When Shooter Jennings takes the Hi-Tone stage Thursday, June 16th, it'll be his first time playing Memphis but far from his first time in the city. The only child of country stars Jessi Colter and the late Waylon Jennings, the younger Jennings made a few trips to Memphis as a teen growing up in Nashville. But more recently he spent time in town playing his dad in a small role in the locally filmed Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line.
"It was a lot of fun," Jennings remembers of his days in Memphis. "I was there from July through September of last year, at different times. We ran around town, Joaquin [Phoenix, who plays Cash] and all the other guys who had parts in the movie. We had a good time hanging out."
Jennings says he appears in three scenes in the film, one set in Memphis, the others set in Nashville during a period when Cash and Jennings' father shared an apartment. And though he enjoyed making the movie, and getting a chance to play his dad, Jennings isn't counting on a second career.
"I'd never acted in my life, and I'm not sure I will again," he says. "I was nervous, man."
Jennings says that to play his father he essentially played himself, and one listen to Jennings' recently released debut album, Put the O Back in Country, makes it clear that the similarity between father and son is more than just physical.
Like his dad, Jennings isn't much of a singer by country standards, a genre where vocal prowess matters more than most. But, also like his dad, he's generally a strong songwriter and a pretty good conceptualist. In other words, the quality of his musical ideas makes up for the limitations of his natural-born gifts. Put the O Back in Country bounces from the '70s-style outlaw country (the "O" in question) Waylon Jennings is known for to radio-ready rock (singalong lead single "4th of July" sounds like the second-best song on Bryan Adams' Reckless), Southern rock, and folk and gospel elements without ever sounding like Jennings is reaching beyond what comes naturally.
Jennings has also inherited from his father a critical take on the Nashville-based, mainstream country-music industry, which manifests itself on the record in predictable ways. "You know there ain't no soul on the radio," Jennings complains on the title cut. On the Waylon-soundalike "Solid Country Gold," he sings, "Now I was born in Nashville, but I left there long ago/Cause they built music city by sacrificing soul."
But considering that his rock- and outlaw-country-oriented debut album, recorded independently without knowing who would release it, was picked up by a Nashville major (Universal South) and released without changes, maybe Jennings is being a little hard on his hometown. After all, could Put the O Back in Country have been released by a Nashville label a decade ago?
"I don't think so," Jennings admits. "I doubt it. They would have thought it was way too rock-and-roll. I stopped caring about who I was trying to impress with it and just tried to cut a record where the music was most reflective of what I liked. So for it to find a home in country music was a bit of a shock. And, at the same time, it was a really big compliment too."
This has Jennings higher on his hometown than he was when he recorded the album. "The landscape of country is changing in a crazy way," he says. "It's broadening and turning into something really cool. And it's affecting me because now I find myself listening to music that I didn't pay attention to before. I'm really getting turned onto it now. It's becoming a more artist-driven scene."