Shooter Jennings - Sound In The Signals Interview

Black Ribbons was a controversial release it had critics praising it and at the same time panning it. Did the album get the kind of reception you expected? 
 Well, I have to say yes to that question because I really didn't have any expectations. I knew it was something very different and unique on it's own, and with that I knew it would garner criticism and praise at the same time. The thing about Black Ribbons was that it was a very cingular vision about a very specific moment in time. I was in a place artistically that I really needed to do something different and adventurous to itch this itch, so to speak. I also had a message that I was trying to portray that I knew a lot of people may not have agreed with, so I expected the worse. Unfortunately with it's initial release it didn't really have any push behind it, so it instantly became kind of a record store comber album. So on February 8th it's being re-released by a better label, and although I don't expect it to really bring that much more exposure, I do know it'll be out there in better numbers, as well as internationally. It's a record I'm really proud of, something I knew I had in me and had to get out, so for that reason I feel that it's an important touchstone in my career. 

One thing about Black Ribbons that kind of makes it stick out as an important album in country(ish) music is that it sounds really original and unique. I wouldn’t say I’ve heard many artists from a country background incorporating the stuff you did. When did you know the idea for the album would work and what were the initial reactions from the first few people you let hear it? 
 Ha! The first people that heard it thought I was crazy, but loved it. The thing about Black Ribbons is that I knew it wasn't going be just another album of songs by me and the band, it was going to be something unto itself. Conceptually, the idea of the radio talk show host stringing the album together came first. I had been driving my family across the United States the week the economy collapsed back in '08. All I had to listen to was AM and FM radio, and the future just seemed so frightening and gloomy. From there, I knew that I wanted to kind of disconnect myself and my previous work from the album, so then came the "fictional band" concept, with Hierophant. This step allowed me to craft the sound of the band in any direction I wanted to and kind of give my own tastes and stylings a different feel and spin. That was what was so much fun about it. Dave Cobb (the producer) and myself spent six months in the studio, just the two of us, experimenting and playing with sounds and tracks. This is where I knew the general public would get confused, thinking I'd made a choice to change my sound. But I was crafting Hierophant's sound, a band from an alternate place in time. That's where the joke was on the critics, and I have to say it was a blast! Everyone who really knows me, and has for a long time, totally knew I was capable of such a record. I'm a geek at heart, a sci-fi buff and I was weened on industrial music. It was kind of like a proverbial stroll down memory lane. 

 You switched up some of your band on Black Ribbons and I was wondering how Leroy Powell’s departure affected the song writing process? 
 It was a very serious hard decision for me to decide to stop working with Leroy. I loved Leroy, and still do, we were definitely cut from a similar mold with similar tastes, but there was a point in time that he was getting into his own music more than he was into our music. I can't listen to "The Wolf". Dave Cobb says that record is the sound of a band falling apart. It was, but it was really more like the sound of me trying to hold a band together, or so I feel. At that time Leroy had become a different person. Very hard on me, and very into himself and his own music. We'd be trying to engage him about the record and he would be in the other room recording parts for his own record. He had it in his mind that he was going to be a big country music star and he was wasting his time with us. That hurt me a lot, and it hurt us all. There was just a point and place where I said "I have to cut the cord if we're going to survive". I still talk to Leroy and I think we've both come to better places in our lives than we were then. He came to a show recently and jammed with us, that was nice, but it just isn't the same as it was. As for the writing, I always wrote most of the music by myself, so there wasn't a huge change or anything, but the one area in which I the process may have changed was the humor. The only songs we ever co-wrote were the funny ones, we'd kick back a few beers and joke around and it would turn into a song. Manifesto No. 2, Busted in Baylor County, Alligator Chomp and Aviators were really our only co-writes. I do miss that guy, but I think we've both grown up quite a bit since then. Maybe one day we'll come around and write something else together. But until then, it's forward facing, upward and onward for me, and I'm sure for him too. He's got a few cool records out there people should check out for sure. 

 The title track “Black Ribbons” was in my top 5 favorite songs last year. What was your thought process like when writing that song? 
 Thanks a lot man. That song was a very personal song, and the first written for the album. It was really written in the aftermath of letting Leroy go, leaving Universal South and really kind of pulling in the reigns and gathering myself. After "The Wolf" came out, the label had changed management and the new guys, even more than the old guys, had no idea what to do with us. And when faced with that, the common move was to do nothing at all. The Wolf was dead the minute it came out. After the released, we were dragging a "dead wolf" around with us on tour for a year and a half. It was really depressing and exhausting. At that point I realized the train had gotten off the tracks. The label called and told me they wanted to keep me on board but wanted to cut my recording budgets by over half and wanted to start putting all these restrictions on me. "Start rehearsing your songs at soundcheck and spend less time in the studio". Shit like that. I opted to walk. I knew the storm was coming but I didn't prepare for it. There was a point in time after I'd had my daughter Alabama (which was the best thing to happen to me and kept me sane and alive) that I was really looking at my life and career. All the yes-men and fake people in my life had dissipated, I was left with just myself and my true friends, and I really understood where I was right and where I was wrong. But I was down, as down as I could be. I wrote Black Ribbons on that day. It was the first day of the rest of my life in a way. I knew from that point on that everything I was going to do was going to be for my family's future, for Alabama's future. That every song I wrote was going to be something she could look back on and find some kind of truth for herself in. Black Ribbons was definitely a turning point, as a song. And having my mom and sister (Jenni Jennings) sing on it made it right. 

I know Black Ribbons just came out last year, but when do you think we’ll hear some new songs from you? Do you know what direction the new stuff may be heading in? 
 I'll definitely have another record out this year, and I'm more than excited about it. I've been writing and preparing for this one for twice as long as I did on any the record. But I'm not giving anything away, you gotta wait like the rest of the world. Ha! I will say this, it will, as well, be it's own record, a piece on it's own and will have it's own individual flavor, as did most of the other records. 

The re-release of Black Ribbons is coming out and I heard you talking about why you cut it down in length. I was wondering if you could let our readers know about the re-release and what all will be included with it? 
 The re-release of Black Ribbons coming out on February 8th, was really a way of getting the album back out there. After we parted ways with the initial label, they yanked the record from iTunes and stores etc. 429/Savoy came into the picture, and were big supporters of the record. They opted to put new marketing money (only 8k was spent on the original record in marketing money, which is asinine) as well as a new campaign around it to make sure it got out there. On top of that it would also see a proper international release. With the original album several stores opted not to carry it, Target, Best Buy, etc. This is why the "bullet" version came into play, it was a teaser of the music on the album, able to be sold for cheaper in these outlets, to aim people at getting the full version. The full version will include all the same features as the original, the Archetype Card, the interesting packaging, etc. We will also be doing some things for the folks who buy the new versions online. So keep your eyes peeled. 

You’ve recently began helping launch an umbrella genre of sorts for artists similar to yourself and also quite different called XXX. Can you tell me a little about what the genre means to you? How it came about? 
 XXX was an idea I had back in 2005. It wasn't until now that I actually got it going. Back then I saw Hank III, myself and other artists popping up that had no outlets what so-ever. It felt and still feels like for any other genre there is an outlet for progressive, fresh music, but with country and southern music, you either have to write sellout songs to make an impact in either rock or country, when there are some amazing songs being made by these artists. Why isn't Ryan Bingham bigger than he is? Same with the Drive-by Truckers, Hank III, Scott H Biram, North Mississippi Allstars. The list goes on forever. To me XXX was about putting a name to the frustration. And putting an umbrella over it all. That's when I reached out to Adam Sheets from No Depression. He had become a friend over the last year, and I really felt like he had his eye on ALL of this music. So after I threw together the site with the petition (www.givememyxxx.com) and a makeshift artist list, I wrote to him to help me fill the list out and put his two cents in. I've actually been pretty surprised that it's taken off as fast as it has. We've gotten some major resistance in the underground country arena, but most of them have come around. We've got The Triggerman (from SavingCountryMusic.com) as well as JashieP from Outlaw Radio, Rev Nix from Cigar Box Nation and Blue Ribbon Radio on board helping with the development now so that's really helpful. But the one thing that everyone keeps thinking we're doing is edging in on the underground country movement and taking credit for it. This is the biggest misconception with the project. XXX is a lot broader than that. It includes III, Wayne Hancock, Bob Wayne, the Farmageddon artists, etc, but also includes North Mississippi Allstars, My Morning Jacket, Josephus and the George Jones Town Massacre, Ryan Bingham and bigger artists. It's like the dark, edgy answer to Americana and the dark-side to AAA's jedi. 

Overall what would you like to accomplish with XXX and to the critics of it why do you feel it is important in 2011 to finally start trying to find some type of brand for artists like yourself and others who don’t seem to quite fit where you’re being placed? 
 I'd like to establish it as a true brand, festivals, radio programming, television programming, etc. I would love to turn on my TV or Radio and hear any of these artists and know I can go right back to that place and hear more. As I said before, we are in a Civil War right now. And we are all wandering around on the countryside aimlessly. Occasionally a few of us will band together but then disperse. There are encampments spread along the winding road that offer help (Saving Country Music, etc). But the enemy is well trained, well informed and well armed. There's no way we can win. But if we all bond together with a uniform, and take them on as a whole, we will win because we have the heart and soul. 

I listened to the interview you did with Outlaw Radio and your thoughts on country. I was thinking about that and how MTV, VH1, Fuse all seem to play Rock, Hip Hop, R&B, Electronic, Soul, etc… but for some reason anything country oriented is over-looked by the stations, even when it represents more of the rock, rebellious, DIY philosophy. Why do you think country oriented artists are overlooked?
 I think that there are two things working against country-leaning music, and they go hand in hand to some degree. The first, I believe, is Nashville's perpetuation of the pop-country sound, which is aimed at an older working audience, not a hip young crowd, so it wouldn't make sense to have these kind of songs (I mean there is one recently that mentions "Chicken McNuggets", and not in a clever witty way, if that is even possible) next to the music that they play on these channels. Pop-country, if not just plain cheesy, is straddling Adult Contemporary too. Rock, R&B, Hip Hop, all these formats embrace the new, fresh and inventive. Contemporary Modern Country does not. The second reason, in my opinion, is a vicious cycle, which is why I believe that XXX, or something like it, is needed. Young, cool acts like the ones covered in the XXX list (e.g. Ryan Bingham, Hank III, North Mississippi Allstars, The Old '97s, Scott H Biram, The Drive-by Truckers, Jason Isbell, etc.) Have the potential, in my eyes, to be very big career artists, and I feel that because there is no exposure for these artists, they never get to get past a certain point in their careers. Yes, word of mouth does build fan-bases, but most of these artists sell under 100,000 copies of their records, which in the eyes of a CMT, Fuse, VH1, etc does not compare to the kind of records being sold by the mainstream Rock and Hip Hop acts. And because there is no real genre definition for their music, they don't fall into the main veins covered. This to me is what keeps these artists continually in this position, because without exposure to massive audiences, people are unaware of their existence, and therefore don't buy records and keep building these artists' careers. This is something that I think if we all bond together, we can change. XXX is kind of an underground movement at the moment you and artists like yourself are hoping to find an outlet for your music. Many people outside of the country genre may not understand the need. I talk to a lot of people who aren’t familiar with the “Nashville way.”

I was wondering if you could kind of give our readers your take on Nashville and how it excludes certain artists? Nashville is a self-maintaining system. There have been other systems along the way that are similar, like the Motown circuit, but none as inbred and tight-knit as Nashville. The songwriters, the singers, the producers, the labels, the publishers, the radio and the television are all tightly woven, each scratching eachothers backs and so-on. The likelihood of a new artist breaking the cycle, is very small. To come in and singlehandedly take on each tier of the system, pulling back layer after layer is a huge battle, not to mention even being able to get to radio. Radio doesn't play a new artist unless it's been handed to them on a silver platter by all the people that they consider "important" in the system. The days of a local act getting airplay and it catching on are long gone. My dad, Waylon, took on this system, worked his way into a place of recognition from within the system and destroyed it, breaking it wide open for many artists. But that was nearly forty years ago, and the system has returned to it's original place, if not worse. There is absolutely no outlet for any artist who does not fit the mold of Nashville's popular music criteria. This is why we need to bond together and demand the attention we deserve, instead of trying to fit into the molds that we do not belong in, we should break these chains and create our own. 

Throughout your career you’ve received criticism and praise. I’ve talked to you a few times through twitter and e-mail, read and listened to interviews and you seem to always be grounded and a fairly humble guy. How do you maintain your cool when you’re faced with people who kind of question your every move in a negative manner? 
 Thanks for the kind words there. I try to be as calm and collected as I can. Sometimes somebody will say something and i'll be having a bad day at home and I'll let it fly. But usually I can brush it off my back. This probably comes from years of criticism, from the time I was in elementary school up unto now. I always had to build my self confidence up without the help of anyone else, because there was someone always watching and judging. That's why my move to Los Angeles in my early twenties was so helpful, because no one there knew who my dad was, or cared. I was just another transplant. It made me appreciate my roots as well as gave me the confidence in the world to believe in myself, no matter what anyone thought. Yeah now i get a lot of purists trying to come at me like i'm murdering their dreams, but I know for a fact, when my dad and Willie came out doing what they were doing, the purists back then thought they were committing sacrilege. The one thing I can say is I think I am the luckiest man alive to have the best and the coolest fans on the planet. We talk all the time, we joke, we play Words with Friends together. My fans are my friends, and when nobody had my back, they did. I'll never forget that. They always let me be myself.

 Some of the great’s sons and daughters have started releasing their own albums over the last few years. John Carter Cash, Lukas Nelson, Hank III, Justin Townes Earle, of course you and many more are starting to release albums and I was wondering what you thought about some of these others?
 I think they're all great and I'm so happy to see all this second and third generation music coming down the line. Of course Hank III is great, a pioneer who created an entire sub-genre of dark country, John Carter Cash, the visionary and rabble rouser, always with a new plan of changing the game, Justin Townes Earle, the man with two names to live down and sounds like I'm witnessing an old church revival that pre-dates either one of his names and of course Lukas. Lukas and I were the closest in age of all these folks, and we grew up on the road together to some degree. He was a bit younger than me, but man, what a talent he grew up into. His new album "The Promise of the Real" is a motherfucker of an album. I'm so proud of him. And his guitar playing, full throttle! I'm proud to be among these guys. 

You’ve released four official albums at this point. I was wondering if you could tell me what your two favorites are and why? 
 My two favorites are definitely "Electric Rodeo" and "Black Ribbons". They were, in both cases, albums that I conceptualized from day one, and saw through. Electric Rodeo was the album I wanted to make when we did Put The O (although I love our first release), I felt that ER was polished. It was dark, and it was a journey, and that was where I was then. And BR, was the same thing, on acid. Both of them records that, when I'm gone, I hope live a long time. They were both about taking risks. 

I guess that about wraps it up man. Thanks again for taking the time to answer the questions I really appreciate it. Do you have any closing comments you’d like to make?
 I just appreciate the coverage. Thanks again for taking the time to interview me, and supporting the XXX movement. I hope everyone checks out the site, www.givememyxxx.com ,and signs the petition. Until the next time we speak, have a great 2011!

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