Singer-songwriter Shooter Jennings talks about the evolution of his career and his latest album, Shooter, available August 10.
As the son of legendary country dream team Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, Southern-rock artist Shooter Jennings grew up immersed in music, touring with his parents on a bus surrounded by other legendary singer-songwriters like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson.
Through the years, Jennings has experimented with different genres and sounds, with albums like his debut, Put the “O” Back in Country; his country-rock follow-up, Electric Rodeo; and his country-metal hybrid, Countach (For Giorgio).
On his latest album, Shooter, Jennings dives back into his country roots, arranging a list of new tracks that would seriously satisfy fans of Hank Jr.
Album highlights include the catchy “Rhinestone Eyes,” the entertaining and good-humored “D.R.U.N.K.,” the slow and steady “Shades & Hues,” and the Southern Comfort sipper “Fast Horses & Good Hideouts.”
Recently, we chatted with Jennings about the new record, his love of genre-blending, and his fascination with computer programming.
Cowboys & Indians: What do you hope fans will take away from the new album?
Shooter Jennings: I feel like this record was a really pure representation of where I was at in that moment of my life. I don’t want to get too pretentious about what I want people to think about it, but me and Dave Cobb set out to make a really boogie-woogie, honky-tonky kind of country record, which I think it mostly turned out to be. I wrote several songs that meant a lot to me, and we went in the studio and crafted them. ... What we ended up with is a pretty simple country record that doesn’t really go after any hotbed topics — it’s for people to enjoy.
We have a lot of experimental projects that we’ve done, and it seems like a lot of the new good country cats are doing a lot of experimental and genre-bending. ... For me, we’ve done that so many times, I thought that the most left-turn and radical thing I could do would be to make a boogie-woogie country record. ... It’s just a real honest record and it was a fondly uniting of me and Dave Cobb, the producer.
C&I: Speaking of the experimental side of your music, your last album, Countach (For Giorgio) was a mix of outlaw country and metal. It even featured Marilyn Manson on the track “Cat People.” How do you think Shooter differs from that?
Jennings: They’re different, obviously, in surface. I mean it’s all kind of an evolution. The Countach record was really, really important to me because at the time I had labored pretty heavily on these two records. There was an EP that was a tribute to George Jones called Don’t Wait Up (For George), and the other one was Countach (For Giorgio). And so with those two records, I had kind of set out to do this art piece. ... I was using a lot of the equipment that Giorgio Moroder used on the George record and then on the Giorgio record, on Countach, I was using a lot of traditional country instruments mixed with synthesizers and stuff like that. ... I wanted to push the boundaries. ... I was trying to just kind of make genres disappear.
I mean, that’s kind of what we’re doing on everything because I just hate the idea that you’re supposed to stay within certain walls to make something work. Back in the day when we first started with traditional country, we were still part of this country radio generation, like the people were still buying records. It wasn’t iTunes. All that stuff was very new. Back then, it’s like they had a way of working and then turning their back on you. ... The record labels back then, they would just say, “Oh, well, then we’re not going to play you because you’re not taking our business model seriously.” ... By the time I got to the George record and Giorgio record, I didn’t have any interest in trying to push Countach to radio. ... It was kind of fun to watch people write about that and try and describe that record.
Anyway, we wanted to do this record and I really just wanted to do something that was straight country. ... It just was the time to completely surrender to a country record. ... I mean, it’s got some weird moments on it, for sure, still but that’s just going to be that way because I write songs that way and all the other records I’ve done kind of mesh into a writing style that’s my own. So there’s probably some stuff in there that’s a little rocky, a little experimental, but overall, I felt like we really kept it country. ...
C&I: All of your albums are so distinct from each other and you’ve experimented with so many different sounds. What inspired the sound of Shooter?
Jennings: Definitely, 100 percent Hank Williams Jr. I’m a very big Bocephus fan. There are 12 records that Hank Jr. put out, the first being Hank Williams Jr. and Friends and the last one being Major Moves, so that’s the ’70s to the late ’80s. Those records — all 12 of them in my opinion — were just such great records. Hank Jr. had a big part in my playing country music because even though I grew up around it, I was a rock kid and I was an MTV kid and I was a rock music-phile. Once I discovered Bowie and the Beatles and Pink Floyd, I just tried to discover everything. So when I moved to L.A, I broke up my rock band. Anyway, that year, my dad had passed away very recently and so there’s a lot of digging into his influences. And then there was this kind of return to me listening to Hank Williams Jr.
When I was a kid — I have this specific memory of an eighth-grade school trip to Washington, D.C. and we stayed in the Howard Johnson across from the Watergate Hotel. I just remember on that trip all the kids were listening to either Guns N’ Roses or Hank Jr. ... There was something about the nostalgia of that, I think, that really kind of made me want to dig back into Hank Jr. I really just absolutely fell in love with him beyond that. ... I really just fell in love with his writing and could relate to his songwriting. ...
C&I: How do you feel like you’ve evolved as an artist since your debut album, Put the “O” Back in Country?
Jennings: I’ve evolved a lot. I mean, I think the whole process is evolution. I’ve become a lot more secure in my writing and my focus and my playing. I’ve gone through a lot of phases and changes ... There’s the whole Jon Hensley period, who was my manager. He came out of nowhere, changed my life, became my best friend, and then passed away.
There’s so many journeys since that first record. I’ve been through so much. ... Musically, I always use this analogy: When you make a record, you’ve kind of got a shack. And then, with the second record, you build a second room onto it. And then you still always have that first room to go back in there and tinker around in. And then the more records I make the house becomes bigger and it’s like if I need to run in that room and do something, I can do that. It’s kind of like building a rainbow of colors. You start with one and then eventually, you’ve got a whole bunch to use. ... It’s just certain lessons you learn. But for me, it’s a constant evolution. It’s like you evolve until you die. Every day is totally different.
C&I: What was the writing and recording process like for the new record?
Jennings: Dave and I had a conversation in which I asked him to do a record, and then I went and I sat down and wrote “Rhinestone Eyes” and “Shades and Hues” that night. And then as the next couple weeks went on, I kept writing. I didn’t want to rehash old material or anything like that. I just wanted to kind of start fresh and get an idea for a record. That’s how it is when I’m making records, anyway. It’s like I get an idea and then I write songs around an idea. ... The only song that I had already written was “Fast Horses & Good Hideouts.”
“Living in a Minor Key,” “Bound Ta Git Down,” “Rhinestone Eyes,” “Fast Horses & Good Hideouts,” and “D.R.U.N.K” — those five were already written when we went into the studio, and the rest of them we made up on the spot. We made up the music on the spot, and then I took a couple weeks to write the lyrics ... and then we came back in and finished the record.
C&I: Is there a song on the album that you’re most proud of?
Jennings: Wow, that’s kind of hard. That’s hard for me. I don’t know. I really love “Rhinestone Eyes.” It’s a song about my wife and going and coming in the years before. I love “Fast Horses & Good Hideouts,” because it talks about Jon, the manager I was telling you about that I love. There’s “Denim & Diamonds” — I like the musical vibe on that one a lot. “Bound Ta Git Down” is like my Bocephus jam. They all have their own little place for me. I mean I’ve done so many songs — I don’t really have favorites, I don’t think, anymore. Every once in a while, one will pop out, but it’s always served the record, and I’m very proud of the record, overall. I feel like we did a really good job with it. I’m proud of the work me and Dave did. …
“Shades & Hues” might be my favorite. You know what, that might be my favorite on the record. I actually have to say that, lyrically and musically, that may be my favorite one.
C&I: What can we expect in terms of touring?
Jennings: I’m already touring too much. I’m out, we’re going nonstop. ... I mean we’re just out there hammering it, and we kind of play stuff from all the records, including Countach. [We’re touring] all the way through November and, really, through January. Hopefully, we’ll hit all the stops.
C&I: Lastly, what’s something fans might not know about you?
Jennings: I think they already know [this], but I’m a pretty big computer nerd. I make these games that you can play online and stuff. So I’ve got a whole other creative side of me. I’m working on my third game at the moment. ... If you come to my house, it looks like it’s 1994, like everything from He-Man posters to old computers and old video games. Me and my wife, we have a LaserDisc player because I collect LaserDiscs. I just love taking a photograph of a certain era and living in it and it’s like, you know, the culture was different when people were making LaserDiscs, so the commentary is different. ... I’m pretty eccentric, I think, when it comes to some things like that, so I’m kind of very much a big child. I had a very happy childhood, and, to me, it’s like, I love living in it, still.
Speed Round with Shooter Jennings
Favorite place in the West: Los Angeles.
First song you look for on the jukebox: “Maggot Brain” by Funkadelic or “Dinosaur” by Hank Jr.
Go-to bar drink: Jack and Coke.
Staple in your wardrobe: My sunglasses.
If you weren’t a singer, you would be a … Computer programmer.
Other artists you’d recommend to your fans: Hellbound Glory, Scott H. Biram, Powder Mill.
Favorite Western book: The Dark Tower by Stephen King.
For more information on Shooter Jennings, including upcoming tour dates and ordering his new album, visit his website.