Shooter Jennings Makes Retro His Own Thing (tweaked a tad, 6/01) (and 6/05) (AND 7/01: The prefect ending?!)
By Don Allred
Waylon Albright Jennings, born in 1979, was spared a heavy "Jr." being forever hung around his neck. (Unlike Randall Hank Williams Jr., whose Papa Hiram was proud to choose his own handle once again.) Lil J's famous father slipped in a new middle name along with his own first name: Albright, was and is as in Richie, the veteran road warrior and drummer, of the elder Waylon's band. Fittingly, because wee "Shooter," as Daddy soon nicknamed him, hailed from a crib on his parents' tourbus. His Mom, Jessi Colter, was a co-star ,with Big Waylon, Willie Nelson, and Tompall Glaser , on an epochal compilation, Wanted: The Outlaws. Which, in the mid-70s, turned out to be country's surprisingly sucessful answer to marketshare-biting rivals over on the rising Southern Rock bandwagon. Which, by '79, had pretty much run out of gas, like Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane. Or so it seemed at the time, to us fashionable types. But country is always movin' kinda slow next to rock, thank goodness, so the migratory Jennings family was still layin' down the outlaw law, next to baby dawg. When in L.A., still-young Shooter finally laid Stargunn, his own conceptually-D.O.A. (to the surviving "trendsetting major" labels of rock) dreamboat ("Lynyrd Skynyrd mutating out of Guns N Roses":[and/or vice versa]: sure, keed, su-r-re) to rest, and headed back to Nashville, and sold Universal South his already completed debut country album, and titled it Put The O Back In Country, it was commonly assumed the O was for Outlaw. Why not? He was entitled, if anybody was. Although in at least one pre-release review, Shooter did say that was what it stood for, he has, many times, since denied it: "The Outlaw Movement was a movement in time…if you call yourself an outlaw now, your fly's unzipped." He's got plenty of other Os, after all: two in Shooter alone, so he can spare one for donation. As for the O-lessness of "Country", well, um, market research has indeed shown that most country consumers are female, and Shooter explains that he wants to make music for "young people," not for "adult women," not predominately, but y'all come too, y'hear? Just don't expect thangs in country to be all chick flick, not no more! On the other hand, his ladyfriend Drea Di Matteo, late of The Sopranos, and Joey, is an exceedingly well-preserved thirtysomething adult woman, and he credits her with prevailing on him to use Put The O Back In Country as album title, and theme song (written to the [credited] tune of Neil Young's "Are You Ready For The Country"). Shooter's re-tuning of this ancient toon bounces beats like basketballs, so the performance of the song seems even goofier (and much more likable) than its point, about the risky need to rock the country, as if "rebel" rock isn't a lucrative and established practice in country today. No need to sweat it, podner. But (just to prove me wrong) the starmaking machinery was a bit slow to crank up, and Put The O, finished in January of '04, wasn't released 'til March of '05. Meanwhile, Shooter had an encounter with another adult woman: his mother, Jessi. Although he has described recording rock experiments with his father (an album, with new backing tracks by Shooter and his current band, the 357s, will reportedly be released this fall), I haven't seen any mention of his musical relationship with his mother. Not, that is, until after his father's death in 2002. In 2004, Shooter and Jessi co-wrote and recorded a song. "Please Carry Me Home" is about sweating yourself dry of temptation's power, cold turkey, and step by bare step. (Shooter's drums count out the cost, slowly, mercilessly). It's a disturbing song, because it implies the risk of losing desire along with temptation. Not a good idea, because, Smokey Robinson put it, "If you can want, you can care," and then (maybe), as long lost Southern Rockers Hydra put it, you can "care enough to survive." But Shooter and Jessi know this, and hearing is believing: although "Please Carry" is the only track he appears on, it's a fittingly dramatic climax to Jessi's new Out Of The Ashes (Shout! Factory), her first album, except for a couple of kiddie-song sets, in over 20 years. Out Of the Ashes may well be the best country album of 2006, and the rumble and flow of Jessi's gospel-schooled, piano-driven twists and turns may well have provided some of the juice for Shooter's new Electric Rodeo, which he began building while Put The O was still unreleased. . The first album has a lot of good songs, but Shooter struggles with pacing and sequencing. How do you follow "4th Of July"? It's sort of early 70s Springsteen times early 80s Mellencamp (Chuck Eddy points out the latter), and both of them drive-by the Eagles' "Take It Easy," and ultimately all this (and more!) adds up to "4th" 's delivery of Put The O's most compelling/non-who-cares? evidence for SJ's need to git back. For instance, when he (in a shredded Mellensteen voice) demonstrates how "We sang 'Stranglehold' 'til the stereo couldn't take no more of that rock 'n' roll." Not only does he sound like he's in a stranglehold, but that song is, as Chuck also points out, by Ted Nugent. And I found it on the Dazed And Confused soundtrack. Which, as Robert Christgau points out, is a 70s hard rock utopia, except, to me, the Tedster's lyrics sound like ludicrously overachieving macho triumphalism. (He should have flash fwdd to Toby Keith's "How Do You Like Me Now" to see how to do that rat). And indeed, maybe that's what Shooter really, ultimately didn't have the stomach for, rock 'n' roll-wise. He's got his complaints, but who doesn't. Plus, getting back to the c*y, ( already, on some Put, tracks, and much more on ER)he's let his voice relax and deepen a lot, plus he's (basically) not about geetar gymnastics, and Nuge is way ahead anyway. But, veering through "4th Of July," Shooter's snagging bits of rock utopia in his hair and beard, taking them back to Nashville, feeding and threading all his other tracks with 'em, and, though Put The O's wiring can look frayed, his piano (like Jessi's ,on her own album) does aid and abet the flow, though not as much it will on Electric Rodeo. He said in Harp magazine that his best songs were all written on one (piano, not a Harp). And Put The O 's "The Letter" is a swell but never swollen piano ballad, with humility and grace and scruffy frustration, and sort of a Leon Russell times Elton approach, and the basically similar unlisted track is good too. (Impulsive vocals at times, closer to Steven Tyler than Van Morrison [S.T. chatter and yowl on some other tracks too], but with some awesomely 80s movie lyrics, like "as you skate across the dance floor"!) But it seems redundant after "The Letter." And , after the git back "4th Of July," "Sweet Savannah" and "Southern Comfort" seem a bit redundant too. Especially the former, but, although "Southern Comfort" starts with him whining enjoyably about having to live in Hollyweird with that ol "SY yen tol oh gee," over equally petulant slide guitar and rhythm section, it eventually just creeps to a sluggish stop. And then of course the backup singers explode, and all but one fall away, and she does what she can and stops when signaled. On the other hand, "Daddy's Farm" creeps along 'til it gnarls just right. The lyrics are a bad ol' boy screenplay; not bad, but fairly generic. Yet he's expressing himself by experimenting with his own blend of the snakier aspects of yon Zep/Bad Co/early Aerosmith/Skynyrd approach. (Not to get too pianistic, but Billy Powell always was Lynyrd's secret weapon: those crucial accents under the final phase of guitar extravaganza put "Freebird" over the top.) So, how to you get to Electric Rodeo? Practice practice practice, but, beyond that, whether witnessing Jessi's accrual of accents into grooves into songs into implied narrative into an album put him over the top, or what, he's really tapped into a sharper sense of (and appetite for) pacing and transition, within and between tracks. Speaking of secret weapons, I was just thinking that ER's "Bad Magick" 's guitars (for he does indeed have them) weren't slamming me quite like they thought they were. Only to be curled into the undertow of keyboards, echoing through Davy Jones' Locker and the cosmic indigestion around kickdrums. Listen on headphones. But first, The preachy jive of Put The O's and Electric Rodeo's title tracks suddenly seem lived, in a song that sounds as gentle as the first album's "Lonesome Blues," 'til the pale chorus slips in: "When your heroes turn out to be assholes, and the light that you're chasing in the tunnel is a train. The singer's in key, the guitar's in tune, and the song is still slipping away." So he shrugs, means to refuel with some "Hair Of The Dog," but it doesn't rock him (or me) enough, so he chases that with "Little White Lines." Suddenly, he's bursting out with his Daddy's baritone and his Daddy's trademark "wun too, wun too" bass beats, now almost discofied, which is certainly drug- and decade- (and both of which are Daddy-) appropriate, while blaspheming against the kind of supposed cultural separatism that "Outlaw" signified for some. Which sardonic (and actually Waylonic) humor is both lightened and darkened by the George Clinton (and Tony Joe White)-worthy swamptoon of "Alligator Chomp (the Ballad Of Dr. Martin Luther Frog Jr.), As Told By Tony Joe White." Aw, you can figure out from the title how that ends, can't you. But the devil, like everything else, is still in a Shooterful of details. (Later: Okay okay, there's this one track that most everybody else felt compelled to mention, even though Shooter took it off the released version of ER, after many reviewers had already filed copy. Perhaps he finally gave into the irony of a clone-perfect cover of a song about the anxiety of influence and genetics; that would be Bocephus's "Living Proof." [Yeah, I know it's got Waylon's instrumental theme tagged onto the ending, but Hank Jr. could've done it that way, what with Waylon being an avuncular influence of sorts...] Or perhaps Shooter decided it was too far from or too close to his own POV. In any case, he made the last minute substitution of "It Ain't Easy," a polite tribute to Waylon I. Which just goes to show that references will will only take you so far; either that, or back to the drawing board, just like Daddy done ("Albright," alright).