Music Straight shooter

Shooter Jennings is not just Waylon’s son; he has come into his own

With the father of country outlaw Waylon Jennings as his daddy and Johnny Cash as his godfather, it’s easy to imagine where Shooter Jennings inherited his rebellious streak.

This summer, he released his country-rock debut, Put the ‘O’ Back in Country; next month he plays his old man in the Cash biopic Walk the Line, all while continuing on his two-year mission to give Nashville and Music City the kick in the soulless ass it deserves.

Shooter Jennings: country outlaw with rock roots.

“All I’m saying is, bring the energy back to country music,” he says of a raunchy song lyric that declares: “You know that ain’t country music you’ve been listenin’ to. I miss the realness. We had such a fruitful era in the 70s. Now where is all that? Where are the Merles, the Waylons, and the Willies?”

Jennings, 26, blames Garth Brooks and a money machine that prioritized explosive stage shows over music. “Right now, Nashville’s saturated with pop acts,” he says, attacking the cookie-cutter songs that have turned country music into a cliché. “That’s what it is, unfortunately. It happened with rock, too. You had Led Zeppelin come out, then 10 years later everyone was fucking Whitesnake. It’s that kind of shit.”

An LA resident since 1999, Jennings is lean and wiry with dark hair that hangs around his thick beard. There’s always a grin on his face, too, or at least a lazy smile in his voice that adds a surfer drawl to his proud Southern one. The man is a contradiction, much like Bakersfield cowboys Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, who gave Nashville its soul all the way from the West Coast. Just look at his arms: tattoos crawling up each, his mother’s name on one and on the other a six-shooter with the letters CBCS underneath, standing for “country boy can survive.”

Jennings, who’ll appear at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater on Saturday, October 29, is one country boy who threw his album release party at New York’s punk landmark CBGBs, has subbed twice for Axl Rose onstage, and can move freely between LA’s rock scenes and Nashville’s country ones. Like his father, he has earned respect for his “realness.”

“I think I was a little oblivious to it,” he says of the Nashville scene he initially turned his back on in 2000, opting to head to Los Angeles to chase rock ’n’ roll dreams with his band, Stargunn. “At the time, I was infatuated with LA and the culture. There were beautiful women and nice cars everywhere. Everyone was laid-back and liked rock ’n’ roll. Nobody knew who my dad was. I didn’t expect that, either, but it ended up kind of taking me away from all that pressure.”

Despite flirting from major labels, Stargunn never made it, as Jennings came to realize during the final year of their six-year run. “Musicianship wise, I don’t know if we were enough to cut the mustard. I think we were all just kids trying to figure out what to do, who didn’t know what the deal was, but were willing to try it,” he explains. “It was kind of like summer camp, learning how to be a band.”

“I was listening to so much

country that I realized, ‘God,

we can’t play music like this.’”

- Shooter Jennings

It all came to a head not long after the rest of the band strong-armed Jennings into firing their manager, an old friend of his. “That’s how it works, you know. It’s like Peyton Place or something,” he says. There were other mitigating factors, the biggest of which was Jennings himself, who, despite his disinterest in country music since discovering rock in his teens, had begun to turn to it for inspiration. Old vinyl recordings of the Grand Ole Opry, Jimmie Rodgers, and even his father, made him realize that maybe, just maybe he wasn’t being true to who he really was.

“As I as getting older, as I was hitting 22, 23, 24, I started getting obsessed with country. Even with Stargunn, we’d cover ‘Whiskey Bent & Hellbound,’ ‘Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother,’ and ‘Sunset Blvd.’ by Charlie Rose. So it all started as a little seed there, you know. But as Stargunn went on, I was listening to so much country that I realized, ‘God, we can’t play music like this.’ I knew what our limitations were.”

Jennings’ life changed after his father died from complications of diabetes. Waylon died on February 15, 2002, and on March 31, 2003, Shooter broke up Stargunn.

“It had a big impact on me, too, ’cause it was definitely a moment when I knew I needed to get my shit together,” he says.

The decision was made easier by the presence of a new love in his life, actress Drea de Matteo (Joey, The Sopranos). “I owe a lot to her,” he says, his tone softening. “When Stargunn broke up, she was the one who said, ‘Hey, you can do this.’ If not for her, man, I don’t think I’d be where I am now — especially not this fast.”

It’s a love affair that leaves him gushing, even three years on. “From day one, we kind of hit each others like planets colliding and we’ve been the same ever since,” he says. “The way she is about music and the way she is about life, she’s the most real person you’ll ever meet. Just trying to keep myself as real as she is is hard.”

The need for realness defines him, nearly as much as where he came from, which is why director James Mangold cast him as Waylon Jennings in a bit part opposite Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. One has to imagine he learned a thing or two about his dad while filming, but he says, “Mostly, `the director` just made me be myself as much as possible.”

Maybe that’s the best way to bring to life what Waylon Jennings represented, by just letting Shooter be the man he was born to be.

By Cole Haddon

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