Back in 2012, Shooter Jennings and filmmaker Blake Judd had grand plans to revive the late-night music variety show. Dubbed the Midnight Special, the proposed series would be a country take on MTV’s Headbangers Ball, with artists stopping by to perform and shoot the shit. The son of Waylon Jennings and his drawling, gregarious Kentucky director approached CMT with the idea and the network bit, green-lighting a pilot. The pair worked the phones and arranged guests — a country veteran, a contemporary star and an unknown — as well as a location: Johnny Cash‘s cabin-slash-studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
“Seminole Wind” singer John Anderson was the vet, while Kellie Pickler was recruited as the country-radio star. But the song that Pickler sang, then sporting a shaved head in a show of solidarity for a friend battling cancer, was far removed from today’s playlists — Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” With Jennings on drums, John Carter Cash and assorted pals looking on, and Anderson beaming, Pickler belted out the 1952 ballad, setting the stage for a surreal moment of TV that never was. Judd has since raided his own vaults and shared the exclusive video with Rolling Stone Country (watch it above).
The moviemaker developed a professional relationship with the former American Idol contestant on the set of his video for “Drinking Side of Country,” a duet between Jennings and Bucky Covington, whom Pickler knew from their shared Idol days. “She had a great time on that video and she was all for coming out and being on this pilot. We wanted everybody to gel, so we just brought all our friends,” Judd says.
Throughout the shoot, guests like Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires and Legendary Shack Shakers leader J.D. Wilkes all dropped in. “We ate, we drank and we played music and everybody hung out after we were done taping,” says Judd, who recently directed Kristian Bush’s zombies-run-amok video for “Trailer Hitch.”
Alas, money drives the machine, as Judd says, and the Midnight Special didn’t make it to air.
“Shooter and I were really grateful to the folks at CMT for even letting us do this pilot. They knew it was a long shot, but gave us free rein. We were very appreciative that we were able to come in with our vision and do it the way we want and just give it a chance to make broadcast,” he says. “But it was pitched in a cluster of reality television and it didn’t make it, cause music-based television isn’t hot. Even though they do CMT Crossroads and specials like Willie Nelson’s 80th birthday, the truth is that a late-night rerun of a shitty reality show is probably more lucrative. I can’t blame them for that.”
Judd and Jennings continue to collaborate. The duo is currently working on an animated video for the song “She Talks to Rainbows,” a Ramones cover from Jennings’ Black Country Rock label’s upcoming “mixtape” release; and both Black Country Rock and Judd’s JuddFilms have plans to release more outtakes from the Midnight Special pilot.