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Shooter Jennings steps out from dad’s shadow

This outlaw of country is proud of his musical heritage and father Waylon
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sometimes, the offspring of famous parents view their lineage as more of a burden than a benefit — especially when they pursue the same profession.

You won’t hear any of that talk from Shooter Jennings. The son of the late country legend Waylon Jennings and singer Jessi Colter, Jennings is more than proud to draw from his rich musical heritage.

His debut album, “Put The O Back In Country,” is a bit of a tribute to his dad’s outlaw image, and has that gritty, Southern rock sound that Waylon Jennings helped to pioneer. He even makes a brief appearance as his father in the upcoming Johnny Cash biopic “Walk The Line,” starring Joaquin Phoenix.

Jennings looked every bit the outlaw with his scruffy beard, long brown hair and dark sunglasses as he sat down with The Associated Press at an East Village eatery (and was briefly interrupted when his girlfriend, “Joey” actress Drea de Matteo, popped by to get say hi and steal a kiss).

Jennings talked about growing up a Jennings, being a rocker in Los Angeles and why de Matteo might want to give him some acting lessons.

AP: You spent the first few years of your career as part of the Los Angeles rock band Stargunn — why did you go in that direction?

Jennings: When I was younger, my dad always told me, “You should just go by Shooter and go do your thing.” I think I always wanted to hide behind the band, and always kind of imagined having a band where everybody was doing equal things and being a gang. I didn’t realize it isn’t about the band name, because I’m that way with my guys now. Going out under my own name was more of me being able to do my own thing.

AP: Why did you leave for Los Angeles instead of trying to make it in Nashville?

Jennings: I don’t know if it was me not thinking I had what it took to do that, or being scared about the entire circus, I don’t know why ... Part of it was I didn’t want to go places where people would be (saying), “Waylon Jennings’ son.” But I never could avoid that anyway. Even when we played with Stargunn, they would say, “Featuring Waylon’s son,” and they wouldn’t even say Shooter. (Laughs.)

AP: Was there ever a point you didn’t want to do music?

Jennings: Well, when I was really young, until I was like 13 or 14, I didn’t think I was going to do music, but I played drums, and I played piano and a little guitar. I wanted to be an artist. When I was young, I was really into cartoons, I really wanted to learn how to draw cartoons and be a cartoonist, but nothing ever really stuck with me besides music.

AP: Did your parents discourage or encourage it?

Jennings: They didn’t push me either way. They just kind of let me figure out what I wanted to do. Once I graduated high school, I had already made the conscious decision that I wanted to play music. They wanted me to go to college and stuff, and I came to them and said I didn’t, I wanted to take time off and I really wanted to play music, and that turned into me never going to college. But they were totally supportive of that. I think they saw that I really had a passion for it.

AP: Did you feel uncomfortable criticizing the lack of “outlaws” in country being that you could be considered an outsider by some?

Jennings: I’ve gotten a lot of crap for that too. Somebody said one time that it was like I was throwing rocks through a chain-link fence from the outside, (but) I don’t feel that way, because first of all, I didn’t go set out to make a country record. I just went out to make a record that I felt reflected me as a whole. I don’t feel like an outsider because I still know everything that goes on in that town and I know ... 3,000 times as much as a lot of people do about all of country.

AP: What brought you back to that kind of country?

Jennings: I would say when dad died it had an effect on me where I really wanted to explore where he came from musically, like his influences in country and stuff. But at the same time I was getting older. I would find myself at home, whenever I was home sitting around, I’d be playing guitar and singing with my friends, and all we’d sing were country songs. And I always loved singing those songs so much more.

AP: Did you ever perform with your dad?

Jennings: He called me out (at Lollapalooza ’96) and I was on that, and he played and I sang. That was the first time I ever sang, in front of 45,000 people. I felt like I was going to throw up! I was burning hot, I hadn’t eaten all day, it was like 105 degrees in New Orleans. I feel lucky that we got a chance to work together. I wish we could work together now.

AP: How did your dad’s death affect your drive to do music?

Jennings: It really made me want to write more. It made me want to be out there more and really kind of carry on whatever he could. He loved that I was into music. I was the only kid he had that was into it. I think he was really proud of the fact that I carried it on somehow. So I think it made me want to make him proud more.

AP: What was it like playing him in the movie about Johnny Cash?

Jennings: It was very, very intimidating to do that, but it was a lot of fun ... I definitely felt like the kid who snuck in somewhere and is afraid he’s gonna get caught for being there. I definitely felt like I’m not supposed to be there. I went down there and I just kind of winged it.

AP: How do you deal with the tabloid aspects of being part of a celebrity couple?

Jennings: I’m trying to avoid all that. I hate all the Us Weeklys and In Touches. We had one fight and it was in every magazine that we’d broken up and she was with another guy, and then it’s on the radio ... those magazines are just the worst. But for me, I don’t talk it up. I mean, I love her, so I’ll talk about that, but to me, she’s just my girlfriend.