By the outlaw’s code
Shooter Jennings’ parents always disagreed on how he got his nickname.
His mother, country singer Jessi Colter, cited her and husband Waylon Jennings’ love of western culture and cowboy art for inspiring the gun-derived moniker. But his father, the late outlaw country singer, said he came up with the name when, moments after the newborn emerged from his mother’s womb, the boy sprayed a nurse before anyone could put on his first diaper.
“I love my mom,” says the 25-year-old Jennings, “but I like Dad’s version better. And I believe it’s true. He didn’t make [stuff] like that up.”
Besides, it’s evident from Jennings’ debut album, due Tuesday from Universal South Records, that he likes bold entrances. “Put the ‘O’ Back in Country” is a raucous country-rock collection that leans heavily on crashing hard-rock chords, outlandish statements, murder ballads and true-life tales of pot busts and broken relationships.
Rattling the polite, often-conservative sensibilities of the current country music climate is exactly what Jennings aims to do. “What’s wrong with Nashville today is that there’s a lot of wimpy, ‘Mr. Mom’ [junk] out there,” he says, referring to the peppy, soccer-mom-targeted hit from G-rated country-pop band Lonestar. “Some of it is OK, but most of it is way too ironed out.”
Jennings, as his father did, blames the Nashville system for setting up assembly-line recordings that emphasize uniformity and safe subject matter over diversity and individual expression.
“It seems like they find a guy who looks good, put him in a cowboy hat and have him sing with the same musicians everyone else uses,” says Jennings. “They give them songs written by four Nashville songwriters who meet for lunch, and they sound like songs written by bored, middle-aged guys because they are. Everything is too serious or too sappy. Someone’s got to liven things up and have some fun. Someone’s got to write songs people my age can relate to.”
With his long, raven locks falling over his face and shoulders, Jennings looks more like a scruffy hard rocker than a carefully groomed modern country performer. He has a tattoo of a six-shooter pistol on one arm, and under that he has the letters C.B.C.S., for “country boy can survive,” a reference to a song by Hank Williams Jr., a longtime family friend.
His other arm sports his mother’s name in ink. His stomach shows his father’s latter-day logo, the spread wings of an eagle with a “W” emblazoned in the middle. He wears an earring with a gold version of the same insignia, a piece of jewelry that belonged to his father.
For Jennings, contradicting Nashville’s conventions is a family tradition. His father, along with Willie Nelson, became the figurehead of the ‘70s “outlaw movement,” which transferred creative power from Music Row record producers to the artists and their handpicked bands. It also spurred a revival in country sales that lasted until the end of the decade, when producers gained control again during the “Urban Cowboy” movement.
Shooter’s given name is Waylon Albright Jennings -- his middle name comes from Richie Albright, his father’s longtime co-producer and drummer. The last of Jennings’ six children, and the only one from his marriage to Colter -- Waylon’s fourth wife -- Shooter was born in 1981 during a low point in artistic viability for country music. He entered his teens during the boom years of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain.
“I rebelled against country music as a kid,” says Jennings. “I think a lot of people who grow up in Nashville are like that. It’s not like that in L.A., where kids all want to be in the local entertainment industry. In Nashville, everyone -- even the kids of country stars -- grows up on rock ‘n’ roll, not country music.”
For that reason, Jennings moved to Los Angeles from Nashville when he turned 18. He formed a hard-rock band, Stargunn, that did well on the Hollywood circuit, playing the Viper Room and other rock clubs. But in March 2003, Jennings dissolved the band.
“We made a living for four years,” Jennings says. “But I was getting older and grew out of the rock thing. All of a sudden I was listening to country music all the time, and I realized my songs worked better as country songs. So I took what I love about rock, the energy and the rawness of it, and mixed it with the storytelling and the directness that I love about country music.”
After living in New York briefly with his on-and-off girlfriend, actress Drea de Matteo of “Joey” and “The Sopranos,” Jennings returned to L.A. and formed a new band, the .357s, with guitarist Leroy Powell, bassist Ted Kamp and drummer Bryan Keeling. He also hooked up with producer Dave Cobb, a Georgia native who proved integral in helping the band find its sound.
“First time I met Dave, I said, ‘Hey man,’ ” says Jennings, imitating the mush-mouthed greeting familiar to Southern men. “And he said, ‘Hey man,’ and we smiled, and before long we realized we were the only two people from the South in the room. We had this connection [and] we knew where the other person was coming from.”
The band began recording with Cobb without knowing where the music was headed or who would release the album, coming up with a distinctive style that sounds like a young Hank Williams Jr. backed by a Southern-bred Guns N’ Roses.
“After it was done, we were like ... ‘We cut a country record!’ ” Jennings says with a laugh. “So we figured, what the heck, we’re a country band. Everyone we played it for liked it. I thought Nashville would reject it for sure, I thought they’d think it was too wild or too rockin’, but they didn’t.”
Jennings first played it for veteran producer Tony Brown, a senior partner at Universal South.
“He was crazy about it,” Jennings says. “He said he’d put it out just as it is, without changing a thing. I couldn’t believe it.”