Exclusive interview—Shooter Jennings is someone we need in the music business. He writes songs with substance without preaching. He reveres and draws upon his roots, without feeling constrained by them. And he respects his audience and the legacy he’ll leave for his children enough to seek out inspiration wherever he can—whether in a website about old ghost stories or a letter to the editor in a techie magazine—in order to make the best music he knows how to make. And he’s done just that with his new CD, Family Man, on the street today. It’s arguably his best work ever and, during a recent chat with Nashville.com at CRS 2012, Shooter talked about writing the record, the importance of family in his life, his dark side and what his legendary late father would think of his new music. Here’s some of what Shooter had to say.
Nash: Before we jump into some particular songs, I have to tell you I love the new record, from start to finish.
Shooter: Oh, thank you.
Nash: Opening the record with “The Real Me” is a great way to kick it off. And when it began with the lyrics about waking up with your children “at the crack of noon.” I thought it was going to be a really sweet song. But it took a hard left turn pretty quickly. What did your mother think the first time she heard that? Did she think, “Wow, he’s a little darker than I thought he was?”
Shooter: (laughs) Oh, no. Shoot, after “Black Ribbons” on the last record I put out, she knew how dark I get. But she’s got a funny sense of humor about it. The one song that’s the craziest is that “Southern Family Anthem” song. When I played that one for her, she said, “That’s a hit!” I said, “What? Are you crazy?” She said, “Everybody has crazy trash families!” (chuckles)
Nash: And you covered a lot of territory in that tune. You’ve got a gay cousin, a murderer, a lot of interesting characters in the song.
Shooter: It’s true. All of that’s true. It’s all in my extended family. It’s funny, because we all love each other, but we all make jokes like that—we’re all trash, but at least we’re family.
Nash: Do your relatives know that it comes with the territory? If they share your DNA they might be at least casually referenced in a song at some point?
Shooter: It’s funny. My brother was like, “Okay, who’s this one?” Trying to get me to spill the beans about someone he didn’t know about. He had it all figured out, but there was one he wanted to know about. “Who are you talkin’ about there?” I was like, “Oh, God. What have I done?” (laughs)
Nash: I really like the lyrics in your songs. So thoughtful, even on songs that are real groove-heavy. There are some artists who would just slap some words in there to fill it up and I appreciate your having put some real thought into what you’re saying.
Shooter: Thank you. That means a lot, man. As a songwriter, I’m always growing. The older I get, the easier I find it understanding stuff. Bruce Springsteen said something one time in an interview I saw that was really smart. He said when he first started writing songs, it’s like you’re writing off of instinct all the time. And you don’t always finish them ‘cause you can’t always grasp it, but then over time you start writing from the experience of writing. The instincts are there, but you start to understand it better.
Nash: And the craft can pull you along sometimes when the instincts run a little dry . . .
Shooter: Exactly. The experience of writing enough songs and failing at some of them . . . But for me, I’m not a guy . . . I can’t get in a room with another songwriter. I’ve never been able to do the Nashville dance with that. It’s always been pretty much writing alone and usually been about something that made me either happy or sad.
Nash: I also like that you never write down to your audience. I’m thinking specifically of a reference to Pandora’s Box in “The Real Me.” You may have some listeners who don’t know what that means, but you don’t look for a better way to say it because “Pandora’s Box” is the perfect way to say it.
Shooter: That’s cool of you to say. And I’ve never thought about it that way. There are some things I write and I think, “Man, that’s gonna be way over some people’s heads.” But most fans I’ve met are very intelligent. Especially if they knew my dad’s music. Some of the guys writing then, like Silverstein and Kristofferson, were challenging the audience in a lot of ways with things they could relate to, but at the same time, make them come up to their level a little bit. And I’m not saying that my level is any higher than any average Joe’s. I guess I just have faith in the listener.
Nash: Let’s talk about “The Long Road Ahead.” Do you live pretty much in the moment, or do you look down the long road ahead? And what is it that you rely on for guidance as you look down that road?
Shooter: Both. You know, I rely on consistency. Inconsistency is kind of my biggest enemy I think. That song is a little abstract. But the think I was really feeling with that song is . . . there are a lot of artists making what I think is some of the best new country music being made. And they are so far under the radar, mainstream country would never even think to know about them. It’s amazing to me because these artists know they have no hope at commercial radio. They know there’s no outlet at all. It’s not like rock where a new young rock band can do something and have a shot. If you’re doing something that’s on the edge of country, you’re doing it only because you love doing it. The interesting thing with that song is that the chorus is basically saying, whatever you do, don’t stop. Don’t stop playing. If you stop, our songs are silenced. But whether we realize it or not, there are so many other people out there who are relying on that light in the fog to give them guidance. Nobody has all the answers, but we’re looking for those lights in the fog.
Nash: I’m sure a lot of people who are lights don’t even realize it.
Shooter: That’s right. And the people who think they’re a light need to just get out of the way, because they’re too proud of what they’re doing.
Nash: Is there anybody on modern country radio who impresses you with what they’re doing and is getting some airplay?
Shooter: As far as older artists, I’m a big Alan Jackson fan. He just writes his music and is keepin’ it real. And George Strait. And I thought Ronnie Dunn’s album was really good. Some of the stuff on that album was just heartbreaking. And in terms of younger artists, I’m really happy with Kellie Pickler, I’m really happy that Jamey Johnson is still kickin’. And Josh Thompson really shocked me at the Waylon tribute thing we did (for Sirius Radio). He came in and really held his own and did a great version of “Amanda.” So I think there are people out there who are true believers and I really respect anyone who’s sticking with doing what they want to do and doing it because they care, and not letting anybody push them around. You can tell the ones who care. And Chris Young has a really good voice. I love his “I Hear Voices.” It’s a great song. And Brad Paisley. In addition to being an insane guitar player, he’s created a sound. And he’s drivin’ that train. That’s what I like.
Nash: I want to make sure we have time to talk about “The Black Dog,” which may be my favorite song on the record. The images are just so powerful. Where’d that idea come from?
Shooter: Wow, that’s cool. Well, I’ll tell you, when I was writing this record, one thing I wanted to do was to write a Civil War era ghost song. So I started looking for stories. And I came across a web site—and we give them credit on the album; it’s called themoonlitroad.com—and it’s basically all Southern ghost stories. And I was reading through them and found this story called The Black Dog. And I was so captivated by it that I was determined to adapt it into a song. And after three or four months, I finally figured it out, the music and phrasing and how it was going to work. And it turned out to be one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written, just because I was so inspired by this little story and it worked so well turning it into a song. It was a challenge in a way. And the story was sweet—this dog had died and its ghost was helping to save its master. It had so much heart to it. It’s cool that you liked that one.
Nash: I also love the images in “Daddy’s Hands”—a house that smells like an ashtray.
Shooter: That experience, Drea’s father had a stroke Christmas of 2010 and was in the hospital New Year’s Eve and all that stuff. I had been through that with my dad when I was young. And it was a really hard period . . . re-going through it was really hard. But being older, I could actually reflect on that experience and my father’s experience and wrap them into a song. That song is actually kind of extension of the “Southern Family Anthem” song because that’s kind of the way our family was. It’d be raining outside and everybody smokin’ inside. Everybody’s loud and nuts and arguing at the dinner table and stuff. That’s how we shared family. That’s the real life stuff. That’s actually my favorite mix on the album. A lot of John Prine in that and I’m a big fan.
Nash: “The Deed and the Dollar”—I love the line finer than frog hair split four ways.
Shooter: It’s an old expression. All the things in the verses were old expressions. Where I came up with the deed and the dollar is a whole different story. I kind of was just experimenting writing songs using old sayings. I knew a couple, then I found that finer than a frog hair. But the deed and the dollar thing is actually very funny and it will probably loose me a ton of credibility with country people. I’m also a computer geek, from when I was a little kid. I subscribe to a hacker magazine called 2600 Magazine, which I’ve been getting for years. I was reading it, and in the letters to the editor, somebody wrote in this piece about digital media and how you don’t own anything; you’re just renting it from someone. And the last sentence was: “They own the deed, they own the dollar and they own the download.” Those two lines just made so much sense to me.
Nash: What do you think your dad would gravitate toward on this record? Any particular song or two you think would either grab him musically or make him appreciate you even more as a songwriter?
Shooter: That’s interesting. I think he’d like “The Black Dog.” He had a song called “The Old Timer” that was based on a book that he really loved. I think he’d like “The Family Tree” song. I don’t know, man, that’s a good question. I hadn’t really thought about that. I think he’d probably gravitate toward the simple songs, too—“Daddy’s Hands,” “The Deed and the Dollar” and the last song, “Born Again,” was written for a family friend. I think he’d like that.
Nash: How are things going in the family? Tell me the kids’ ages.
Shooter: Bama’s gonna be five in November and Blackjack’s gonna be one in April. Having children has been such a wonderful thing. There’s a responsibility that comes with being a father. I’m just plugging along trying not to screw it up. But it’s also putting something out there that they’re gonna have. I’m very fortunate so many people love my dad and I have his voice to listen to whenever I want to. And my music will be something for my kids to look back at. I hope I’ll keep putting out stuff they’ll look back on fondly and maybe give them guidance here and there. My dad was always very supportive of everything I did. He didn’t push me into anything, but he was very open-minded. And I hope my kids will look at my example and see how much I care about what I do and, if they decide to do music, that’d be awesome. Bama draws all the time. She’s awesome and has a very visual eye. (He goes to his phone to find a picture she drew). Here’s a picture she drew. This is Snow White she drew the other day.
Nash: I think that’s gonna do it. Thanks so much for making the time.
Shooter: It’s always a pleasure to talk to you. When I’m talkin’ to people like you, I look forward to those.
Nash: Thanks again.
Photo: David Scarlett