Music: The Outlaw's Son

With defying tradition his family legacy, Shooter Jennings does a little Waylon of his own

Jun 21, 2006 at 2:06 pm
James Minchin III

While Country radio doesn't "get" him and Rock plays a big role in his music, Shooter Jennings proudly defines himself as a "Country" artist.

The children of celebrities can have a difficult time establishing their own identities, but the children of icons often have an even harder path, especially the ones that go into the family business.

Waylon Albright Jennings (better known as Shooter), the only child of Country legend Waylon Jennings and his fourth wife Jessi Colter, knows all of the pitfalls of being a musician, having lived on his parents' tour bus from a young age. More importantly, he knows how hard it is to follow his father's act. That's why he doesn't try.

"It never weighs me down, it makes me feel stronger in a lot of ways," says Shooter Jennings of his father's legacy from a New Orleans tour stop. "I never felt like it was any kind of a burden. I feel very lucky. He was a kick-ass dude. I know he would be right there with me on what I'm doing."

Jennings began his own musical adventure in the late '90s, when he relocated from Nashville to Los Angeles and started a Rock band that he christened Stargunn.

After becoming a bona fide sensation in the competitive L.A. scene, Jennings realized he was not entirely happy with the success he was having and recognized that his dissatisfaction stemmed from the absence of his father's influence in his music.

In 2003, Jennings dissolved Stargunn and moved to New York to consider his options. Several months later, he took his first steps toward his new direction with a tentative but enlightening gig at the House of Blues, which led him back to L.A. and the formation of a new band called the .357s. He and the band (guitarist Leroy Powell, bassist Ted Russell Kamp, drummer Bryan Keeling) hunkered down for a six-week session that ultimately became his first album, Put the O Back in Country, which yielded the hit single "4th of July" and inspired any number of comparisons to the elder Jennings.

"All these reviews compare my voice to his, saying it's not as good, and it's all kind of stupid to me," says Jennings. "That's not the point of music."

Because Jennings had begun making Put the O Back in Country before he had secured a record deal, he had begun working on a follow-up before the ink was dry on his contract with Universal South. When his debut album was released last spring, Jennings was nearly half done with his sophomore effort, Electric Rodeo, which in his mind helped alleviate the pressure that comes with a second record.

"We had four or five songs before the first record even came out," says Jennings. "With this one, I didn't feel the pressure because I knew we were taking a step in another direction and already onto the next thing. Good reviews or bad reviews, I felt like the people that got it, got it. And there might have been people who were '4th of July' fans and that was it, and maybe they didn't like this record. But I feel like taking a more daring step with this album eliminated the pressure, because you've already thrown your cards on the table and said, 'Oh, no, no, don't worry, I've already got a full house.' "

When Jennings began Put the O Back in Country, he knew that Rock would be just as big a part of his repertoire as Country. And even though he leans heavily in the direction of Rock when he turns it up, with references to everyone from Black Sabbath to Led Zeppelin, Jennings still considers himself a Country artist and he creates from that perspective.

"That's our audience and, to me, that's who we play to," says Jennings. "My point of view and point of reference is from a Country place. They know what we're talking about. I don't think that people who go to My Chemical Romance concerts would come to ours and know what 'lonesome, ornery and mean' was when I say that in 'Little White Lines.' Hopefully, we can lead people into Country music and (they can) understand where we got our influences, but I feel like it would be stupid for me to pursue being a Rock artist when it's very obvious the audience that gets it are Country people. (Even though) Country radio doesn't get it."

Although there were plenty of changes following the release of Put the O Back in Country, Jennings felt as though he had been given the opportunity to create whatever he pleased with this sophomore album. The unknowns of his first album had been exorcised, including the learning curve of discovering the strengths of his new band.

"The first one, we'd kind of just met, me and the band," says Jennings. "With this one, I wanted to establish something that was a different sound, yet was an electric Country record. I had this idea for it when I wrote the first song, which was 'Electric Rodeo,' and I think we pulled it off. I didn't want it to be a standard record. The guys in my band are the best musicians I've ever played with, and the way we connect in the studio is just magic."

Jennings had many of the songs that comprise Electric Rodeo written and finished when he took Put the O Back in Country on the road last year, but he had to hold them back to promote his debut. That was a difficult decision, but now that he's touring the new album, he's put them in the set list with a vengeance.

Jennings had some pretty clear ideas about how Electric Rodeo should turn out, even with its proximity to his first album and without the benefit of either the praise or criticism that it generated. Still, he feels as though this album was easier to write than his debut.

"The first one, I didn't know what I was going to sound like or what we were going to sound like," says Jennings with a laugh. "We didn't have our formula yet, and with this one, we did. And I think the songs are much deeper and more personal, and the humor is the other thing I love about this record. It's so important not to take yourself too seriously and I think we did a good job of not doing that."

SHOOTER JENNINGS opens for Lynyrd Skynyrd and 3 Doors Down at Riverbend on Sunday.