Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Shooter Jennings: Treading His Own Ground

There is always a danger in being the son or daughter of a legendary figure. Hank Williams Jr. is a country music icon, but he didn't build his fame until he stepped out of his father's shadows and started doing things his own way. Early in his career he just covered his father and lived off the name. Waylon Jennings shadow looms large in country music. He is an icon and broke a lot of ground in Nashville that country artists to this day should still  thank him for. The toughest situation Shooter Jennings could have put himself in would have been to go into country music and try to live off his dad's legacy, but he didn't. He did an about face and ran towards hard rock, playing music that was closer to Metallica and Guns N Roses than anything his father ever did. He left Nashville and went to LA, where he would have to learn the music business away from his father's considerable influence. He formed a hard rock band called Starrgun, recorded a pretty solid record that was never formally released, and was even asked to front Velvet Revolver. 

He left that behind though, as he decided to return to his roots and pursue his music along the lines of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Neil Young, with a bit of the old country twang mixed in. What resulted was a record contract and a first album, "Put The O Back In Country" that yielded a hit (Fourth of July) and got some notoriety from critics. After that, he continued the hard country sound and released "Electric Rodeo" which saw him make significant progress as a song writer, with several really great songs that will be classics for him years down the road. His third album, "The Wolf", didn't fare very well and from my perspective and just lacked the hardcore authenticity of his first two recordings. 

In my opinion, his album called "Black Ribbons" entrenched him as a serious artist with something to say. It is an eclectic mix of progressive, southern, and hard rock with some country splashed on it. It's a concept album that attacks the nature of our government and society as we move towards living in a country with less privacy, less individuality, and less concern about our culture. It was an eye opening experience for me and I would recommend it to anyone that is a fan of progressive rock and has a penchant for exploring the darker side of power through conspiracy type entities such as the NWO and Illuminati. 

Next came "Family Man", the first album with his new record label and once again, Shooter showed growth lyrically, but also in the arrangements of the music. He really has found a way to melt country and rock together without it coming off as contrived. He has the chops. He has developed an integrity through his music that comes with having to go on the road and not getting support from hit radio. He rips Nashville and the music machine at every opportunity and can do so with gravitas. He knows what he's talking about. He knows what his father went through and he damn sure isn't done beating that drum. "Family Man" is about Shooter. His personality. His outlook. His ties to his family, past and present. 

Which brings me to the actual album I want to write about, but have now spend hundreds of words getting to. I'm not sure if anyone will hang with me any longer, but so be it. Shooter's latest record is called "The Other Life" and it is peppered with references to his father, country musics past (what's new, he name drops quite a bit, but it never seems out of place), and his world view. 

"The Other Life" kicks off with a very Pink Floyd-ish sounding "Flying Saucer Song". The song drifts along until it hits a keyboard groove with bongos echoing in the background, which leads to a decidedly southern rock tinged tune where he laments the loss of his heroes (A Hard Lesson To Learn). The third song is maybe the weakest of the album, but that's not to say it's bad. Any song that takes a shot at Jimmy Swaggart while boasting about chugging whiskey and being a "nighttime rambler" is tailor made to be on a Shooter album. From here the album takes off and I'd say it damn near hits greatness, in my estimation. He and Patty Griffin team up to perform "Wild & Lonesome", a throwback tune that is a bit reminiscent of George Jones and Tammy Wynette.....heavier on the Jones though. 

The next song is "Outlaw You" and it just abuses the city boy cowboy, black hat wearing, boot scootin' frauds that have overwhelmed modern country music radio. The music sounds tailor made to be a hit, but the words guarantee it won't be played on any mainstream radio station. He reminds the listener that country music at its core is very American and rebellious, by recalling the tribulation that his father went through in trying to wrestle control from the labels and give it to the artist. 

Next up is a really nice piano ballad called "The Other Life" which will be the last of the soft side from Shooter on the album. A great "whiskey drinkin'" song which is belted out with a world weary sadness. From here we move on to "The Low Road" where Shooter throws some reality at you. It's nice to try to smile and take the hide road, but now and again, you gotta smash someone in the mouth with a "Skeletor" lunchbox and take the low road to deal with life and its' problems. "Mama, It's Just My Medicine" is a  really kick ass tune that has country layered beneath some strong guitar and synth work. If the original Lynyrd Skynyrd were still making albums today, I'd like to think that this song would be their sound. 

"The Outsider" should be a hit. In another dimension maybe it is. It's pure country without any trickery musically and lyrically, Shooter creates an anthem for those who don't want to conform to an ideal of what they should be. It's a song for those who like to make their way through life on their terms and won't apologize for doing so. The album ends with two sort of weird tunes. "15 Million Light Years" is a duet with Black Oak Arkansas' Jim Dandy. It's very distinctive song and their voices play off of each other well and it has a "end of times", dark feel to it. The song expresses concern over the direction of humanity, but it also offers a glimmer of hope that we'll get our shit together....maybe today, maybe tomorrow....or maybe it's 15 million light years away.

The final tune is likely to be the most hard hit by mainstream critics and first time listeners. In less capable hands, "The Gunslinger" would come off as contrived. Instead, it sucks you in with Shooter's cadence and flow. In many ways this is a rap song. It's full of braggadocio and pointed lyrics, but really does come through as authentic. It's a song that I'm guessing Kid Rock will hear and say "Dammit, I wish that was mine". Shooter puts the world of music on notice with this one. Just leave him alone to do what he does. Don't start no shit and there won't be any shit. Musically, it starts out slow and develops into a crescendo of guitars before giving way to a smoky saxophone and synthesizers, which pull the listener in and carries you through to the end of the album. The album is book ended and let's the listener know that it's an experience, not just a collection of songs thrown together. A very satisfying experience that seems to gain my appreciation a little more with each listen.

I have had this album on non-stop since buying it on Monday night. In my opinion, it's his best work and he truly touches on so many different types of music and subject matter that it's simply not possible to catch every reference, nod, wink, cloaked riff, and gut shot. It delivers all of that. It's the best new album (not just a collection of tunes, this one is cohesive) I have heard in quite some time. Shooter is making his way, and not on the coattails of his father. In fact, I think he has Waylon in his pocket and he pulls out that card when he feels necessary, but he is his own man, making his own kind of music. It's hard to pin down. It's hard to categorize. It's just music. Really good music. 

I'm with you Shooter. Keep bringing the goods!