not the claiming of a name."