As the progeny of country music royalty—his dad is the legendary Waylon Jennings; his mom, ‘70s hit maker Jessi Colter—it’s no big surprise that Shooter Jennings has spent the last couple of decades making sure everyone knows he has interests far beyond twang. He moved to Los Angeles, formed a rock band, played his dad in a movie, collaborated with author Stephen King, dabbled in spoken word and released a tribute album to electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder.
He made country music and roots-rock along the way, too, most notably his 2005 debut, Put the “O” Back in Country, produced by a young Dave Cobb, who is now the most in-demand producer in Nashville, thanks to his work on records by Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton. Cobb and Jennings also co-produced Brandi Carlile’s most recent album By the Way, I Forgive You, probably her best yet.
The point is: Cobb and Jennings make good roots music together, and they were working on Carlile’s record when they had the idea to record another straightforward country album. That record is called, simply, Shooter, and it’s a collection of rollicking good-times jams and mixed-bag ballads. It’s also a reminder of how good Jennings can be when he focuses his efforts where his strengths lie.
For example: bruising, brawling, blues-rock barnburners like opening track “Bound Ta Git Down,” which moves at punk speed, features a swaggering horn section and references Guns N’ Roses and Marilyn Manson. “Make Hank proud,” Jennings sings in the chorus. “Get drunk! Get loud!” He sounds like a man in his natural habitat.
Elsewhere, “D.R.U.N.K.” is an ultra-twangy ode to the “ragged life of ruin” and a pitch-perfect throwback to the hard-drinking heyday of country, back when beers went down the hatch, not into coolers in the back of pickup trucks. And the stripped-down arrangement of “Rhinestone Eyes” highlights its main melody, which feels instantly familiar.
Among the slower tunes, the clear highlights are “Living in a Minor Key,” a beautiful George Jones-y waltz, and closing track “Denim & Diamonds,” a simmering working-class anthem that sounds like it could’ve been plucked from a mid-’80s Hank Williams Jr. album. Cobb’s retro production permeates Shooter, but it practically leaps from the speakers here.
Even on Shooter’s best songs, it feels like Jennings walks a thin line between cool and corny, and sometimes he tumbles off onto the wrong side. “Do You Love Texas” is intended as a fun love song for the Lone Star State, but it ends up a jumble of ideas that looks better on paper than it sounds. “Shades & Hues” suffers from an awkward melody in the chorus, and even for outlaw country, the concept behind “I’m Wild & My Woman is Crazy” is regrettable.
So Shooter isn’t perfect, but it’s a good, solid collection of satisfying songs. And for those who’ve been waiting for Jennings to re-embrace his country-music birthright, it’ll be more than enough. Now he can wander some more, if he wants to.
Watch Shooter Jennings’ 2018 Paste studio session below: