Every artist begins in the shadow of their influences and must find the strength and vision to forge a sound of their own. It’s even harder for the children of famous musicians to make that break. For Shooter Jennings, son of country-music legend Waylon Jennings, it came in 2010, at the conclusion of his debut three-album deal with Universal’s country label, Universal South.
“I left after the third record because the management had just changed, and I was just like, ‘Fuck it—I want to do something that only I can do, which is going to really push it and allow me to get out of my head a little bit, out of what I’m supposed to do,” Jennings recalls. “I wanted to do something that was an experience that didn’t have anything to do with me and my career—more of an arty record.”
The result was Black Ribbons, arguably the finest Pink Floyd album never made since Waters and Gilmour separated. The grim dystopian concept story is basically narrated by Stephen King: He plays Will o’ the Wisp, a late-night radio host in his final hour delivering a diatribe about government conspiracy and cultural decline between cuts blending greasy rock and industrial-tinged prog played by Jennings’s fictional alter-ego band-that-will-change-your-life, Heirophant.
Jennings self-released Black Ribbons, which reached #16 and #34, respectively, on Billboard’s independent and rock charts—a strong showing given the lack of label backing and the left-field approach (compared to his country-rock pedigree). The whole experience helped establish that Jennings had his own way of doing things.
In Los Angeles, where Jennings moved when he was 20, “I was really just another transplant, and the Waylon thing really didn’t even come into play. I was grateful for who my dad was,” Jennings says, “but I felt like I had gone out and made it on my own when the record came out—and then the shadow appeared.
“I had to put out a couple records like [Black Ribbons] over time, to the point where I’ve finally weeded out the guys that weren’t there for me. Now I feel like I’m in a place where I can do anything, and the shadow … there’s only positive to it now.”
Since then, Jennings has released the country album Family Man and its darker flip side, The Other Life; Heirophant: The Magic, a spoken-word companion to Black Ribbons; and tribute releases to George Jones and electronic-music pioneer Giorgio Moroder. The latter, Countach (for Giorgio), came out last year with guest appearances by Brandi Carlile, the late Steve Young, and Jennings’s childhood hero, Marilyn Manson, doing the Moroder/David Bowie hit “Cat People.”
“When I finally met him,” Jennings admits, “I had to fanboy out for like a year before I could be friends with him.”
Jennings, who never drank as a teen, discovered weed after graduating high school, courtesy of his girlfriend in Asheville, North Carolina—and after the first-time paranoia subsided, “it was all good.” However, like many parents, his dad and mom (country star Jessi Colter) weren’t thrilled, despite their outlaw heritage.
“It was weird,” Jennings says. “My dad never smoked pot. My mom doesn’t love that I smoke pot. But it’s like, ‘It could be a lot worse.’”
Shooter Jennings On Pot & Productivity
“I put my mental guard down and just do something,” Jennings says, “and I’ll be, ‘Oh, wow, that was great.’ It really does inspire you. Being in the studio, getting a little buzz on and just working out some new song or figuring out how to do a song a certain way … you can’t beat it.”