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April 18, 2006

Cocked and loaded: Shooter Jennings ain’t the only hell his Daddy ever raised

BY KEVIN M. WILSONOnce you’re dead, you’re beloved. Y’know, the “late, great,” and “what he did for our music.” But until then, it’s always, “trouble-makin’ son of a bitch.” —Waylon JenningsShooter Jennings, the offspring of country music superstar Jessi Colter and outlaw legend Waylon Jennings, allegedly got his nickname because his daddy was such a pistol, so to speak.The late, great Waylon Jennings (who died in 2002) is remembered as a massively successful hell-raising country artist who, in his prime, operated apart from the slick Nashville establishment of the 1970s. He famously (notoriously) ran with like-minded artists Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash. Many forget Waylon was once a rocker who, as a member of Buddy Holly’s band, should’ve been on the plane that crashed and killed Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in 1959.Like his daddy’s, Shooter’s career trajectory begins in rock ’n’ roll. Fleeing Nashville as a teenager, he settled in Los Angeles and set about making noise with his band Stargunn. The hard-hitting ensemble was quickly a favorite among the club crowd and attracted the attention of some of L.A.’s most notorious rabble-rousers, including the exiled members of Guns N’ Roses. This connection later provided some wild collaboration. As Shooter recalls, “Duff used to come see us play all the time, and before they got Scott to do the Velvet Revolver thing, they sort of asked if I wanted to ‘play Axl’ for some club dates.” Shooter laments the fact that Axl Rose has “gone the way of Michael Jackson,” and is convinced that “if he wasn’t so weird, they could be huge again.” He even hints that early GNR tracks like “Night Train” would be great honky-tonk numbers not so out of place in his own repertoire.When Shooter discerned that his true musical future was to be realized elsewhere, he retired Stargunn. Soon thereafter he recruited an outlaw band of his own, dubbed them the 357’s, and took aim at the present Nashville establishment. Shooter admits that’s a scene in which he “really hasn’t mingled that much,” but he nonetheless thinks it leaves a lot left to be desired.In discussing what’s missing from so many modern country acts, Shooter notes that “you don’t have to pick cotton to be a good artist,” but people like Billy Joe Shaver, for example, who are connected with “hard luck, hard living and hard times,” bring a certain soulfulness to their music that can’t be learned or faked. Needless to say, Billy Joe Shaver types aren’t abundant in Nashville these days.For Shooter, authenticity is key. That’s exactly what’s delivered on his semi-dangerous debut record, last year’s Put The ‘O’ Back In Country. On that rambunctious offering, he attacks with 11 flavorful tracks that reflect a man simultaneously inspired by Led Zeppelin’s “The Rover” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.” In fact, Shooter suspects his band is occasionally taunted by Van Zandt’s ghost. “Every time we play one of his songs, shit breaks in the room and other weird stuff seems to happen,” he said.Duly unfazed by the spiritual world, and with one solid album under his belt, Shooter was not content to sit back and enjoy his recent notoriety. Another inadvertent parallel to his father’s career occurred when Shooter recently made his acting debut in the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk The Line.” Although not widely known for acting, Waylon actually appeared in a number of movies and had a weekly role as the narrator of TV’s “Dukes of Hazzard.” Shooter, appropriately enough, plays Waylon in the film. (Interestingly, his girlfriend is actress Drea de Matteo, late of “The Sopranos.”)Additionally, Shooter has been busy both recording his second album, the recently released Electric Rodeo (he says he’s never been “more fucking excited” about anything in his life), and refining his stage show through near-constant touring. Notoriously rowdy in concert, Jennings even cracked a rib last year from rocking out a little too hard. This affliction was “cured” by taking long-ass naps, popping pain pills, consuming inordinate amounts of Budweiser and, of course, more touring.The road-tested tunes on his sophomore release are mature lyrically and solid musically. Throughout the album, Jennings manages to entrance the listener with authentic-sounding (but likely exaggerated) tales of love and booze and, indeed, drugs. Though life on the road is an obvious inspiration, the song “Little White Lines” is not about the ones on the highway. As with Shooter’s first record, rock influences abound on Rodeo, but also included in the lot are respectfully sassy nods to both his father and, as it happens, Bocephus (Hank Williams Jr.). Perhaps he is merely the victim of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but this trouble-making so-and-so is as much of a pistol as his pappy ever was. And you can see for yourself when Shooter Jennings rolls into Louisville for a performance at Headliners tonight. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com