Highway's Song

Putting the “O” Back in Outlaw: Waiting for the Next Stage with Shooter Jennings

Shooter Jennings

So what really is outlaw country? In an era of perpetual genre-bending, sometimes it’s hard to tell which category includes the metal band that does only Abba covers on accordions or the singer-songwriter who improves slam-poetry to the ukulele strummings of Tiny Tim. It’s also difficult to pick out the stars who were really born with the mojo in their blood. Which tattooed ruffian is really Jared Kushner in a Halloween costume? Which “gangsta” has recorded three albums since graduating summa cum laude from NYU? And which country singer paid thousands to a
speech coach to learn how to say “ain’t” correctly?

In an era of sampling, “share” buttons, and re-gifting, when it’s sometimes impossible to tell the original from the copy, authenticity is hard to come by. That’s why Shooter Jennings sticks out in the crowd. When you see and hear him, you know it’s the real deal.

Waylon “Shooter” Jennings was born in 1979 to Waylon Sr. and Jessi Colter, the “Jessi” in Hank Williams Jr.’s “All My Rowdy Friends.” Shooter was basically born on the road with the Highwaymen: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, who along with Waylon Jennings first defined outlaw country back in the 1970s. Shooter’s crib was set up in the aisle of the tour bus as the Highwaymen toured America throughout the early ’80s.
He started out on drums at the age of five and added piano then guitar by his teens. Often traveling with his parents, Shooter would sit in on percussion with his dad’s band. NOT following in his father’s footsteps, Shooter played in a hard rock band, KilRaven, in high school. Later he would become known just as much as a rocker as a country artist. He included the KilRaven song “Only You” on his 2011 Missed the Boat, an album devoted to old demos and outtakes.

While Shooter was still in high school in 1996, he and his dad recorded an album together called Fenixon. However, even with (count ’em) two “Waylon Jennings” on the project, the album could not find a label and sat for 18 years until Shooter released it himself, on his own label Black Country Rock in 2014.
One key characteristic of outlaw country is its rejection of the “Nashville sound,” that merging of American regional and folk music with glitzy pop arrangements and syrupy-sweet vocals. Country music outlaws such as Willie Nelson and Shooter’s dad rejected the pop formula of Nashville and headed west to the honky-tonks of Texas and rock scene of LA. In this country and western setting, Waylon, Willie, and dozens of others, melded traditional country with western swing, rockabilly, and rock ‘n’ roll, especially the rock ‘n’ roll attitude.

Born in Nashville, Shooter, too, decided to head west and, in 2001, he moved to Los Angeles. He soon formed the rock band Stargunn and released the album The Only Way Up Is Down. Stargunn toured with hard rock bands like Tesla and appeared on various movie soundtracks as well as a tribute to Waylon Jennings: I’ve Always Been Crazy. In 2004, Shooter decided to change direction and left Stargunn, returning to a sound closer to his roots with the album Put the “O” Back in Country, which, as the name indicates strutted a whole lotta outlaw attitude. Shooter was putting the “O” back in outlaw.

“I always come back to country,” says Shooter. “That’s what I care about.”

From 2005 to 2016, Shooter released ten studio albums, including Fenixon from 1996, plus several live recordings and compilations. That’s nine new studio albums in 12 years! At a time when the average album takes three years to write, record, and produce, this represents an incredible level of output.

Yet die-hard country fans will need to stretch their listening palette. While these albums often serve up heapin’ helpings of country, alt-country, and so-called southern rock, they also put Shooter’s many other musical inspirations on display. Whereas he would return to his roots for albums and performances dedicated to longtime heroes and “family” members Johnny Cash and George Jones, he also ventured into more hard rock, going out on the Warped Tour in 2009, and even 1970s electronic music in his 2016 tribute album to Giorgio Moroder called Countach (for Giorgio). To bend the genres even further, Shooter invited Goth rocker Marilyn Manson to the Countach sessions.

Back in 2005, Shooter, needing a label, signed with Universal South. But, as Shooter explains, “We never found a label that fit.” After a couple of years, Shooter left Universal and started releasing material independently. In 2010, he made it official, announcing the formation of his own independent label Black Country Rock Records and Media at the behest of his late manager Colonel Jon Hensley.

Since 2010, Black Country Rock Records (BCR) has released an eclectic mix of artists, not to mention Shooter’s own diverse mix of recordings. Besides releasing mom Jessi’s work (Jessi also has a new bio book out and has been collaborating with Lenny Kaye of Patti Smith fame!), Shooter has produced work by Billy Ray Cyrus, yes—Miley’s dad—and Ron Jeremy, yes—that Ron Jeremy. He’s also released songs, as stated before, by his old high school band and continues to release the work of father Waylon.
“Producing is something I love,” says Shooter. “We needed to find an outlet where we could produce what we want.”

Currently, Shooter is gearing up for a new release by the band Hellbound Glory. The album Pinball will be released this month, on October 13. Shooter describes lead singer Leroy Virgil as the “Kurt Cobain of country.” And he is producing an album for country star Julie Roberts: “Working with Shooter on my new album was such a beautiful experience. Not only is this new music special to me, but the stories behind the album are fascinating,” Roberts says. “I can’t wait to share the new material on the road.” In addition to producing, Shooter plays acoustic and electric guitars, piano, and sings harmony.

Adds Shooter, “With the release of Hellbound Glory’s Pinball and the future release of Julie’s new album, we are putting one foot firmly in the ring of independent record labels.”

So there you have it. Shooter not only sounds like a country outlaw, he also sounds like a record exec. And, in fact, Shooter is wearing a vast assortment of hats these days. “It’s a necessity. You need to build your own avenue, your own channel. We’ve been working with a distribution company out of Memphis. And now we own our own work. My children will own the masters. It’s nice to be able to do something crazy too, like record Ron Jeremy.”

Today, Shooter is a double- or triple-threat. It’s obvious he knows his way around the music industry. Not only does he continue to write, record, and tour, he also produces and runs his record label. Firmly planted in many scenes, he’s able to move effortlessly within the industry and work with many, diverse people. He’s even dabbled in acting.

In 2005, he starred as his father in the movie Walk the Line with Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix. Currently, he is looking to make a Waylon Jennings biopic. A script has been written. And the wheels are turning. In addition, Black Country Rock is regularly releasing singles and live recordings from Waylon’s vault. Watch for some new releases next Record Store Day. Meanwhile, Shooter’s mom Jessi continues working, promoting both her album and book.

Shooter continues to work with and maintain contact with the extended “Highwayman family.” He’s recorded with Lukas Nelson, including many versions of the Waylon and Willie songs. And he stays in touch with John Carter Cash, Kelly Kristofferson, and others. Just as the world once hoped that the Beatles kids would get together, can we hold our breath for a “Highwaykids” reunion?
Shooter is also working on a new album of his own with longtime collaborator Dave Cobb. Still untitled, the album features the song “Do You Love Texas?,” which is being used for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. “Dodge Ram said they would match funds. And Kris Kristofferson phoned in some of the ‘hell yeahs’ in the chorus.”
In 2017, after all of this studio output, Shooter saw fit to take the label’s endeavors outside of the studio and go out on the Road (no crib in the tour bus this time).

Shooter has been cultivating a Black Country Rock studio band that’s played on most of the label’s titles. This same band will be doing the tour with Ted Russell Kamp (bass), John Schreffler (guitar), Jamie Douglass (drums), and Aubrey Richmond (fiddle).
“It’s great to be back on the road with Shooter and making music,” Kamp says. “He’s super talented and soulful. These records we’ve been on with Hellbound Glory, Julie Roberts and so forth show just how deep and eclectic he is, and it’s really starting to come out in the live show. Everything from [Jennings’ album] Black Ribbons to country, rock, and the Waylon and Willie vibe included.”

If you want to see what a real a country outlaw looks and sounds like, catch a Shooter Jennings show this fall!

Julie Roberts, Hellbound Glory, band member Ted Russell Kamp, who is also a singer-songwriter, open alternating dates during the tour. Julie opens at the Belly Up on October 8.
Shooter will be in the Southwest the first part of October before heading back to Texas for a show in Amarillo on the October 11. To quote another Outlaw Country singer David Allan Coe: “If that ain’t Country, I’ll kiss your ass.”

Shooter Jennings will be at the Belly Up on October 8, 143 S. Cedros, Solana Beach, 8pm. Julie Roberts opens.

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