There's a lot of depth to Shooter Jennings.
At first glance, people might not get that impression. They see the long hair, hear him throw around four-letter words, and assume he's another musician intent upon living hard and burning the candle at both ends until there's no candle left to burn.
But he's much more complicated. On one hand he's a star, the son of Waylon Jennings, the boyfriend of The Sopranos' Drea de Matteo, and the host of Shooter Jennings' Electric Rodeo, a two-hour weekly music show on Sirius satellite radio. And on the other, he's a tortured soul trying to escape his father's shadow, a man trying to grow up and rein in his personal and professional insecurities.
Song writing gives him control over his insecurities and gives order to an often chaotic life. It's an outlet for the fears that try to engulf him. When he's tired, he finds renewal and comfort by spilling out words on a piece of paper.
"The Wolf" is the title track for his latest album, which arrived in stores this week. It's not meant to be a catchy title. It's Jennings' take on who he is.
"The wolf concept is the idea of being an outsider. It's the whole idea of me accepting who I am, why I'm different and why I'm not going to be like everyone else - musically, professionally, on every level. I feel like a wolf in a pack of dogs sometimes," he says.
A lot of that difference is rooted in his name and the environment in which he grew up. From the time he was born until he was 15 or 16, he was on the road with his father and his mother, Jessi Colter. As other kids were playing hide-and-seek with their friends in the neighborhood, Jennings, 28, was watching cartoons with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. That type of fame brings with it a lot of perks, but it also makes it difficult to differentiate between friend and opportunist.
"There was a point when I was worn out by it. People around me were taking advantage of me - the industry, everybody," he says.
As he tried to make a name for himself in country music, he was tagged as Waylon's son.
"When reviews came out, people would try and pigeonhole me like I'm trying to be like my dad, and I'm not. That's not giving me a fair shot as an artist, but I can deal with it. The way I deal about it is by writing about it a lot," he says.
Reviewers hold against him where he came from. Radio programmers penalize him for where he wants to go. Ironically, despite his country royalty, he's fought a losing battle with country radio. His first single, "4th of July," reached No. 26 in 2005, but he hasn't been able to crack the charts since. He's country to the core, but his music has a rock tinge to it, and programmers have tagged him as not being country enough.
"Country music is where I want to be. My music needs to be on country radio for the fact that there's a frame of reference with me that people get. They understand where I come from. I love country music. I love where it came from. I love what my father did, where my family came from," he says. "I think radio will come around, but it will be a battle."
Jennings butted heads again with the radio industry with the release of "Walk of Life," a remake of the Dire Straits classic and the first release off his new album.
"Right away they're like, 'We're not going to play that either.' It wasn't like they didn't think the song was good, but they're still saying 'he's not really country enough.' It made me mad. It was like getting punched in the gut. There's so much power in the hands of a few people. They decide in an office room whether they're going to play something or not."
There's no doubt that the country industry adheres to a pretty strict formula for who they want their artists to be. A lot of music on the radio comes from a core group of songwriters. The lyrics are backed by "A" list Nashville musicians, and the sound is crafted by a handful of well-known producers. Jennings won't play that game. He wants to control the final product. Almost all of his music is written by him or his band members. They also back him on his recordings.
"I want to succeed with the sound I have. I have so much creative energy, and I know what I'm doing. All the artwork that comes with the album, I did it all on my computer. It's all a part of the message I'm trying to send, so I can't play by their rules. I have 100 records in me, and I'm going to keep putting them out until they can't say no anymore."
What fans will hear on this album is a glimpse of who Jennings is and the struggles that have molded him. "Tangled Up Roses" is a frank look at a troubled relationship he endured; "Old Friend" is a tribute to his best friend, Matt Reasor, who helped him during one particularly dark night, and "She Lives in Color" is about his current girlfriend, who is expecting the couple's first baby next month.
"This whole record is so much more personal than the other records I've cut. This one is my baby," he says.
Slowly, he's coming to terms with who he is and where he wants to go. He embraces his differences but finds common ground with every fan who buys his album or comes to one of his shows.
"My life is just as hard as anyone else's, but at the same time, there are so many positives going on in my life. My dad's dead, but I can put on one of his records or hear it in a bar somewhere. I'm the luckiest guy in the world," he says. "It's been a battle [with the industry], but it's setting up a good story if I do win."
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