For all the Hollywood attitude that seems to surround the image and presentation of country music these days, corporate Nashville still doesn’t have a clue as to what to do when one of its own defects to Los Angeles.
Take the case of Shooter Jennings, who shot onto radio three years ago with a smart debut album called Put the “O” Back in Country that mixed West Coast honky tonk drive, lyrical schemes every hard living and home loving country buck could embrace and a fervent respect for the musical inspirations passed on to him.
For crying out loud, the guy is the only child of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter. How could he not feel reverence for country music tradition with parentage like that?
But after a pair of studio follow-ups (the 2006 Southern rock manifesto Electric Rodeo and the new, genre-splitting The Wolf), as well as a white-hot concert document (Live at Irving Plaza 4.18.06), the younger Jennings is at a crossroads.
As the stylistic breadth of his music expands, his airplay diminishes. Now that any honeymoon he shared with country radio is over, the singer is trying to find ways to get music heard that continually challenges the commercial expectations of a country artist. It’s not a predicament he relishes one bit.
“Country radio and the entire music industry are in such shifty positions these days,” said Jennings, who returns to town to play The Dame on Wednesday. “It’s impossible to get on the radio if you’re doing things different from the way everyone else does them But I know who I am.
“I want to be remembered as someone who did something different with country music. But at the same time I’m at a very scary place now. I’m on my third (studio) record. Radio threw us some love on the first one. On the second one, they shut us down. The third one is much more of country record, so we thought radio might let its guard down a little bit. But they haven’t.”
The Wolf presents a vastly greater stylistic vision than just about anything that oozes out of country airwaves these days. The album-opening This Ol’ Wheel, in fact, is something of a cross generational séance. It has Jennings offering snapshots that led him away from the outlaw path paved by his famous father to a hopeful but harrowing life as a California country renegade.
At the heart of the tune are two giant inspirations. Within the spoken narratives, you immediately hear the storytelling detail of father Waylon. But over the verses is a fiddle lead that comes not from some Nashville studio pro, but from the strings of veteran Cajun-country stylist Doug Kershaw.
“The way that happened was so random,” Jennings said. “I was in a guitar store in L.A. buying a 12 string acoustic – just a cheap one to use on the record. The guy there knew who I was and said, ‘Hey man, I’m Doug Kershaw’s nephew.’ So I give him my number and within an hour, Doug is calling me saying, ‘I want to play on your record.’ Man, Doug has so much character. It was a little blessing having him in the studio.”
Confounding expectations further is Slow Train, a tune that strikes to the heart of country conservatism by bringing aboard the veteran vocal quartet The Oak Ridge Boys.
“We’ve always used guests on the records. But I like to use them in really weird ways instead of just coming up with a duet. So we went, ‘Why not the Oak Ridge Boys?’ I mean, I thought that was a really cool idea. But once I had (longtime Oak Ridge Boys singer) Duane Allen’s number in my hand, I just stared at it for, like, two weeks. I’m always nervous about calling people up for stuff like this. But from the minute we got those guys on the phone, they were so nice. They just rolled up to the studio in their bus. It was such a surreal experience.”
Finally, there is a heavily reinvented cover of Mark Knopfler’s Dire Straits hit Walk of Life. While that might seem like The Wolf‘s broadest stylistic leap of faith, Knopfler has long publicized his love for country music through collaborations and friendships with Chet Atkins, Emmylou Harris and Vince Gill. One of Waylon Jennings’ final recordings, in fact, was a 1996 duet cover with Knopfler of Buddy Holly’s Learning the Game.
“Mark and my dad had mutual respect for each other,” the younger Jennings said. “My dad was a big fan of Dire Straits and turned me on to them when I was a kid. I guess, in a way, doing Walk of Life was crazy. But once I heard it in my head as a honky tonker, I knew it was going to be a cool track to cover.”
It’s a diverse trio of tunes, for sure. Yet collectively, the music possesses a far more generous and authentic country spirit than the more pop-inclined hits that dominate country radio. But getting shrugged off of late by corporate Nashville, disappointing as it seems to be to Jennings, is hardly the first time the singer has had to fight to promote his own West Coast country voice.
“I’ve ended up having to pick myself up on a number of occasions,” Jennings said. “There were times people said I was just riding on my dad’s name. But during the years I fought to be heard in L.A., my dad’s name didn’t mean anything. I was just another redneck who migrated here.
“So, yeah, radio is still putting up a fight. It’s still like, ‘Hey, he plays rock clubs’ or ‘He doesn’t look like everybody else.’ They’re still playing that game with me. But I feel like I can endure. I’m smarter than they are, so I’m just going to keep on keeping on as long as I can.”
Shooter Jennings and Eddie Spaghetti perform at 9 p.m. April 2 at The Dame, 156 West Main. Tickets are $15 in advance, $17 at the door. Call: (859) 226-9005.