Shoot First

Always the rebel, Shooter Jennings has changed course again. The country rock musician’s album was nearly done. Then he reunited with Dave Cobb, today’s hottest Nashville producer (with whom Jennings made his first four records), and canned it, going in a completely different direction.

“I have this other record done—I’ve just got a couple songs to do vocals on and it’s finished—that’s a little more adventurous,” Jennings said in a recent phone interview. “But all of a sudden, the landscape in new country has changed and lots of people are putting out concept records, near psychedelic records, things like we were doing six, seven years ago. So I thought the most outlandish thing to do is make a Hank Jr. record. A straight-ahead drinking, rockin’ record.”

The album Shooter dropped last summer. Its first singles, the shimmering “Fast Horses & Good Hideouts” and a gentle rocking love song, “Rhinestone Eyes,” are straight country—melodic, filled with steel guitar and backing vocals. But there are rowdy numbers, too.

Jennings said he wanted to do Shooter like a Hank Williams Jr. album in part because of today’s bitterly divided social and political climate. He has no interest in making any kind of statement with his music, and he’s convinced that people don’t come to music for a political lecture.

“I don’t care if people like Trump or hate him, if they voted for him or not—people just want to have a good time,” Jennings said. “They don’t want to hear about immigration or whatever on a record or at a show. So let’s do something happy, fun and boogie-woogie. We’ve done a really f*cking good job of it. It’s the most outlaw thing I could’ve done. I hate to use that word.”

Outlaw, he said, was already worn out by the time his father, the late, great Waylon Jennings, sang “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand?” (that was 1978, a year before Shooter was born). But the appellation has lived on—it even named Sirius/XM’s radio channel Outlaw Country, on which Shooter hosts Electric Rodeo, a weekly show.

Jennings is as likely to host a metallic hard rocker as a country weeper, evidence of the musical taste he’s cultivated since toddlerhood, on his parents’ tour bus.

His father, with whom Shooter was close, died in 2002. He and his mom, singer Jessi Colter, are still close.

“My kids don’t travel with me on the road very much, so that’s important,” Jennings said. “They’ve been able to be around Kris Kristofferson a lot. They were two or three when they first met him. It’s really important they meet those people. My kids are deep. My daughter plays music. My son, Black Jack, doesn’t forget anything. They get to be around these people, my friends, my parents’ friends, and learn from them. That’s really important. They’re getting to know my dad, [though] they never met him, through those people.”

Jennings still draws on wisdom from artists who were around Waylon and Jessi when he was a kid, like Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and others.

He’s plucked wisdom a-plenty from folks met along the way, including the Oak Ridge Boys’ Duane Allen. The two had a chance encounter in line for the men’s room at a Nashville restaurant.

“It was one of the most Obi-wan Kenobi, Mace Windu talks I’ve ever had,” Jennings said. “He was telling me ‘Nothing matters. Don’t worry. If you think a song is good, the song is good. If somebody else thinks it’s good and throws money behind it, it can be a hit. Just make your music.’ He’s right—and that’s what I’m doing.”

After a few minutes of conversation, it’s clear that Jennings, now 39, has become a family man. In fact, he says his best-known song has inadvertently become the best gift he could give his children. That song, “Fourth of July,” is a rocking number that tells the story of a drive he took through Texas with his then-girlfriend, during which “We sang ‘Stranglehold’ until the stereo/Couldn’t take no more of that rock ’n’ roll/we put on a little George Jones and just sang along.”

“It was a real thing for me. It was a real trip I wrote about. I was dumb enough to write a song about [it],” he said. “Now, I’ve figured out it was smart … The smartest thing I’ve done for my kids is writing a song about a holiday. Every year after that, even after I’m gone, they’ll get a small check from the play it gets around the Fourth.”

Could this be the prelude to an even bigger cash grab?

“That’s got me thinking. When I was younger, I wouldn’t think about making a Christmas record. That wasn’t cool,” Jennings said. “Now my wife’s always saying ‘you need to make a Christmas record.’ Maybe I will.”