Dont let Shooter Jennings fool you.
Sure, he rocks. Hes lean and wiry, with tattoos snaking up his arms his mothers name on one, a gun on the other and a crimson stud gleaming in one ear. Hes played sold-out shows at the Viper Room and the Roxy. Hes subbed for Axl Rose onstage twice with Guns N Roses.
But look a little closer. Underneath that gun are the letters CBCS, for "country boy can survive." That earring turns out to be an eagle silhouette spreadwinged into the letter "W" an icon known by anyone who has listened to and loved the original outlaw, Waylon Jennings.
That same icon is etched onto Shooters stomach, but the one in his ear is even more special.
"My dad got his ear pierced when he was I swear to God sixty, because he wanted to be like me," the younger Jennings explains.
"This was the earring he wore and Im wearing it now."
If thats not enough to make it clear that bloodlines run deep from father to son, then check out Shooters debut album, PUT THE O BACK IN COUNTRY. The passion on "Southern Comfort," scraped raw from the walls of some backwoods church ? the guitars on "Daddys Farm," stacked, harmonized and slathered in deep-fried soul ? "4th of July," a crank-it-up summer celebration sweetened by a sprinkling of George Jones ? the treadshredding, back-road, hairpin spin of "Busted in Baylor County" ? and, above all, "Put the O Back in Country," which jabs a finger in the eye of everything thats wrong with Americas music today ?
Hoss, its country music, the way it ought to be alive with blood and thunder, spit and spirit and Southern soul.
Waylon fought this battle in his own way, back in the day. But the sun has sunk and the shadows have spread deeper across country music since then. And as cowboy poseurs roam this dim and dreary land, Shooter sets it ablaze with an affirmation that country music real country music is back.
And this time its not going away.
"The main thing I want people to understand is that Im a country artist," Shooter says. "Sure, theres rock in there. Ive played a lot of rock & roll. I take a lot from it. But its country music. And Im going to push it as far as I can because its that important."
"Im rollin like a freight train, comin straight at you/Im playin hillbilly music, like I was born to do/You know, it aint country music youve been listenin to."
"Put the O Back in Country"
Waylon Albright Jennings was born rollin. The only child of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, he lived his first few years in a crib on his parents tour bus. "I thought everybodys family was like mine," he remembers. "Wed check out of hotels and travel all night. Songwriting, shows, stage setups, the band, the crew, the bus, the trucks all that stuff was normal. And I loved it. To this day I sleep better on the bus than anywhere else."
Above all, there was the music though, strange as it seems, Shooter never thought of it as something he himself would ever do. "I remember hearing Dads band," he says. "They were always great. I loved the way those shows felt, with the colored lights coming on. I can still really see him onstage, starting Luckenbach, Texas. Night after night, Id watch from the wings. But I never put two and two together, like, Maybe Ill get older and do this too."
Without thinking about it much, Shooter started making music anyway. By age five he was playing drums. Between tours, back in Nashville, he took piano lessons, didnt like them, stopped, then started teaching himself and enjoying it more. He picked up his guitar at fourteen and hasnt put it down since. He and his dad recorded a few things together when they happened to have some microphones set up and the tape recorder plugged in. Then at sixteen he discovered rock & roll.
Driven by a sound he heard coming together in his head something like Lynyrd Skynyrd mutating into Guns N Roses Shooter left a couple of years later to seek his fortunes in L.A. "I had to get out of Nashville because I didnt feel it was my place at the time," he explains. "I wanted to get out while I was young. I wanted to play rock, and if Id tried to do that in Nashville a lot of expectations would have been laid on me. I wasnt comfortable with that, so after I got out of high school, I was gone."
In L.A., Shooter assembled a band and named it Stargunn. For six or seven years they tore up the local clubs, built a rabid following, earned raves from the local music press ? but something was wrong.
"I loved rock," he explains. "I loved its f-you attitude.
But that Hollywood thing started to get to me. The more I went to all these crazy Paris Hilton parties, the more I was like, Man, this sucks! I felt like everybody Id known back in Nashville was looking at me like I was some big Hollywood asshole. I was posing as a rocker a country guy trying to be something he wasnt."
As this sank in, Shooter remembered one of the many lessons of life his father had passed down to him. "The most important thing he ever said to me was, Dont ever try to be like anybody else, because you aint never gonna be. Then one day I was trying to describe what I wanted in this one song, and I said something about David Alan Coe, and everybody was like, Who? Thats when I realized that about 75 percent of my story wouldnt work with this band."
On March 30, 2003, Shooter dissolved Stargunn and went to New York City to spend some time with his girlfriend and sort out what he wanted to do next. It took just a few weeks for Fate to show up, as it often does, with an opportunity, in the form of an invitation to play at the House of Blues in May. "I was certainly not ready," he remembers, "but I said yes just to inspire my ass to get a band together and try. We did that show, and it wasnt terrible, but it was enough to pump me up and get me to start writing the songs I wanted to write."
Once he had his material together, Shooter went back to L.A., found some musicians who could connect to his true, new sound, dubbed them the 357s, and locked himself into a studio with them. Six weeks later they emerged with Put the O Back in Country, a set of rambunctious country that leaves no doubt of where Shooter comes from and where hes going.
"In country music I feel completely free to do what I want to do," he insists. "I still get off to a lot of whats going on in rock the White Stripes are great and so is Velvet Revolver. I almost feel like real rock & roll is more present in country than it is in rock. You wouldnt hear Keep Your Hands to Yourself on rock radio now. Itd be on country radio, because you cant bullshit country fans; they know authentic music when they hear it. And thats what Im out to do."
Not only that Shooter does it with a sound thats nourished by tradition, that acknowledges his family, and yet is entirely his own. "In my head, I still wish I sounded like a Waylon record from 1978," he laughs. "But I know I sound like myself. I guess that comes from finally doing what I want, even though Im embracing my heritage too. Thats important in country music. Somebody asked me once if its hard living in my fathers shadow. Hell, no its great! I love my fathers music. In fact, I want a Waylon song on my next record. But PUT THE O BACK IN COUNTRY is all me, coming out fast, balls to the wall."
Shooter is already on his way, a shooting star on the rise. His duet with Hank Williams, Jr. was a highlight of CMTs Outlaws special in the fall of 2004. "Please Carry Me Home," which he wrote and recorded with his mother for the anthology Music Inspired by the Passion of the Christ, moved Todd Sterling of Country Review to observe that "Shooter has the same soulfulness in his voice as his late father." Meanwhile, his big-screen debut, playing his father opposite Joaquin Phoenixs Johnny Cash, promises to be a highlight of next years biopic WALK THE LINE.
All well and good, but no matter where Shooter Jennings instincts lead him, PUT THE O BACK IN COUNTRY points right to the heart of who he is. "My whole statement is about the music," he insists. "Its about not being afraid to cross any boundaries. Its about freedom. And I know that the people in that little place between New York and L.A. called America will come, as long as the music is real."