When Shooter Jennings set out to write his ambitious concept album Black Ribbons in 2009, a dystopian view of a future U.S. where an authoritarian government limits free speech, he had no idea how prophetic the project was.
“We’re pretty close to that now. With the shootings of cops and of black people and the Trump versus the Clinton camps, we are very divided. And that’s the way they like us. Divide and conquer, man,” Jennings tells Rolling Stone Country. “And one day the final executive order is going to be, ‘Well, you people can’t handle being around each other, so we’re going to have to step in and set rules.’ That’s what Black Ribbons is about.”
Listening to the album today, especially tracks like the clanging “Wake Up!” – with its lyrical warning “they’ll try to turn me against you / so, divided, we’ll turn to them” – it’s hard not to buy into what Jennings spouts. Especially when viewing it through the prism of the divisive presidential election and, particularly, the campaign of Republican nominee Donald Trump, who has cast immigrants as the bogeyman and reporters as the enemy. At a recent rally in Minnesota, a Trump supporter sported a shirt that read “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.”
Outlawed free speech? Sounds about right.
“When I was [making the record], people were like, ‘It’s a conspiracy theorist album,'” says Jennings, who doesn’t favor Trump or Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. “But now, it’s not that conspiracy theorist. It seems very normal.”
Six years after Black Ribbons‘ initial 2010 release, Jennings and his Black Country Rock label are releasing a special Ultimate Edition of the album today – Election Day. To Jennings, the son of O.G. outlaw Waylon Jennings, the timing couldn’t be more perfect.
“I knew this election was going to get ugly, and it got so ugly, so out of control, that I really felt like it was a positive message in the midst of a very negative season of politics. It was a ‘fuck you, Clinton; fuck you, Trump.’ Releasing it on Election Day feels like a middle finger,” he says.
But aside from any political statement, the album also represents the artistic liberation of Jennings. When he and producer Dave Cobb began work on Black Ribbons in 2009, Jennings was just coming off a trio of faithful country-rock albums, culminating with 2007’s The Wolf, an unabashedly geared-to-radio LP complete with a country version of Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life.” None failed to move the needle on the charts and Jennings threw up his hands, deciding, like his rebellious father before him, to record the album he wanted to make.
He and Cobb retreated to the producer’s basement studio of Cobb’s L.A. home and challenged each other with outrageous industrial-rock sounds.
“We were cooped up in there, making each other laugh with the riffs. The crazier it got, the more we liked it,” says Cobb, who bonded with Jennings over a love for industrial pioneers Skinny Puppy and Ministry. “We went off on this psychedelic direction with Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath. It was two arcade dorks getting in the studio and going crazy.”
“I knew that I was basically disowning myself from a mainstream career in music by doing it,” says Jennings, whose last album was a tribute to electronic-music visionary Giorgio Moroder, Countach (For Giorgio). “But I thought my career was over anyway. It’s funny because Dave Cobb said the same thing about Sturgill [Simpson] when they made Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. They figured their career was over so they did whatever they wanted.”
Black Ribbons may not have had the broad appeal of Simpson’s similarly adventurous Metamodern, but the album, however niche, introduced Jennings to a new circle of fans – those of sci-fi and horror. In a major coup, Jennings successfully petitioned author Stephen King to play the part of the album’s narrator, unrepentant deejay Will O’ the Wisp. The two corresponded via email and King helped Jennings refine Black Ribbons‘ storyline.
“This album turned out to be the most fruitful thing I’ve ever done. It’s given more back to me in the years than any other record,” says Jennings. One track, the mournful “All of This Could Have Been Yours,” played a key role in an episode of Sons of Anarchy, a year after the LP’s release. Another, “Fuck You (I’m Famous),” became Jennings’ rallying cry against social media. On Halloween, he released an animated video for the song, featuring a foul Santa and notorious punk singer GG Allin.
A reluctant user of Twitter, Jennings views Facebook as a mental prison.
“They can control your perception and have you react how they want you to react,” he says, sounding very much like the conspiracy buff he is. “Twitter didn’t even exist the way it does when we were doing Black Ribbons. I got on Twitter in 2009, and now everyone is so glued to it and there is so much hate, but you go outside and get away from it and everything is cool.”
Jennings, however, doesn’t consider himself political.
“I’ve always said I’m somewhere between Winston Churchill and George Carlin,” he jokes, revealing that – no doubt to the furor of some – he likely will not cast a ballot today.
“I doubt it. I never have,” he says, taking a deep breath. “I can’t really feel good about it, for either [candidate]. I wanted to see Trump and Bernie [Sanders] debate in a clean style. I really liked Bernie and I liked his demeanor. His policies were out there and would really solve a lot of problems. But our real chance at change may have gone. I just feel like it’s the biggest reality show.”
One that Jennings hopes doesn’t end like Black Ribbons – in chaos.