Shooter Jennings Stays Tied to Rebel Ways With ‘Black Ribbons’
It’s very early in 2010, far too early to be making grandiose statements about bests of the year. But though it’s only March it’d be hard to imagine a more ambitious record than Shooter Jennings‘ ‘Black Ribbons,’ a conceptual work set in a futuristic society tied together by the words of author Stephen King, playing a deejay who introduces the fictional band, Hierophant.
While the record sonically owes more to the works of Pink Floyd and Nine Inch Nails than his legendary father, Waylon Jennings, as the younger Jennings tells The Boot, it’s not necessarily the radical departure from country some might think. In fact, Shooter believes the album carries on the family tradition of country outlaws, pointing out his father’s work in the ’70s was a radical departure from the country sounds that preceded it.
The fiancée of actress Drea de Mateo (‘Desperate Housewives,’ ‘The Sopranos‘) and now the father of two-year-old daughter, Alabama, Shooter clearly was influenced by his role as a family man. And in this intriguing interview that covers love, politics, family, Nashville and another country rebel. Kris Kristofferson, Shooter takes us into the making and the mindset of ‘Black Ribbons.’
Where are you living these days?
I’m in L.A. I just got back from New York last night. I was out there for a family thing. My fiancé is pure-blood New York/Italian.
How does she like being in Los Angeles?
She’d rather be in New York. It’s really good for our daughter here, and her work is here, and my work is here, but she misses New York.
And you come from a very different background.
I’m from Nashville. I moved here ten years ago, so my adult years I spent in L.A.
So have you ever lived in New York?
Yeah, I’ve been with Drea for about eight years, and we’ve split our time pretty evenly there since we’ve been together. When she was pregnant, we were there two years straight then, so we kind of dual-lived there and here. But I set my roots here, so I’ve gone back and forth.
But if not for those travels this album might not exist.
Yeah, probably. When we migrate, we drive — with me driving the whole way. So, definitely the record was heavily impacted by that trip and what was going on in the world during that time.
When was this drive?
It was right when the economy collapsed. We left in mid-September of ’08, got here, and I started working on the album in October. So right when we hit the road is when the world economy went into a blitz and there was just so much fear, so it was definitely a scary thing. We were about in Arkansas when it was just all over the radio and everywhere you turned. And we were driving late at night, so all I would be listening to was late-night talk radio and all this stuff going on and the fear-mongering, talking about the looming police state.
How long did the record take?
It was about a ten-month record. Dave Cobb, my producer and great friend — like a brother to me, we spent about six months in the studio constructing and laying out the record and planning it, and the process was a little different. All the other records I’ve done, we’ve usually gone in with songs and played them with the band and cut the record in a matter of a month or three weeks. In this case, there was much more planning going on, and there was also free creative experimentation going on. It was really like constructing the musical landscape of the whole thing and really experimenting as much as we could.
The time frame is interesting because it crossed over what were considered dramatic moments in the country from the end of Bush’s term in October ’08, Obama’s victory and inauguration, and then the feeling of change that some saw and some didn’t.
You’re right, we started this under Bush and finished it under Obama. And I think that really I have grown to have an extreme distaste for both sides. We were in a horrible place when we started the record and we’ve only side-stepped our position as a country. For me, what ended up happening is, not that I really had a ton of faith in politicians before, but I wasn’t necessarily as educated as I was by the time the record was done. The whole message of the record in a sense is, besides being anti-imperialist to a degree, I don’t think we’re being told the truth and we have been told the truth. And the message that I found myself trying to portray was that the world is in a constant spin and … the sovereignty of the United States is constantly being degraded. And I think that the most important thing is not to let the people that have these agendas — and will always have these agendas at play — really get you down. And don’t let them kill the real, true American dream, or the world dream, it’s not just American — which is about love, truth, honesty, hope, and the spirit of family and love and friends, and the importance of that. I found myself feeling very alone, not to use an overused term, but like a man without a country to some degree. I felt like we’re all kind of screwed, [but] stick with your family and your friends, it’s the connection between two people that matters the most.
So how do we change it?
It seems as if the best way is the mom and pop way. I just feel like we’re in a place where the truth is the most masked that it’s been because people really don’t know what’s going on and there’s so much fear going on. And I think it’s really important that people on a very small level bond together and try to affect their communities on their level. The more people take their own communities in their own hands the more it will affect their countries and the big picture.
It’s interesting because though the sound sonically is more rock, the ideas you’re talking about do jibe with what your dad and his peers, like Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, brought to Nashville in the outlaw thinking.
In terms of my fans, I think there’s a group of them that might be looking for me to do something that is just retro or a throwback to what my dad did. And if I don’t do something like that, they’re gonna look at it as blasphemous. But I do think that the message of the record is definitely something that people in small towns can really relate to. There are a lot of things at play with the record, but [for] people saying something is country based on the way it sounds, genres in general were built as a marketing tool, so you look at it and people are going to try and throw it in a category or whatnot, but I’ve always just believed in the art of it all. Just like you said with Kristofferson, people said his music wasn’t country because it didn’t sound like traditional country music. But if you went and got one of my dad’s records from the ’70s and traveled back in time to the late ’50s and put it next to something with country music they would say, “Oh my god, this is unheard of. This is like heavy music.” It’s become acceptable now, but it was breaking down musical barriers. I’m not saying I’m necessarily doing that, but I definitely think that the progressive nature of country music has been lost. [But] I wasn’t thinking about making a country or rock record or anything when I did this record. It was more about creating an experience for the listener that was kind of like a movie in a possibly dark future and could possibly happen and kind of speaking words, solace and consoling a little bit through the voice of Will o’ the Wisp [the deejay voiced by Stephen King].
One thing I like about the album is reading through the lyrics it’s telling an apocalyptic tale, but many of the songs are very personal and could be seen as love songs.
I knew I wasn’t gonna write an album about a blind kid playing pinball. It wasn’t gonna be something where each song had to deal with this topic. It was gonna be more about this personality that was on the radio, and these songs were gonna be the catalog of material by this band. So it relieved me of having to feel, not that it was actually ever an issue because I went into it with certain songs that were personal and all that, but I didn’t feel pressured to make it all tie together. But I had a handful of songs that had this social commentary and I knew that they were gonna be the ones that Will o’ the Wisp introduced. And just like with the songs, it would be unrealistic to think that some band — this is only coming from the artistic side of this — every single song they put out is gonna be about how the world sucks and it’s broke. It’s really a broad spectrum, but all the songs that are on the album are all kind of how I felt about all these different things, whether it be my daughter and the song written for her by her godfather or ‘All This Could’ve Been Yours,’ which was written about my experience with the music business in Nashville, or ‘The Breaking Point,’ which is about my relationship. They all, by complete organic nature, ended up having the same theme, which is really this honesty, morality, and spirituality. Ike Reilly is this fantastic singer/songwriter who wrote ‘California via Tennessee’ and chased me down with this song. He [said], “I don’t know if this is gonna really fit on your album, dude.” I was like, “No, man, it’s gonna be fine.” His song was about this honesty, all about this kind of honest, really not knowing why you moved to L.A., but you did.
Tell me about ‘God Bless Alabama,’ the song about your daughter.
It was written by Matt Reeser, who I’ve known since I was a kid. He’s her godfather and he came to New York when she was being born and he really took it seriously [that] he was her godfather. He was trying to figure out what he should do for her that would help her, because he felt like that was his job. So he sat down and wrote the song all through the night before she was born and about eight in the morning he showed up with a little tape player and the lyrics and it was really like a road map, in a way, for her. It literally says, “The only safe route is the truth.” I knew immediately I would love to cut that song. When we were doing this album, I [said], “It couldn’t fit on any other album any better because it was another song that was a road map to truth and love.” And I think that also because of my fear of the state of the world and that my daughter was gonna inherit this, I saw this world falling apart and I’m seeing her being two years old and she’s about to walk into a much crazier world than I or any of us had ever experienced, so I knew whatever music I was going to be putting out from here on out had to really be something that she could listen to and learn from. I had songs in the past and — not that I’ll never have another song about smoking pot — but I was young and reckless and had a song called ‘Little White Lines,’ which was about cocaine ruining your life. It’s a good message, but at the same time there wasn’t as much weight to my words in my own mind. And not to take myself too seriously or anything like that, but seeing her growing up in this situation happening with the world I really felt like there definitely needed to be a message that meant something. It was aimed at her in a way, so with that in mind, I knew that all these songs were gonna fit because all of them were real honest.