Waylon Jennings had given up on country music by the time he died in 2002, exhausted by its abandonment of the ’60s and ’70s outlaw movement he helped start and dismayed by the pop-friendly sound that replaced it. His explained it to his son, Shooter, this way: “Garth Brooks did for country music what pantyhose did for finger fucking.”
Shooter laughs about it now, but the weary frustration remains. “Garth turned country into this big explosion onstage, more about the show than about the music,” he explains, unwilling to bear how Nashville, as he sings on his own tune “Solid Country Gold,” built Music City by sacrificing soul. “It happened with rock, too. You had Led Zeppelin come out, then ten years later everyone was fucking Whitesnake. The machine just grabs onto something.”
Now a 25-year-old prodigy in his own right, Shooter might be a country boy — check out the CBCS (“Country Boy Can Survive”) tattoo on his forearm — but he has the street cred to pontificate about Zeppelin, too. After abandoning Nashville around 2000, he crashed the seedy club scene in Los Angeles, where his rock band Stargunn labored three years for a record deal before imploding with Peyton Place aplomb. Along the way, Jennings realized virtually no one in LA knew who his father was; on the bright side, he learned the benefit of not getting a free ride like he would’ve back in Nashville, and also landed for a girlfriend the only New York-bred Italian woman alive who knows more about country than he does — actress Drea de Matteo, of Sopranos and Joey fame.
Jennings freely confesses the role his girlfriend played in his solo Southern rock/country reinvention, encouraging him to simply follow the direction in which his heart had been leading him ever since his father died. “That was definitely the moment when I knew I had to get my shit together,” he admits. “But I was also getting older too, and as I was, I was getting obsessed with country. I realized, ‘God, [Stargunn] can’t play music like this.’ I knew what our limitations were. Then I started exploring the kind of music my dad liked, like the Jimmie Rogers and Hank Williams Srs. It took me becoming an adult to understand it.”
And then, of course, there was Waylon — the original outlaw who spearheaded country’s own late-’60s counterculture revolution along with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Townes van Zandt.
“When I was young, man, I loved his records,” Shooter recalls. “I’d call them ‘Daddy Tapes.’ Now, they remind me of him, but they also in an entirely different way teach me things. It’s kind of like a big puzzle, and I’m getting it piece by piece every day.” (To further that father-son psychic connection, Shooter actually played his father in the current smash Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line.)
Live, Shooter often covers “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” one of Waylon’s best (but not best-known) songs. It’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar/Where do we take it from here? Waylon sings. Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars/We’ve been the same way for years/We need to change. Shooter’s own new record, Put the “O” Back in Country, is just as critical of the Garth-fattened mainstream: They say in country music/It’s either hit or miss/Well, if you’re talkin’ ’bout record sales/You can SoundScan this.
“All I’m saying is, ‘Come on, bring the energy back to country music,'” Shooter explains of his album’s raunchy title (Drea liked it too, just for the record). “I just miss the realness and characters. We had such a fruitful era in the ’70s. Now where is all that? Where are the Merles, the Waylons, and the Willies?”
Other 2005 country outsiders echo that concern. Chris Knight, a singer-songwriter out of Slaughter, Kentucky — the town is so small, his address is “4” — shares Johnny Cash’s gift for straightforward narratives about the morally challenged (give Murder a spin). Still, he can’t bring himself to listen to country radio these days, either. “There’s nothing to identify with there, unless you like going to bars or riding around in your pontoon boat drinking beer on a Saturday,” he says. “If it’s not a drinking, silly-ass redneck song, it’s almost bordering on Christian radio or a beauty pageant song.”
Newcomer Shelly Fairchild is a bit more optimistic, or maybe it’s just the spunk in her Mississippi twang. “Honestly, I think that country music is making a turn for the better in a lot of ways,” she says, pointing out country’s recent diversification thanks to the likes of Shooter Jennings, Gretchen Wilson, and Lee Ann Womack. Fairchild herself packs a bluesy growl and Gretchen’s foot-stompin’ sound, though sans the redneck silliness Knight abhors. “It’s good to hear some old-school country coming back,” she concludes. “I’m talking old, like Southern-rock-influenced. Like John Cash and Hank Jr.”
Or like “Steady at the Wheel,” a raucous Southern rock number Shooter chose as his next single, rather than a more commercially palatable country tune. “It’s almost to say that I think country music should stand up and play this kind of music because nobody else is,” he explains, dismissing rock radio as a bunch of emo crap. “Anybody that makes Southern rock or music that isn’t Kenny Chesney — real rock ‘n’ roll, real American music — has no home to put it. If country music expanded its borders and took in all these homeless Southern fuckers, it would be huge.”
A final note: “Outlaw country is dead, as far as I’m concerned,” he counters. “The ‘O’ in country doesn’t necessarily stand for ‘outlaw.’ It died with Waylon. With me, I’m clearly Waylon’s son. I’m doing my own thing musically, which is similar to him in that way. But I’m merely just an extension of what he did. This is music, and we’re talking about the changing of music. Not the claiming of a name.”