Shooter Jennings Is Branching Out
From Hee Haw to heavy metal to rock ‘n’ roll, Shooter has it covered.
There is no point in trying to define or confine Shooter Jennings. Born to the king and queen of outlaw country (Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter) in Nashville, the young Shooter made his way to LA with a love of David Bowie and a mix of metal, industrial, and electro-disco.
As his solo albums have honored his inspirations—disco giant Giorgio Moroder (2016’s Countach), Trent Reznor (2010’s Black Ribbons), and smart hillbilly roots (2005’s Put the “O” Back in Country)—his production credits have remained equally diverse.
This year, Shooter produced Tenderness for Guns N’ Roses’ Duff McKagan and is currently finishing up the next Marilyn Manson album, plus he had a hand in producing Brandi Carlile’s breakout 2018 effort, By the Way, I Forgive You. Jennings and Carlile are also handling production tasks and song curation for the much-anticipated new album While I’m Livin’ from hell-raising country legend Tanya Tucker.
Currently on tour with McKagan, we caught up with Jennings to chat about the songs of 2018’s gorgeous, vintage Shooter and his myriad collaborations.
You’re not wedded to any one sound—certainly not the country music of your origin story. But do you know what inspires where a song or album is going, or what dictates its style? For instance, how and why did the old-school country sounds of Shooter seem to be a natural follow-up to Countach?
I finished Countach—still one of my favorite records—and I started work on an even more adventurous project that will come out soon. But I had this moment: It had been a minute since I looked at country, even though The Other Life  and Family Man  were country with a different style. I was feeling that the most left-turn thing I could do right now would be to do something old-school with an ’80s touch.
I always wanted to do that with my earliest records, but I was trying to prove a point by having rock songs on them. I couldn’t make it all country [laughs]. But now that I have done all these albums, I’ve made a new peace with myself and that music. Plus, [producer] Dave Cobb and I did that new Brandi album, and we hadn’t connected in a few years. I told him, “Let’s do our Hank Williams Jr. album, the one we dabbled with, but never went full-tilt on,” finally, with Shooter. He loved that idea, and that same night I wrote “Shades & Hues” and “Rhinestone Eyes” for the record. We made up “Denim & Diamonds” on the spot. I called it Shooter, stamped it with my name—because the lyrics were so personal—and let that be the mile marker, you know?
Is it hard not to write those types of country songs, having that be in your literal DNA?
“I loved country music; suddenly, it was so much cooler than rock. As time went on, though, I started thinking I had turned my back on my former self.”
Honestly, man, I don’t know. Maybe. I mean, I loved my dad’s music growing up, and that certainly seeped in, but for me, it was MTV all the way. The inevitability of my parents had to be there—the other night I was playing piano for Duff and I felt my mom’s inspiration on the spot. But the first albums I bought were Guns N’ Roses, Ministry, Metallica and Danzig, Manson and Nine inch Nails. I was into rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s what I wanted to play when I moved to LA. I was trying for something like that. Once I got there, though, I did start listening to county: Hank Jr., Gram Parsons, the LA country guy route with cats like Dwight Yoakam.
But you were a Bowie kid first and foremost.
Yes. When I discovered Bowie, he unlocked this entire new world for me. And he unlocked the gates for me listening to The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Wishbone Ash. It wasn’t until my dad died that I started in to the country listening thing—starting with Hank Jr. and Parsons, and going back to Hank Sr. I discovered it my own way, through the rock thing. Having begun listening to country after my dad died came with its own emotions, but I was definitely jazzed to be hearing that stuff. I loved country music; suddenly, it was so much cooler than rock. As time went on, though, I started thinking I had turned my back on my former self.
So, you’re probably right, that it was inevitable that I’d go into that—because I did. Then everything expanded, my love for all of it. And now, at age forty, I feel comfortable with where I am within those sounds. And who knows what the next thing is? I know that I’m loving producing records, so that I don’t have to be the center of attention, and I can really focus on just music. I can be equally adventurous with their songs as I am with my own.
Quick aside, and only because you brought up the whole ’80s country vibe: your “Hey Shooter!” promo spots where you introduced “Fast Horses & Good Hideouts”? Not something I would ever expect from you.
Funny, right? I am someone who, ultimately, is stuck in their childhood. And the Hee Haw thing is part of that. The Giorgio Moroder thing, too. There’s always some nostalgia for me. That came about because the cats at Elektra wanted to get a separate video content thing going. They wanted me to do, like, a talk show, where my guests’ sole purpose was to promote my record, but that seemed weird and one-sided to me. So, I called my comedian friend Jenny Johnson to go out and brainstorm with me and my wife. I wanted something cool, not lame, and to make my friends want to join in and have fun. She came up with Hee Haw and the cornfield—but we could make the jokes bluer than they originally were. I could invite guys like Jerry Cantrell [of Alice in Chains] and other buddies to do dumb jokes. We were really taking the piss out of it.
“I’m loving producing records, so that I don’t have to be the center of attention, and I can really focus on just music.”
Going back to your producing gigs, why did you want to stand back, and why did you want to work with the specific people you’ve been collaborating with?
At the end of 2012, I had a manager who changed my outlook on many things. One of the first things he insisted we do is start a label, and that I should commence producing other people’s records. It excited me…it was, however, when I got Brandi to sing on Countach, that that got started. She turned around as soon as she finished my record, and asked me to be involved in her new album somehow. She asked if I would co-produce her album with Dave Cobb, with whom I had already done five of my albums. I said I would love to—we have this connection. We’re both children of the ’80s. Immediately after that, Manson asked me to do his record. Then, Duff came through my connections with Elektra. Then the Tanya thing happened. I was backstage with Brandi, getting ready to do The Late Show with Stephen Colbert with her, and I told her I was doing the Tanya record—she lost her mind. She’s a super Tanya Tucker fanatic. I told her that there’s no way she shouldn’t do that album with me. All these pieces just fell into place after the Brandi record opened the doors, and once they opened, I decided to run with it. It’s just been a blast. I’m loving having to find different places and sounds for all of them. FL