Editor’s note: CMT Crossroads: Shooter Jennings and Jamey Johnson premieres Monday (March 23) at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
“It was such a great feeling,” he says as he recalls taping the show. “We both got so much juice out of it because we were both on stage next to each other and playing our own songs. We took it in a direction that was not the expected ‘Outlaw country.’ We could have phoned that in. We didn’t do that. … It was as real as it gets when it comes to pairing two [artists] together.”
The pairing was inspired, Jennings thinks.
“If there’s ever been anybody in country music — in the modern sense — that I can consider my peer and my friend, it was always Jamey,” he said. “He and I have become very close. We’ve both been in moments of darkness and helped each other through them.”
In fact, Johnson was visiting Jennings at his home in Los Angeles when the Crossroads offer came through. “I think they [CMT] were bringing up lots of bands [for him to consider] — no doubt bands that he probably didn’t like to deal with.
“He’d already said, ‘No,’ and then he came back and said, ‘I’ll do it, but only if it’s with Shooter.’ I didn’t think they’d go for it. CMT has given us love in different moments, but … on the last record [The Wolf], I definitely didn’t feel that there was a ton of warmth.”
Whether received with warmth or not, the son of singer-songwriters Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter seems predisposed to follow his own muse. And he sees that same resolute quality in Johnson and his music.
“As a songwriter, I think Jamey’s the best they’ve got there,” he says, “and [I like] where his mind is at as a human being.
“He’s a traditionalist by heart. I’m a progressive artist by heart in certain ways. But we have a core of the same influence. He grew up listening to a lot of my dad’s music and a lot of that world, and I came from that world.”
Jennings has parted company with Universal South Records, his label home since 2004. It subsequently released four albums on him: Put the O Back in Country (2005), Electric Rodeo (2006), Live at Irving Plaza 4.18.06 (2006) and The Wolf (2007).
On Tuesday (March 24), Universal South will roll out its last Jennings album, Bad Magick: The Best of Shooter Jennings and the 357’s. It is a compilation that includes two previously unreleased cuts: “Lonesome Blues,” written by Jennings’ former guitar player, Leroy Powell, and a cover of Hank Williams Jr.‘s “Living Proof.”
“I felt a little stifled [at Universal South],” Jennings says, “because I felt like I was kind of being pushed into adhering to a mold of ‘either you do this or you don’t make it.'”
For the past six months, Jennings and a largely new band have been working on an album while he casts about for another label.
“I don’t believe it’s going to be worked as a country record,” he says, “not that it’s not a Southern redneck stew of all the things I grew up listening to and loving. But it’s definitely much more of a progressive album.”
While he can’t pin down with words the new sound he’s created, Jennings says its artistic progression is like the one that yielded Neil Young from the “same wells of inspiration” that gave rise to Buffalo Springfield and then to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
“I was trying to blow my own mind by doing the record the way we did it,” he declares. “It was a little different method. I went into the studio with the producer I’ve always worked with, Dave Cobb. He and I went in and basically constructed this whole record based around my vision for it. Then we brought in the players and created and defined the sound of the album.”
With a laugh, he adds, “In terms of doing something for radio or doing the best thing for making money in my career, it’s probably the anti of that.”
Jennings’ aim is to have the new and still untitled album out by this summer, when he embarks on the multi-act Vans Warped tour that runs June through August.
Being the son of a musical legend has its benefits, Jennings acknowledges, but it has pitfalls as well. One of the latter is seeing his father’s musical legacy and personality misunderstood.
“My dad did not like the label ‘Outlaw,'” Jennings says emphatically. “He was not a person that was automatically walking around [saying], ‘I’m gonna kick this guy’s ass’ or being drunk all the time or whatever. A lot of people have that misconception of him because he was kind of placed in this group. There were guys like David Allan Coe and guys like my dad.
“My dad was much more stoic and really like a child at heart when it came to his music. He cared so much about music and the simplicity of music. … He was never a cocky or a mean individual.
“I always imagined him his entire life as being that kid from Texas who just wanted to get out of Texas. He would hear the trains go by and just wonder where they were going. I think he was always that person. He definitely stood up for himself and believed in himself, but I don’t think he ever took for granted where he came from and the importance of the gift that was given to him.”
Jennings is now in his fourth year as the host of his own Sirius Satellite Radio show.
“That’s my salvation,” he says, “being able to listen to all that music, having to find new music every week and play it and talk to the fans.”
But his supreme joy, he reports, is Alabama Gypsy Rose, his daughter with actress Drea de Matteo. And his wardrobe now includes several Sesame Street T-shirts.
“One looks like [the Beatles’] Abbey Road [album cover], with Bert and Ernie and the Cookie Monster walking across the street,” he says. “My daughter just loves Ernie. He’s her favorite character in the whole world. She says ‘Ernie’ all day long.
“It’s so much fun to watch her grow up and start becoming this really funny human being,” he says, noting that she will be 16 months old on Saturday (March 28). “She’s got so much personality. It’s the best thing in the world. I’ve never done anything that I’m more proud of.”