How Shooter Jennings Pivoted to Become a Grammy-Winning Producer
Appearing over FaceTime one recent afternoon, Shooter Jennings turns his phone around to proudly show off a painting that hangs on the wall of his Hollywood Hills home. Marilyn Manson had it commissioned for Jennings’ wife Misty and it depicts Liam Gallagher and Jon Bon Jovi holding hands. Unlike Gallagher and Bon Jovi, Jennings and Manson are friends. They spent the past year and a half working on Manson’s upcoming album — the latest entry in Jennings’ unexpected second act as an in-demand, Grammy-winning producer. “It’s unlike anything he and I have ever done,” Jennings says, lighting up a cigarette. “It was like me and Manson started a band together and made a whole new thing.”
That willingness to work side-by-side in the trenches with an artist has turned Jennings, 41, from a country-rock outsider into a hot commodity behind the console. In the past two years, he’s produced records for Americana star Brandi Carlile, country legend Tanya Tucker, Guns N’ Roses’ Duff McKagan, the rock band American Aquarium, psych-folk songwriter the White Buffalo, and California country singer Jaime Wyatt. “I hate it when a producer’s records all sound the same,” he says. “To me, it’s about sliding inside of an artist’s style and making the most interesting-sounding record from within.”
“Some producers have their ‘way’ when it comes to making records and bands have to come in and fit into that ‘way.’ Shooter was really great at playing to our strengths as a live band,” says American Aquarium’s BJ Barham, who worked with Jennings on the group’s Lamentations LP. “He is an endless source of musical knowledge and has a somewhat superhuman understanding of what it truly means to serve the songs. There was no agenda for him. There was no ego. Just a shared vision to reach the ultimate goal, which is to make the best possible record you can make. I think that’s Shooter’s ‘sweet spot’ as a producer.”
Jennings hates wasting time. When he’s in the studio, it’s all business. “Breaks, going out to eat, having people over to the studio, hanging out — I don’t do any of that,” he says. “We get in there and we work the whole fucking way. I’m not somebody that likes to dilly-dally with time. There are so many other things going on in my life that I kind of dice it up so I make sure I’m with my kids. I’m really disciplined when it comes to work.”
As the son of an outlaw-country pioneer, Jennings grew up in the studio. But whereas his dad, Waylon, was busy making music with Telecasters and steel guitars, Shooter obsessed over the production of Nine Inch Nails and Rage Against the Machine. “Tom Morello mentored me a lot,” he says. “It was always about song arrangements and song structures, and what’s more effective when you move a chorus around.”
Beginning in 2005 with Put the “O” Back in Country, Jennings released a series of country-leaning solo albums, many produced by his longtime friend Dave Cobb, but eventually found himself itching for a new outlet. He began producing left-of-center country bands like Hellbound Glory, in addition to his own experimental LPs: 2010’s Black Ribbons presaged an authoritarian U.S. presidency; 2016’s Countach (For Giorgio) was a tribute to electronic-music pioneer Giorgio Moroder.
The latter project is what first connected him to Brandi Carlile.
Jennings was backstage at a 2012 Johnny Cash tribute concert in Austin when he noticed Carlile’s tattoos — images from the 1984 fantasy film The NeverEnding Story, for which Moroder composed the theme song. While putting together his Moroder album, Jennings reached out to Carlile to sing the theme. An unlikely partnership was born. “Everything we do we say goes back to The NeverEnding Story,” Jennings says.
When it came time for Carlile to record her breakout album By the Way, I Forgive You…, she asked Jennings and Cobb to co-produce. The album won Jennings a Grammy. He won another the following year, with Carlile, for Tucker’s While I’m Livin‘.
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Very big news via @officialduffmckagan. Photo: @bestmusicphotography ******* “From the first night we sat together at my piano hashing out arrangements of his songs, before going into the studio to record them, I felt it was a really important record that had to be heard.”
“When I’m hearing a song, I’m like, ‘Oh, that part reminds me of Bowie or that part reminds me of Paul Simon, so let’s try this,'” he says of his approach. “I’m very scatterbrained, but I’ve listened to and studied a lot of music, so when we get into situations, I can hear certain corners of songs and where to go with them.”
Jennings can’t say much about the Manson album, but he offers that it was an entirely from-scratch project. They started work on Halloween 2018 with a blank canvas and often toiled from midnight into the early morning hours.
“The two of us connected with Diamond Dogs, but we didn’t want to be Bowie, we didn’t want to be nostalgic. I said, ‘What are the songs we’re going to do?’ He said, ‘We’re going to make them up.’ I was like, ‘OK!'” Jennings recalls. “We cut parts of it in seven different countries, at different points in time for him. I play more instruments on this record than I ever have on any of my records. It was like we were best friends since we were kids, but didn’t know it until we met. We had a lifetime of preparation to make this record and came out the other end as close as two guys can be and very proud and excited.”
Jennings is already booked with studio time for the rest of the year. He just finished work on a new LP by the country rapper Yelawolf and is remixing songs for Margo Price (“Like an old-school Nine Inch Nails remix album”). He also plans to produce a new record for Billy Ray Cyrus that he wants to sound like Harry Nilsson. “I’m really going for not a country thing — it’s all about his voice and not about a genre,” he says.
When asked to name his dream project, Jennings returns to that Liam Gallagher painting. “I’d love to do an Oasis comeback record.”
“I don’t know what happened,” he continues, taking a drag on his cigarette, “but, all of a sudden, there’s all this work. I’m just running with every bit of it and trying to do the best job I can.”