Jennings taking the family tradition down a darker road
With his first solo album in 2003, Waylon Albright Jennings promised to Put the O Back In Country, but with his latest release Black Ribbons, this time he’s putting it into “concept.” The maverick son of Waylon Jennings Sr. and Jessi Colter, Shooter’s gene’s are steeped in rebellion and his newest direction is a sharp left turn from the edgy outlaw sound of his parents, as well as his own countrified brand of rock and roll. In Black Ribbons, he’s taken a direction that’s far more Pink Floyd than Floyd Cramer, and has harnessed his childhood love of late-night talk radio and adulthood interest in conspiracy theory to create an album that’s equal parts lurid radio drama and industry kiss-off. Set in a dystopian future where impending government takeover threatens the last free voice on the airwaves, Jennings enlisted horror maven Stephen King to play the part of Will ‘O the Wisp, a revered but borderline-lunatic deejay shouting down the establishment while playing the airwaves’ last record, a dark and experimental work by Jennings’ band Hierophant.
Y!W: The first thing you notice about the album is its packaging. It’s not something many artists pay as much attention to as you did.
SJ: I’ve always done all the art for my records, well the first one I didn’t, that was the label. With this record with a guy named Pete Lyman who I met through Dave Cobb, our producer. [Pete] does all of the Mars Volta mastering and when I was with him I was looking at all of this stuff laying around and there was all of this fantastic stuff on these Omar Rodriguez-Lopez records. It turned out to be a guy who was a friend of his named Sonny Kay, who used to be in this band called the BFF. I reached out to him and we turned out to be a lot alike, into the same kinda stuff like mythology and all these crazy things. It was all his deal, along with Brian Porizek who designed the foldout packaging.
Y!W: Between the packaging, the sudden shift in direction and the album’s harsh message, it sounds as if this could be a commentary on your experience with major labels as well.
SJ: By nature that happened a little bit. I was getting off my label Universal, just feeling limited there. I think given the opportunity to do this kinda weird record we just went for it. Even the card that comes with it, it gets you into certain shows. We just made up ways to try and connect with the fans. I mean f**k the industry, I don’t know. We’re already broke and it’s probably completely unwise, but we’re not trying to get played on the radio. Who wants to be in that company anyway?
Y!W: Especially not when you get to program your own radio show on Sirius/XM.
SJ: It’s great to have that kinda freedom to play whatever you want without ever having anyone on your back. You never really know how many people are listening to it, but I can talk for two hours if I wanted to. It’d probably get me fired immediately.
Y!W: Is this your direction now, or are you going to embrace your country side again?
SJ: To me I feel like it’s all a part of building the whole repertoire out.
I feel like we could do whatever we want next; a country record, a bluegrass record, a rap record — well I doubt that — but you know.
Y!W: Was the album’s narrator based on what you’d like to see in yourself as a DJ?
SJ: I was an Art Bell fan when I was young, and a lot of those late-night deejays. I wish my show was about aliens and dead people. There’s kind of a story to these guys and I love radio theater, especially the old episodic stuff. The idea of turning that into an album just really appealed to me.
Y!W: Why was Stephen King the right person for that part?
SJ: I had my mind set on him for a long time and I knew he was a fan of my music. For how dark the material was, I knew his mind was perfect for this character. Luckily, I found a way to get a hold of him and he’s such a generous, cool dude and he did it. I couldn’t believe he did it. We never spoke or met still to this day, it was all e-mail. I tried explaining it to him, but after a while I couldn’t find new ways to get across what I was looking for. I just wrote up a mock script and he said “Oh, so it’s kind of a sad thing.” I said, “Yeah, it is because he’s getting shut out.” He took that and wrote something that was way better.
Y!W: The first time you got on the road with Hierophant, what kind of reaction did you get from those unaware of your change in direction?
SJ: Ninety percent of the shows went off without a hitch. We were playing the record from top to bottom, then there were a couple of shows where people did not quite understand what was going on. This one guy got very upset, and he must’ve come in halfway through during this one break where Stephen King is talking about the soldiers looming over the narrator and he thought we were talking about the troops. He started yelling that we don’t support the troops, and it just turned into a very odd situation. Tom Morello, who has been a great friend and mentor to me, I wrote him and he said, “You know you’re doing something right.”
Shooter Jennings & Hierophant will perform at the Cat’s Cradle on Sept. 16.