Toting an exciting mix of metal and rock-and-roll, the son of two country icons has his own brand of rebellion

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010

The smell of chlorine drifts in the breeze while Shooter Jennings talks about frustration and hope. The 30-year-old singer is sucking down cigarettes and nursing a Diet Coke on the poolside patio of a house he shares with his fiancee, actress Drea de Matteo.

The tangled stretch of road that leads to the couple's front door seems as if it were drawn up by dropping a plate of spaghetti on a map of the Hollywood Hills. Jennings likes it that way. The son of country icons Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter describes himself as a loner who cherishes his family, but thrives in isolation.

"If it weren't for Drea and the baby, and my family and my mom, I'd probably be [expletive] hanging from that tree over there," he says. Then he laughs. The ice cubes in his glass jingle like tiny wind chimes.

Behind his aviator shades and a scraggly black beard, is an artist leading a life of contradictions. He's a singer who has embraced his late father's legacy while continuously bucking Nashville's definition of it. He's a heavily tattooed computer geek. He's a dad who takes his 2-year-old daughter, Alabama, to dance class when he's not writing songs about the end of the world.

His new album, "Black Ribbons," feels in tune with the rebel spirit of his father -- but certainly not the sound. Arriving Tuesday, it's a wildly ambitious, 70-minute rock opus splicing heavy-metal bombast with freedom-rock harmonies. There are pulsing synthesizers and Allman Brotherly guitar solos. There are songs about fame and Armageddon. There are backup vocals from Colter and skits narrated by novelist Stephen King. It feels like a country album mutated into something darker, even vicious.

"I think the whole thing is a metaphor for how hard it's been to get my voice heard," Jennings says of the album he's been laboring over since 2008. "Whether it's a success or not, at the end of the day I know that I didn't play by anyone's expectations. This is the anti-expectations album."

As the youngest child of one of country's most mythic figures, Jennings knows all about expectations. And while Nashville has often been friendly to the progeny of its heroes -- Hank Williams's bloodline has enjoyed successes not seen by the musical children of Lennon or Dylan -- Shooter hasn't felt the same embrace.

His 2005 solo debut, the crudely and cleverly titled "Put the 'O' Back in Country," was a promising meld of rock swagger and country twang, but it failed to find a larger audience. "When I was in the Nashville world, they let me in and they tore me to shreds," Shooter says. "I was either too rock for [country] radio or too country for rock."

And while he's always felt trapped in that gray-area purgatory, he has never shied from his heritage. He still performs tribute concerts to his late father and donned a "Waylon Forever" T-shirt while performing at the 9:30 club last fall. It feels natural. But it's not easy.

"When you go out there and say 'I love my dad, I'm very proud of my dad,' there's a certain expectation that people have: To relive your dad through you," Shooter says. "That, I think, can be your downfall if you don't have a clear vision for what you want to do."

A different sound

The vision for "Black Ribbons" took shape in the final throes of the aughts, but its sound first took shape in the mid-'90s. Raised in Nashville, Shooter was the only child of Jennings's marriage to Colter. (Shooter has siblings from Waylon's previous marriages.) And while Shooter grew up surrounded by country music, he had no desire to be a part of it. He liked Guns N' Roses.

At 15, Shooter begged Waylon to let him attend Woodstock '94, the anniversary mega-concert held in Saugerties, N.Y. Years of notorious hard-living had turned Waylon into a protective father and he wouldn't allow it. But as a consolation, he ordered the concert on pay-per-view.

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