Shooter Jennings is easy to dismiss. He falls in that exclusive, often infamous club of musicians who have not yet enjoyed the success of their more famous musical parents. Lennon, Allman, Dylan: Some were on the tour bus as children with their famous parents, picking up the craft at an early age through osmosis and, eventually, choosing the path that made a parent important.
Shooter sports the double onus: He’s the son of not one but two Nashville/not-Nashville legends, and his selling point, much like that of his parents, is turning anti-establishment, rough-crowd country music into a career. His father is Waylon Jennings, arguably the most integral part of the anti-Nashville, anti-establishment outlaw country crowd of the ’70s. Shooter sports the Waylon symbol–a gleaming gold eagle, wings stretched and head erect to resemble a capital W–on the clothing he wears. His mother is Jessi Colter, the famous feminine counterpart of that generation of macho men her husband of 32 years helped construct. Her name is tattooed on the underside of his right forearm.
It’s not as surprising as it is frustrating, then, that Jennings–one of the hardest-touring performers on a major label, two promising albums of his own to discuss–constantly gets one question from enterprising journalists: “What was your life growing up, being Waylon Jennings’ son?”
But, as Jennings’ appearance and music both assert, he’s not shy about his past: “I’m proud of him, my dad, and who I am, so I guess I’m happy to answer that.”
Jennings, like his father, even looks like a rough guy. He sports thick, black beard in front of long, straight hair, ubiquitous Aviator sunglasses, tattoos and T-shirts. Pushing the weight of his father’s work, he sings about living close to the edge, too, songs about the morning’s dismal hangovers, the road’s lascivious lure, and solitude’s anxious attraction.
But Jennings is affable and genuine, apologizing almost every time he coughs on a Wednesday afternoon following a show in Orlando and belly laughing when asked about the best question he’s ever heard–“That’s a pretty good question right there. Lot of people just ask the same questions, but that’s definitely one of the best questions I’ve been asked.”
After all, it takes a patient sort to answer the same question from every music critic in America, especially when at least half ask it in a condescending but stargazing manner. But Jennings doesn’t deserve disdain. After recording his first album, Put the “O” Back in Country, Jennings and his Los Angeles band, The .357s, entered the studio almost immediately to record the follow-up, this year’s Electric Rodeo. There was no plan to release two albums at once. He just had songs he wanted in the can.
“That’s the way I am with music, and I have always been that way. Music is so powerful a force in my life,” says Jennings, who says Electric Rodeo is both the tour bus and the tour he’s always wrangling. “We wanted to keep it moving.”
Jennings has, indeed, kept it moving while maintaining his own path. In 1963, Waylon Jennings told Herb Alpert, then president of A&M Records, he wouldn’t conform to his commercial standards. Waylon’s vision of artistic integrity hasn’t survived unadulterated into 2006, but his son’s career to this point suggests it’s possible to be viable without being a viaduct to the Top 40. Modern labels need that message.
Jennings’ sophomore album offers a chance for real stardom, given his starring role in last year’s Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line and a regular DJ set on XM Satellite Radio. But Electric Rodeo is a polar country-rock platter served hard over two sides: The first side is all bloodshot, heartbroken country, sometimes smacked out on rock guitars, while side two is a hilarious ode to ordinary hillbilly and rock clichés like cocaine addiction, sunglasses and how hard being a superstar really can be. Neither side contains a likely smash hit, but Jennings says his label seems content to let both him and his band be themselves.
“The people at the label think The .357s are the best band ever,” Jennings says, laughing as he explains the lack of pressure his label has applied for a quick mainstream cash-in. “We don’t care about what people are expecting from us.”
lhooter Jennings and The .357s play with Bang Bang Bang at the Lincoln Theatre on Saturday, May 6 at 10 p.m.