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Shooter Jennings carves out his own path

‘It’s the grit and dirt of music that I love so much’ says the singer
/ Source: The Associated Press

Shooter Jennings doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve — it’s somewhere much more permanent than that.

On the singer-songwriter’s left forearm, underneath a sprawling tattoo of a gun, are inked the initials CBCS, for “Country Boy Can Survive.” It’s credo he can turn to if he ever loses faith.

These days, the 26-year-old son of country icon Waylon Jennings and singer Jessi Colter may be checking his forearm with more regularity as he promotes his second album, “Electric Rodeo.”

Despite his rich heritage, Shooter and his band — sounding equal parts Lynyrd Skynyrd, Guns N’ Roses and Johnny Cash — are finding it difficult getting onto the nation’s airwaves.

“As a rock band, you at least have a shot on the radio. As a country contemporary act, you can have one, too,” he says wearily. “But where are they going to play us? Pop radio? We couldn’t go pop with a mouth full of firecrackers.”

On “Electric Radio,” Jennings effortlessly shifts from twangy ballad to fist-raising anthems. There’s no real name for what he does — just that it isn’t new country or alt-rock.

“God, just please don’t ever call it nu-country,” Jennings says, laughing.

‘The grit and dirt of music’Even the quickest glimpse of Jennings shows that his personal style reflects the genre-shifting of his music: long hair, T-shirts, scruffy bead, tinted aviator glasses, tattoos and not a hint of attitude.

“My favorite bands are Hank Williams Jr. and Led Zeppelin. When it’s rock, it’s ’70s rock and when it’s country, it’s ’70s country,” he says. “For me, it’s the grit and dirt of music that I love so much.”

As to those people who think country music is tiresome — whiny songs about pickup trucks, lonesome dogs and cowboy hats — Jennings understands. He loved rock early and only began to really appreciate country after his father’s death at 64 in 2002.

“A lot of people that I’ve met who don’t like country music just haven’t been introduced to the old country,” he says. “And then when they do, they’re obsessed with it. It’s almost a different genre than the country that’s out now.”

After his epiphany, Jennings — born Waylon Albright Jennings — dissolved his L.A.-based band Stargunn and tackled a new challenge: trying to fuse the lyrical strength of country with the bombast of rock.

“It took me a little while to get sorrow under the belt enough to understand country music’s lyrics and strengths. I mean, I knew about it — it was around so much of my life — but you actually have to have a woman cheat on you to understand some of these songs,” he says. “I mean, you have to drink yourself under the table to understand Merle Haggard songs. But once you do, then it kind of snaps and gets ahold of you.”

Jennings and his band, the .357s — Leroy Powell on guitar, Bryan Keeling on drums and Ted Kamp on bass — released “Put The ‘O’ Back In Country” last year, selling more than 200,000 copies and spawning a hit single “4th of July.” He also began dating the actress Drea de Matteo (“The Sopranos”).

‘He’s listening to his own creative soul’The new album, out last month, has grown slowly as Jennings tours, with the video for the single “Gone to Carolina” chosen for high rotation on Country Music Television. His label plans to pitch it to MTV and VH1, too.

“With this record we probably took both extremes of country and rock — and cut out all the middle,” he says. “Even if this record doesn’t sell, we know that we made a record that was true to our inspirations and our influences.”

Susan Levy, vice president of artist development for Jennings’ label, Universal South Records, isn’t too worried. Even if Jennings finds country radio tough to crack, she says, he can build an audience in rock clubs.

“He’s making the music he wants to make,” says Levy. “He’s listening to his own creative soul and if radio happens to line up with that at times in his life than I think that’s going to be a good thing. But it’s not his goal.”

Jennings knows that critics may dismiss the son of Waylon Jennings as a mere oddity or, more maliciously, as someone trying to capitalize on the icon whose hits include “I’m a Ramblin’ Man” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys.”

“I would be happy to be a footnote in my dad’s bio. I don’t care about trying to be famous or prove that I didn’t need him,” says Jennings. “Even if they say I’m riding his coattails, I’m confident enough in my own music that I don’t worry about that.”

No more acting for ShooterJennings even stepped into his dad’s cowboy boots when he played Waylon in the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line.” Nervous from the start, he just hoped he wouldn’t ruin any scenes.

“I don’t think I’ll be doing any more acting,” he says, shaking his head.

As for his mother, the 62-year-old Colter — best known for her 1975 hit “I’m Not Lisa” — is basking in renewed attention with the release of “Out of the Ashes,” her first album in 20 years.

“There’s definitely musical influences from both sides,” says Jennings, who hopes to record with his mom soon. “My dad was obsessed with music and my mom is obsessed with music. It’s really awesome to have that in your life.”

Jennings says his parents were always excited about taking new directions in music. He would play his dad songs by Tool and Led Zeppelin, and just recently he got a phone call from his mom — from an Audioslave concert in Arizona.

Even so, there are limits. For instance, Colter was a little squeamish about the song “Little White Lines” on her son’s new album.

“She said, ’You sure you want to put that cocaine song on there?’ I’m like, ’Mom, come on!’ She’s a mom just like anybody else’s mom.”