Waylon's Son Carries It On

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

I have to confess that I have been favorably disposed toward Shooter Jennings since the time I first met him, which was some years ago when he was in diapers. His parents, Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, were good friends. His arrival was very special for them, and he has always been special for their family and friends.

That said, Shooter’s arrival as a musical artist on the country scene recently has been getting mostly a hearty welcome. I personally very much like what he’s doing. He’s still learning the ropes, just as his daddy did. But his heart’s solidly in the right place, and so is his music.

Just as his father did, he’s staking out his own territory and challenging the status quo. To this day, you can go back to Waylon’s music and hear what was virtually heresy at the time that he released it. A song such as Waylon’s recording of Rodney Crowell’s “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This” is a virtual nonstop piledriver of country rock ’n’ roll that sounds like nothing country music ever delivered before or since Waylon. Remember, Waylon came from Buddy Holly and the Crickets, which was the prototypical self-contained rock ’n’ roll band. And Holly had also been rejected by Nashville before he and the Crickets revamped the musical landscape. Which is exactly what Waylon later did in storming Nashville’s gates.

With his rock group, Stargunn, Shooter developed a solid following. Then, his rock and country fusion performance of his dad’s “I’ve Always Been Crazy” at his father’s memorial service at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in 2002 became a very poignant moment, and it seemed to have been a transforming moment for him personally as well. His father never got to hear him sing country, although he was very proud of Shooter as rock singer.

“After he passed,” Shooter told me recently, “I broke up my rock ’n’ roll band and started over. I think I had gotten old enough to start understanding what all the songs in country were about and start appreciating them. After he died, I really delved more and more into his music. I kind of took those for granted growing up. You have to live a little to really understand how deep those lyrics hit. Merle Haggard says that country music is blue collar journalism. The more I think about that, the more I realize that’s true.”

He said he started realizing the primary difference between country and rock. “Rock ’n’ roll is really physically separated from the audience,” he said. “But in country, you’re on an eye-to-eye level with the audience and speaking to them in ways that they can relate to. It’s about storytelling and letting people in on your life. That’s what people in country love. It’s like a conversation with your audience.”

Shooter’s mining the same vein of fiery rock and country now as his father did. His debut solo album Put the O Back in Country opens with a spoken endorsement from no less than George Jones proclaiming, “Hello everybody, this is George Jones just helping Shooter out so he can put the ’O’ back in ’country.'”

Shooter — christened Waylon Albright Jennings (“Albright” after Waylon’s longtime drummer Richie Albright) — wrote or co-wrote most of the album. A song like the bold anthemic “4th of July” unites the guitar majesty of a Springsteenesque tapestry with lyrics that evoke the appeal of both George Jones and the best rock. He is not Waylon, but no one ever will be — and should not be expected to be.

Shooter told me he’s thinking a lot about his dad and his legacy. “From his music, I went back and listened to a lot of Jimmie Rodgers records and Hank Snow and Jim Reeves and other records, and I could see where my dad got a lot of his influence and inspiration.”

Look at the picture on the back of Shooter’s CD. He’s playing a hand-tooled leather-covered Fender Telecaster like his dad did, and he’s got a cigarette clenched between his teeth and defiantly tilted skyward, just like Waylon used to do. He looks remarkably like the longhaired, defiant Waylon did along about 1974 on the cover of his Ramblin’ Man album. And Shooter is now wearing Waylon’s “Flying W” earring in his ear. There are worse things in life than carrying on work that your father pioneered.