Shooter Jennings on Death, Politics, and the Family Business

Shooter Jennings
Shooter Jennings Courtesy of Big Hassle Media
Shooter Jennings can fuck you up, if that’s what he’s trying to do. Using his perfectly imperfect voice, he can be blistering, brutal, and heartbreaking. He backs it up with slick guitar playing and a band of musicians that are equally forceful.

On his new record, Shooter, though, he’s not trying to hurt you. Don't misunderstand; he does want to shake you up, but in a good way. The nine-song offering that comes out in early August starts off with “Bound Ta Get Down,” offering a whole lotta goodness-gracious-great-balls-of-fire energy and a frenetic pace that maintains its relentlessness till the end. He hopes to cure some existential woes through hyper-charged honky-tonk tunes.

Jennings hits Phoenix for a stop on his tour on Sunday, August 5. We caught up with him for a chat and got the scoop on the new release, and other things like what he thinks of his own voice, and growing up in a house with country music legends Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter for parents.

Not to compare, but when Shooter kicks off, it’s immediately reminiscent of the sound and fire of acts like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Compare away! I love other music; that’s why I play music. Definitely, the Jerry Lee boogie-woogie was important to bring into this album.

Let’s dig into this new record a bit – did you set out to make this with any particular goals in mind?
I wanted to make, you know, a record for me. I was trying to follow the inspiration vibe, which is what I usually do – follow a spark or source of inspiration that I get excited about. It’s funny: I actually had another record I was almost done with, which I think will probably come out next. We'll see. When I started talking to Dave [Cobb, producer] about doing this record – we've done five records together – I thought instantly, I want to do a Hank Jr. record. It just felt like everyone who is really good at country, especially, is doing kind of records with these experimental and progressive vibes and I've been making progressive records – at least every other record – for years.

I just wanted to do a really solid kind of boogie-woogie country release. Like a 1987 country record, that was the idea and Dave was very into it, so we went with that. And that really just means no frills, to some degree. There are different elements in the songs, but through and through, it’s mainly about the songs being simple and maintaining the country vibe. It was about giving people a record that they could really enjoy and celebrate, instead of mourning things that are going on, like political divisiveness and such. We wanted to make something simple and that we thought was a celebratory type of record and not too sad or introspective. We went after the kind of records we loved as kids.

Is the other record you made – the one you’re considering as the next release – a little darker?
Yes. It, it's all over the place, but it's darker and it's uh, it's pretty progressive, which can be a weird word to use when talking about music. But what I mean is that it's adventurous, musically. It has to do with a lot of people in my life that had passed away. My best friend and manager passed away about three years ago. And then my old art teacher passed away shortly after, and he was a dear friend and a very, very big influence on me. A friend of the family died a couple of years before, so it had a lot to do with them and it had a lot to do with life. Despite that, it isn't negative or depressing, it’s still pretty high-energy. It will come out at some point. I took some time from it and went into the studio to do some co-producing on Brandi Carlile’s record and
talking with Dave during that time, I felt like if I put that other record out, it would be similar to a lot of things coming out and I wanted to run in the opposite direction and do something that’s just really country and really positive. It felt like now it was the right time for Shooter. I love this record and I’m very proud of it. I’m happy that it’s coming out on Dave Cobb’s Low Country Sound (an Elektra Records imprint) label. It’s fun. It feels like a fun adventure at the moment.

Sorry for your losses.
Thank you. It's was so hard to lose John, my friend and manager. He taught me so much though, and his death taught me so much, too. I carry him with me everywhere I go. He is with me and I learned so much that I've given to my kids. They're mostly with me when I'm off the road and we spend time with John's parents and family and they get to be a part of that. Loss is really tough and losing someone you really love is hard, but at the same time the best thing you can do is pull the best love and energy out of that and bring that into your world. I feel like John will never be gone as long as I'm here. I constantly do things with him in mind.

You mentioned that you’ve made progressive and experimental country records for a while and now you see a lot of that happening. Do you feel like you were a direct influence on that?
I don't know. Other people will say that, but I think it's all an evolution. I hear things that I think maybe we helped make it okay for others to do. But people like Sturgill [Simpson] are out there killing it and I hear a lot of things in his music that show that we come from the same kind of background I was kicking around a while, and then he came up. And he’s also worked with Dave. Dave and I, particularly, in the first four records that we did as a team, created some music that is recognizable in one way or another and we both have continued that vision when we've worked with other people, so I think that there's definitely our own influence being spread out among different artists and records we've produced and worked on, so in that way, maybe so.

I think we’ve had an impact. I don't how big it is. I'm not a millionaire, so obviously it's not that big (laughs), but I am really proud of this record. I feel like I've always done my own thing. The landscape has grown since we started and there a lot of great bands and artists out there, like Sturgill and Chris Stapleton and Hellbound Glory, and Brandi Carlile and they have all made their own way, but we're all part of the big arc of music that continues to churn.
With the current intense political and social climates, artists are going in two directions right now – making work to address it or making art to help people cope. You’re going for the latter with this new one. Do you feel a responsibility to address the issues?
There’s an artist that I love – Dax Riggs. He’s one of the coolest songwriters and performers out there. We got to meet up when I had a day off in New Orleans and he said something really poignant in relation to a song that he was working on. Even though it wasn’t a political song, he felt like it was sounding political, and he said that he doesn’t like to sing about real life because it kind of breaks down that fourth wall – the wall of fantasy – in some ways. It’s like when you’re a kid in your room and you put your headphones, you’re doing it in a way that’s not so much for escapism but to dream about something that takes you away from where you are. Which, I guess is escapism, to some degree.

Getting lost in the music.
Yes, like when I was young and I was listening to like David Bowie, or Nine Inch Nails, or The Beatles, I’d get into thinking about every aspect of it – where the song came from, how it was made. And I’m sure there are inner political conversation going on there but more in a fantasy-style way. I think there is kind of a tent that you have to keep above yourself when you play music because I think the minute you take it down and the minute you start talking about things so directly, especially political things that people disagree about, it can change things. It’s easy to say “Oh, I don’t want to divide my audience,” but it’s not really about that – you may be saying something because you really believe in it, so I’m definitely not discrediting anyone for speaking out, I just think there’s a certain fourth wall that you have to keep up that lets you to do anything musically. Once you break that wall then how can you turn around and do something that’s not so in-your-face? I feel like people listen to music to get away from all of that and once you invade that space, too, then maybe you’re not really giving them a safe space to go from all those issues. I feel like right now with especially divisive things happening, people need that.

Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble” from Graceland is a great example. There's a lot in there that he's talking about but he does it in an indirect manner, creating a lot of imagery, and it remains this space where it's not here's just what I think about this thing that happened last week and here's what I think about it and I'm gonna talk about it. That for me would ruin it for me and I don't think it would be my place to do that. I like to retain that safe space for the people who like my music and they don't have to worry about what my opinion on say, gun control is.

There’s an infinite amount of great music that is subtly universal.
There are people who are masters of that. Like John Lennon; as direct as he could be, was a master of that. “Imagine” is a masterpiece. It’s a song that a 7-year-old will love without thinking about what's being said but will be able to pull the love out of it.

Interesting example, because that’s also a case where his creative mastery still seems to transcend his alleged personal flaws – at least in the public eye – like being a lousy dad and having an aggressive temper.
Look at Bob Dylan – he's done such a good job of obscuring what his real personality is like that he's been able to address so many things, in his way, in a poetic nature, and you still don't really know what kind of parent he is, things like that. He's retained such a sense of mystery that it's allowed him to have cast a wide net.
Growing up in a famous musical family, did you ever feel internal or external pressure to perform or be successful?
Pressure, not really. When I was coming up in music, I moved to Los Angeles. That was about 20 years ago, so I was kind of separated from the whole Nashville scene and being Waylon's kid. I was just another dude out here. Once I put out that first record, I started becoming aware of what the shadow concept was, just because a lot of fans got real judgey (laughs) – I'll get them now and again. I've done so much stuff, though, since then and I've run off enough people with some of my crazier records that I feel confident about where I’m at. I'm 40 next year and I'll run across people who talk about listening to my records when they were young, which makes me feel old! So the Waylon factor, unfortunately, I would love for all of his fans to live until they're 250 years old but they're getting old, so there are lot more younger fans of course and they're more accepting, but I'm definitely feeling older myself, so the pressure isn't even there. Every two months or so I'll get an Instagram post like this: “He’s not as good as his dad and never will be,” or something like that, but that's about the extent of it.

The pursuit and acquisition of fame can be destructive, especially if you’re not in the right head space. Sounds like you came from a grounded environment.
Yeah, I was lucky because my dad and mom both only cared about music, they didn't care about monetary success. My dad would get excited about music he liked, so I lived with two people who lived in a creative fantasy land – a heartfelt, creative, honest environment and for that reason it made me somewhat oblivious to that kind of stuff. Obviously, I don't have money from my dad where I don't have to work. I have always had to work and it hasn't always been easy. I understand the importance of it. I often tour way more than I want just to pay the bills but I choose to live in Los Angeles rather than somewhere cheaper.

I’ve read that you’re not a fan of your own voice.
I've always really never liked my voice. I know it's gotten better over the years. I listen back to that first record and I can almost not listen to it because I'm singing so bad. I've never been a great singer; it's never been my thing. I like thinking about music and arrangements. I like producing other records because I don't have to sing. I can just sit back and cruise through the arrangements and have fun with that while other people are playing. There's been different periods of time when I've been insecure about my voice. There was a period of time when I was having a falling out with a bandmate; he would constantly tell me what a shitty singer I was. At the same time, my girlfriend was telling me that I needed to take vocal lessons. It was just so upsetting to me. It's not that I didn't want to take vocal lessons, it's just not what I'm into. I'm not trying to become fuckin' Frank Sinatra. I just wanted to get better and I think over time and playing so many shows and being away from relationships that at the time were toxic and dragging me down, I got out of that mindset and got my confidence up and now I'm fine with my voice. I find when I sing in front of people in the studio, I don't do very well, but when I take it home or sing in a studio by myself I know my voice and how to edit. That's kind of how I like to do vocals. I've come along way with it. I was just so insecure about it. I get through it but it's my least favorite part of all of it because it's the one thing I can't control as much as I can other instruments.

When you're here in Phoenix, you'll be doing some of this about-to-be released Shooter, right?
Yeah, we'll be playing if not the whole record, most of it. There's only one song on the record we haven't played live yet and we're working that up during this run. I'm sure we'll play most, if not all.

Your mom, Jessi Colter, lives here. Any chance she will join you for a song or two?
I usually drag her on stage. I'm looking forward to seeing her; I'll try talk her into doing a jam with me. Usually, she's totally into it. It depends on the night. Sometimes she's like. "Don't pull me up there!" But I’ll probably get her up there!

Shooter Jennings. With Hellbound Glory. 8 p.m., August 5 at The Rebel Lounge, 2303 East Indian School Road; 602-296-7013; Tickets are $20 to $25 via Ticketfly.
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Amy Young is an arts and culture writer who also spends time curating arts-related exhibits and events, and playing drums in local bands French Girls and Sturdy Ladies.
Contact: Amy Young