Waylon Albright “Shooter” Jennings is a promising new talent on the country scene. He also has an inescapable heritage. As the only son of the marriage between chief Nashville Outlaw Waylon Jennings and singer Jessi Colter, he faces expectations and challenges other young artists may not. Jennings recently spoke with CMT News about his life and career.
Did you want to be in music when you were growing up?
It’s funny. I played drums when I was real little, and that was the first thing I picked up when I was real young. Then I took piano lessons when I got a little bit older. I was playing a little guitar by 13, but I didn’t really think I was going to do that. I think I was enjoying it, but I didn’t realize how much I really enjoyed music and how much it meant to me until I got my own little studio and started recording stuff. And all of a sudden, I was just recording crap left and right, and I was like, “This is the greatest thing in the world,” because all it took was one person to do stuff. I didn’t have a band, and then I would just kind of do everything and try to figure it out, you know. Then it just clicked. By the time I was 15, I was like, “This is what I’m meant to do.” … I was conditioned for it without even knowing it. I love music.
What did your parents say?
They were really cool. I didn’t want to go to college. I was like, “I want to stick around and work on my music,” and [Dad] was very supportive of that. My mom was, too. They were extremely musical people. My dad, all he talked about — all he lived for — was music. My mom played every day on her piano in the house. So they were really supportive. It was funny. I mean, I feel lucky because there would be other people in my band that I would be working with, and their parents would be not supporting it at all. “When are you going to quit that and get a real job?” and all that kind of stuff.
Did you start emulating your parents musically?
You do, but it comes full circle, kind of. It did for me because when I first started playing, I was younger, and I had heard every country song in the world. But I was really into rock ’n’ roll. I love Aerosmith and Zeppelin and AC/DC, the Stones and all that stuff So I was trying to have a rock band, and then, hell, I moved to L.A. with my rock band. And I thought this is what I’m meant to do. … Then all of a sudden, life hits you. About 24, 23, it was, like, smack in the face. I was like, “I’m way better at other stuff because I fit way in that pocket a lot better. I can bring what I learned from rock.”
Then I start looking back at my dad and realizing things about him that are similar or things I can learn from him. And then, I think, that’s when the emulation thing maybe started. It started for me kind of a little more … just kind of getting to understand his music more and his personality through his music. … I think if it’s in your blood, you kind of relate to the other people. I think I tried to go as far that way [he points to the right] as I possibly could and then kind of found a happy medium on the way back.
Did you feel a definite pressure to follow in your father’s footsteps?
I don’t feel so much pressure because he had kind of a full arc to his career. If you look at a guy like Hank Williams Jr. — his dad died so young and his flame burned out early — I’m sure he was struggling with being in the shadow of somebody people wanted more of. And with Dad, he had a really nice arc to his career and everything, so I didn’t ever have that kind of pressure on me. But, yes, there’s definitely expectations, especially from Nashville, originally in the beginning, of like, “What’s he going to do? Oh, this is rock ’n’ roll. He can’t play that.” … There’s definitely been that. But with the audience, never. When I go there and they shout out a Waylon song, if I can play it, I’ll play it. Now, when you do, they get real happy, you know. To me, that’s part of it. Country music embraces tradition a lot better than rock ’n’ roll. I think it’s a little more understanding when you openly draw from your roots and your heritage and give it to people and kind of put your spin on it.
What did you feel in portraying your dad in the upcoming Johnny Cash movie, Walk the Line?
Playing my dad in Walk the Line was probably one of the strangest experiences of my life — but also one of the best. We got done last year, and I’m not in it that much. I’m only in three or four scenes in the movie. But going down there, I met everybody in the movie. Everybody was fantastic. I mean, Joaquin’s [Joaquin Phoenix] great, and he and I still keep in touch. He’s just a fun guy. We had a really good time down there. … In going to Memphis, it was like going back in a time warp because when we got there, the town was basically taken over by this crew. We were all in this one hotel. Waylon Payne played Jerry Lee Lewis. He’s fantastic at it. This kid, Tyler Hilton, played Elvis. Most of the people in the movie, the actors, were musicians, except for Reese [Witherspoon] and Joaquin. So it was like we were all just running around together having a great time. We went and did the scenes and everything, and that was great. It was kind of cool because it was like I was playing Dad about my age. It was around the same time, and it was like when he and Johnny had an apartment … [In] 1968, ’67, ’68, they had an apartment in Nashville together. So I show up to do this scene, and the apartment is totally trashed, and there’s food and bottles and stains and checks that haven’t been cashed lying on the table and stuff. And I’m sitting there going, “Man, that looks like my apartment that I had like two or three years ago with my buddy.” It was definitely like of one of those out-of-body experiences you have in life.
Did you feel comfortable stepping into your dad’s shoes?
It was just kind of surreal. There’s not any way I’d describe it. I didn’t really have a grip on it, but I also I wasn’t really intimidated by it. In the back of my head, I’m sitting there going. “Man, I’m playing my dad.” … At the same time, I was just like, “Screw it. I’ll do the best I can.” There’s a song I sing in it, and I think it’s the only reason I got it [the part] is ’cause I sounded like him in it. … So if I got through that part, I’ll be happy. The rest of the movie, I only have like six or seven other lines. They were sparing to me.
Country music has changed a lot in your lifetime.
It’s just kind of gotten back in that same rut it was in, where it feels like it’s like it’s the same band playing on every artist’s song — like system control. It feels like not that many acts out there that are really these road-worn honky-tonk heroes. There’s not many of those. Not that I’m one, but I would love to see a bunch of those — at least see somebody who’s rowdy — out there. Country music, to me, is about the lyrics. [Merle] Haggard called it blue collar journalism … an artist taking themselves and lowering them down to the level of the audience and not making them feel so far away and speaking to the audience on a very personal level. So it’s all about storytelling. To me, I just took what I knew from rock, what I loved about rock and what I loved about old country and just tried to blend it. I just kind of did what I did and just said, “Hey, it’s all about the songs.” Nobody gave me a book that said I couldn’t play rock ’n’ roll guitar on a country song. I mean, there’s no law out there. So why not? Country music is country music. Why can’t it be cool? And why can’t it be rowdy and energetic? It doesn’t have to follow any guidelines, as far as I’m concerned.
Is there a mark that you want to leave?
I just want to be able to do what he [Waylon] valued the most. What my dad valued the most in country music, in his music, was artistic freedom and creative control. [Universal South Records executive] Tony Brown came to me … and he’s been the best thing in the world because they’ve said, “We’ll put out anything you do.” As long as I can put the music that I’m making out there, I’ll be happy. If I make a mark, I make a mark, and that’ll be great. But if I don’t, I’ll know that I won because I’m getting to do what I want to do. That’s the most important thing. I think any artist should feel that way, and I think anybody who gets held back should throw a fit about it.