Q & A With Shooter Jennings
Fed up with the country music business and itching for a new start, Shooter Jennings decided to pack up and move from New York to California. Somewhere in the middle—that vague expanse of land his father, Waylon, famously proclaimed his love for in “Too Dumb for New York City, Too Ugly For L.A.”—Shooter saw a world falling apart around him. “The economy crashed and all this stuff was going on, and I was driving right through the middle of it,” he says. Describing the experience as “a perfect storm of emotions,” he says the end result was Black Ribbons.
Described as “Pink Floyd meets Ministry,” it’s a concept album in which dark and foreboding tracks (courtesy of his newly rechristened band, Hierophant) are punctuated by the ranting of a late night DJ called Will O’ the Wisp, voiced by Stephen King, a man who knows a thing or two about bleak futures.
So it’s surprising to find Shooter suspiciously free of dark clouds when discussing the album, his life, and his rather unique upbringing. Engaged to actress Drea de Matteo and a proud papa to 2-year-old Alabama Gypsy Rose, he clearly isn’t about to let his concerns about the future mess up his present. After all, he’s got more pressing concerns—like where, exactly, he’s going to put that “Alabama” tattoo.INKED: How many tattoos do you have now?
SHOOTER JENNINGS: Six.
What prompted you to get your first one?
I got it on the day of my 18th birthday. It’s on my right arm and it’s this crappy, nonsensical tattoo that looks like there’s an “N” in the center of it. Which my friends always joke was for “Nazareth.” [Laughs.] I have no reasoning behind it except that I turned 18 and was like, “I’m getting a tattoo.”
Did you just select a design randomly off the wall?
It was in one of the books. It was some silly, like, star-looking pattern kind of Superman-looking thing that has absolutely no meaning to it. I had the center of it filled in red later to try and make it look a little better, which didn’t really help. Kick ass! [Laughs.]
How long ago was your last one?
The last one I got was this bullet that I have on my right hand. I got it in Austin. Me and my fiancée, Drea, got matching tattoos with our initials. Mine has her initials and it’s on my right hand. We were doing South by Southwest, so I think it had to have been 2004. That was my last one. My daughter’s name is Alabama, and I’m getting an “Alabama” tattoo but I haven’t figured out where I’m getting it. But I’m getting it somewhere.
How many tattoos does Drea have?
She has several. She has seven, I think. She has some on her arm; she has her grandmother’s name and the name of this lady, Ana, who lives with us and who, like, raised her. She has my bullet. She has stars on her fingers. She has an AC/DC tattoo on her stomach. She has a skull design on her back. So she’s got a good number of them.
Do you feel like you need to step it up?
Well, the arm piece I got was a birthday gift from her, and it was her idea. I always wanted to get something nice and big, and she had the idea of getting a gun. She introduced me to Chris O’Donnell at New York Adorned, and he designed this gun and put it on my arm. So now I have the biggest tattoo of both of us.
Have you ever seen anyone with a Shooter Jennings tribute tattoo?
I’ve seen a lot of them for my dad. A lot of Waylon logos. And I’ve seen several that are mine—people have gotten my signature tattooed on them, people have gotten lyrics to songs, a logo from an album cover. It’s quite an honor. One guy had a Waylon logo with the lyrics to one of my songs, “Some Rowdy Women,” tattooed around it. That’s devotion, man. [Laughs.] I don’t know if I would have gotten, like, a Nine Inch Nails tattoo when I was 16. Maybe I would have. But it’s always flattering when you see someone who’s permanently put something that you did on their body.
No creepy ones?
No one has you and them on a unicorn with a big heart around it? No. That’d be awesome, though.
As a kid, you basically grew up on a tour bus with your mom and dad. In retrospect, was that the greatest upbringing ever?
Well, looking at in retrospect is different from when I was little. When you’re little you don’t know the difference, so I thought everybody’s parents went on tour buses. It took me a while to figure that out, that I was different than most people in that way. But in retrospect I had a very different life and maybe I didn’t get to do a lot of the things that normal kids got to do, but at the same time I had a really great life and I got to see so much and my parents were so cool. I loved it. I mean, I bring my daughter on the road with me. When she was really little we had her out for six, eight weeks at a time. She’d just sleep on the bus. It’s part of it, you know? It’s weird, though. Being a dad, I hate being away from her. Hopefully Daddy can make some money this year so we can get a bus of our own. [Laughs.] Because it’s usually nine dudes and us on the bus. But she had them all wrapped around her finger.
Your new album, Black Ribbons, seems to be a pretty pessimistic view of where we’re headed in this country. What stirred that up?
I had been through an experience with my old label and sort of left Nashville with a bad taste in my mouth. It was fun and all, but we just could not get on the radio, could not get videos played, couldn’t get anything. So I left that experience of five years with this kind of sour feeling, and I kind of felt like I had been constricted to a degree. So I really set out to, for lack of a better word, make kind of a “revenge” album. It then quickly turned into something different. The world fell apart. The economy crashed and I found myself driving through the middle of it.
How did you get Stephen King to voice the Will O’ the Wisp character?
I had always wanted to execute this DJ plan, which I’d had really early on. I was on the bus and I was watching a lot of City Confidential and there was this guy, Paul Winfield—he’s dead now, but he narrated that show and he had this voice that was really kind of eerie. So I had the idea to put this DJ on there and at the end of the record reached out to Stephen King, which turned out really good. [Laughs.] I’m indebted to him for the rest of my life. Here’s this punk calling him saying, “Hey, wanna be on my record?” But he did, and he liked it. So the meaning of the record kind of took this turn, and it became more about trying to create an audio movie experience that goes along with the sound and the vibe of the record—the fear of what could be going on behind closed doors and what is going on behind closed doors, as far as the government.
Listening to the DJ’s rants, it’s hard not to be reminded of Bill Hicks.
Oh, yeah, man. I think he’s great. I loved his stuff about drugs. But, yeah, that kind of a thing, it comes back to how the Will O’ the Wisp character came about. When I was speaking to Stephen I was trying to describe the character a little bit, and he was talking about when he was younger there were these beatnik DJs who’d play some music and kind of talk politics and read poetry and do all this kind of stuff. It really was what the character was. And someone like Bill Hicks, it was social commentary more than it was comedy. And that’s kind of what was going on with this guy too. We’re in such a touchy time when it comes to censorship and political correctness and the environment and all this touchy shit that they’ve got shoveled right in our faces. At some point, you’ve got to just be like, “Man, this is just bullshit. Fuck you guys and your rules, we’re doing the best we can.”
Do you have any optimism left?
I feel like the record is optimistic in the sense that the message is that the truth is what is important and it’s the only thing that prevails. Truth and love. You have to paint the bad to get the good out of it. I think the key element for me and my daughter—and this is where everything kind of comes together—is that growing up in this world she’s got to know you can’t trust anything that you’re told, and you’ve got to feel it for yourself and know what the truth is. It’s like Pinocchio, man. I watch all these movies all the time now, I’m engulfed in this world of children’s media, which I absolutely love. [Laughs.] It’s probably been one of the most inspiring periods of my life. [Laughs.] But she watches Pinocchio all the time and I’m looking at that and the way that they paint that story, it’s like he had to learn how to tell the truth and learn how to be good because everything else around you is set up to make you fail. And it’s about finding your own peace and keeping it.
Does the song “Fuck You (I’m Famous)” mean you and Drea aren’t going to be doing a reality show?
[Laughs.] You know what? We definitely won’t have a reality show—they’ve come knocking, though.
Yeah. People will see us out at a restaurant or something with our kid and our 75-year-old Nicaraguan nanny who lives with us, and people will be like, “We think they’d be great for TV.” It’s like, “Man, give me a break.” Look at these people on these shows—you’re ruining their lives, putting their children on TV and shit like that. People want to be famous so bad. It’s the whole fame culture thing. The one thing that’s good about the economy going down the shitter is that people are not going to want to fucking hear about how much money these people are spending. It’s absolutely horrible. But I watch these award shows and stuff, and what’s supposed to be art these days is just littered with spoon-fed, programmed bullshit.
Does it bother you that the face of country music is someone like Taylor Swift?It’s always been that way. It’s always been this kind of tight-knit operation, country music. There have been situations like with my dad where it got so big on its own and it created such a stir on its own that they found they couldn’t control it. You can only expect to be fed what they want you to hear or see or read, unless it’s done by someone who is smart enough or is just their own person enough to do something different that the world takes notice of. With country music, it’s processed, it’s bubblegum, it’s completely a pop thing now. It’s the same thing in rock ‘n’ roll. My friends and I were just talking about this. Every band that you hear in rock ‘n’ roll sounds like another band at a very specific era of their careers. People will be like, “Oh, yeah, that band’s awesome, they sound like early Bowie.”
But at least Taylor Swift is writing her stuff, and she’s really young so I don’t want to be like, “Screw this girl.” Unless she’s shit-talking the old guys. That’s another problem—this sense of entitlement. These days, everyone is so entitled and they don’t know shit. They only know what’s out there now. They know that Miley Cyrus is big, they know that Taylor Swift is big. And that’s all they feel they need to know. That’s a sad situation.
As a kid, were you ever pissed that they never showed your dad’s face on The Dukes of Hazzard?
[Laughs.] It’s funny, because they weren’t really his hands either. It was a double’s hands on there. In the version [of the theme song] he put out as a single, he makes a joke about that: “I’m a good ol’ boy/I know my momma love me/But she don’t understand/They keep showing my hands and not my face on TV.” I always got a kick out of that. He just didn’t give a fuck. They’d send him the scripts and he’d be out on tour and he’d just stop at recording studios. I still run into people who are like, “Hey, your dad shot in and out of my studio in 1982 doing three episodes’ worth of voice-overs.” I’ve got tapes where he’s messing up and making jokes and all this shit.