Shooter Jennings wants to tour with robots. Which, if you’ve been following the songwriter’s eclectic career, makes complete and perfect sense. While he may be the son of leather-and-lace country couple Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, the 39-year-old is less inspired by the outlaw Seventies than he is the outsized Eighties. He’s obsessed with vintage video games, plays guitar with custom-made picks featuring the likeness of He-Man villain Skeletor, and in 2016 released a superb tribute to electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder.
Today, he unveils Shooter, his most straight-ahead country album since his 2005 debut, Put the “O” Back in Country. Made up of just nine tracks, it’s a succinct but rowdy listen and reunites Jennings with Grammy-winning superproducer Dave Cobb, who received his first-ever country producer credit on Put the “O” Back in Country.
At this moment, though, Jennings just can’t stop thinking about those robots. He’s determined to record an album with the Rock-afire Explosion, an animatronic band led by a keyboard-playing gorilla named Fatz Geronimo that “performed” at the ShowBiz Pizza Place chain his dad took him to as a kid.
“I’ve already written a bunch of songs for it,” says Jennings, envisioning a Gorillaz-like production. “We’re gonna take the robots on tour and play to a live band, just in silhouette.”
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About eight years ago, even the basic idea of touring with a band of real-life humans was unthinkable. Jennings’ 2010 concept album about a dystopian future, Black Ribbons, was a critical success, but the experimental hard-rock songs drove away fans who came to gigs expecting country music. “People were like, ‘What in the fuck? He’s on drugs.’ The crowds started dwindling,” says Jennings, who was running increasingly low on funds without a major label behind him. His last release for the now defunct Universal South was a 2009 hits collection and he put out Black Ribbons and subsequent LPs on his own indie label, Black Country Rock.
“The biggest misconception my whole life is that I’m rich, that I had all this money from my dad, which I did not,” he says. “There were so many times during these years between labels where we couldn’t afford to tour. We weren’t making enough money at a show to sustain a bus and the band. And that’s when Jon had the idea of doing the Waymore’s tour.”
Jon was Jon Hensley, Jennings’ manager and best friend who died in 2015. Together they founded Black Country Rock and brought their wide-eyed label ideas to fruition — releasing everything from rare Waylon recordings to a 7″ by Saved by the Bell‘s Mr. Belding. Hensley suggested that Jennings tour with some of his father’s old players, including original drummer Richie Albright, and perform both Waylon gems and his own material. Traveling bare-bones style in a car, Jennings hit the road with Waymore’s Outlaws for nearly five years.
“It gave me time to rebuild everything and that was a safety net that really my dad supplied for me,” he says. “I could still go and do that as opposed to be just shit out of luck.”
The Waymore’s tour yielded a live album, as well as a renewed desire to write and record his favorite brand of country music — “Bocephus boogie-woogie,” he calls it. Jennings suggested the idea to Cobb, with whom he was co-producing Brandi Carlile’s album By the Way, I Forgive You.
“We talked about making a no-nonsense early Eighties, Hank Williams Jr. record, a pure unabashedly country album,” says Cobb, who claims Jennings doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the current wave of outlaw country. It was Jennings who first introduced Cobb to Sturgill Simpson, whose influential first two albums Cobb produced.
“Shooter is a connector,” Cobb says. “When we did Put the ‘O’ Back in Country, country music was in a different place, and that record opened the floodgates for artists to make a record that is different. He was the beginning of that stuff. In a lot of ways, this record picks back up where Put the ‘O’ Back in Country left off.”
Jennings kicks off Shooter (released via Cobb’s Low Country Sound imprint on Elektra) with the self-referential “Bound ta Git Down,” the most Bocephus moment of the LP in which he supersizes his life story à la Hank Jr.’s “Born to Boogie”: his move to L.A.; his dream of starting a band with buddy Marilyn Manson; the time he jammed with Guns N’ Roses (he’s currently producing a Duff McKagan solo album). To Jennings, the name-drops are more signposts of his fantastic voyage than humble brags.
“I wanted to tell my story and tell what made me different. To play the type of music I want to [on this album], I’m supposed to be into being from the South and living in the country or living in Nashville, when I really have this completely other life,” he says. “I always struggled with not being anything like that — I love old computers and Charles Bukowski.”
The short-story writer shows up in “Shades and Hues,” one of Shooter‘s ballads. While the shit-kickers are undeniably rousing (“Do You Love Texas?” and the boozy spelling bee “D.R.U.N.K.,” among them), the album excels in its slower moments. “Living in a Minor Key” was written with George Jones in mind (the country legend guested on Jennings’ only charting single, 2005’s “4th of July”) and “Fast Horses & Good Hideouts” is an homage to the manager Hensley, both looming figures in the Jennings narrative.
Jennings chose “Fast Horses” to announce Shooter in May, performing the track live in the first of a series of Hee Haw-type skits that he populated with his own friends. Child actor Danny Cooksey, songwriter Elle King and Jerry Cantrell all make appearances. The campy videos are yet another glimpse into the artist’s formative years.
“I feel comfortable in my own skin writing about the things that I like because I know that there are other people out there that understand what I’m talking about,” says Jennings, who in addition to biker bars and honky-tonks has performed at sci-fi conventions and gamer gatherings. “I love hanging out with [those fans]. I can talk to them about the most nerdy stuff.”
This past spring, however, Jennings fully embraced his outlaw lineage, flying from L.A. to Nashville to help open the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Outlaws & Armadillos exhibit, in which Waylon Jennings is a central component. During a preview reception, he sang his father’s anti-establishment ballad “Belle of the Ball.” He admits that Waylon is always in his ear, but unlike the T-shirt saying, he rarely asks himself, “What would Waylon do?”
“I feel like, at this point, he’d probably just be impressed that I’m still doing it and haven’t given up, you know?”