After successfully reinserting a certain vowel on last year’s winning Put the ‘O’ Back in Country, Shooter Jennings (Waylon’s son, for those late to the party) wastes no time returning with Electric Rodeo. It’s a good thing he’s back already, too, because he’s doing what very few artists on the country scene are doing these days: uniting the alt-country types and more-traditional-minded country fans against the Hot Nashville Hat Act Squad.
While a band of raconteurs like the Waco Brothers (beloved as they are to this writer) are the leading lights of the alt-country scene, they tend to rail against the state of modern country (see “The Death of Country Music” or “Drinkin’ and Cheatin’ and Death”) without using a country framework to “fix” country; they’re too punk and self-righteous for country. Jennings has no such problems tackling the topics of booze, women and life on the road while still appealing to the alt-country crowd; he’s got Outlaw (read: proto-alt-country) imprimatur from his dad and a sound that could’ve been beamed directly from the 1970s—no modern-day Nashville cheese here. And if Electric Rodeo is mellower than its predecessor, just remember: the same acts that play bars on Saturday night can play church services on Sunday morning.
So yeah, Jennings is singing songs about the road (the swampy opening title track), drugs (“Hair of the Dog”—not the Nazareth tune) or both at once (the clever “Little White Lines”) but the songs aren’t polished to within an inch of their lives like those on Country Radio are. And for what it’s worth, Jennings eschews a political bent—in either direction—unlike many of his radio contemporaries. Besides, wine, women and song take up all his time.
Jennings just sounds more country on Album #2. Maybe playing his father in last year’s Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line—he was the longhaired, bearded fella holed up with Joaquin Phoenix in a dingy Nashville apartment with a disconnected telephone—channeled a more country bent to Jennings’ vocals, because he digs down inside himself and pulls out a rich, deep voice for many of Electric Rodeo‘s more introspective, countrified tracks. He wrings pathos out of tunes like “your heroes turn out to be assholes” on the dusty, lap steel and acoustic guitar “The Song Is Still Slipping Away”, and uses that voice to great black comic effect on “Some Rowdy Women” (“I’d gladly trade all my city livin’ / For some rowdy women / In a honky tonk tonight”—and if that’s not a full-on embrace of country music’s ethos, then I don’t know what is) and “Aviators”, which in lesser hands could’ve devolved into country parody (“I’m sorry about that time I got drunk and hit on your mom / And slashed your daddy’s tires / But I figure they had it coming”), but Jennings saves the day with a perfect funny-but-sad line: “You can’t see the tears / Behind my aviators”. That said, he can’t quite spin the (literal) swamp rocker, “Alligator Chomp (The Ballad of Martin Luther Frog, Jr.)”, into anything more than a novelty/throwaway tune, but it’s Electric Rodeo‘s only clunker.
Whether Jennings can appeal to anyone who doesn’t read No Depression remains to be seen. Electric Rodeo is more cohesive than Put the ‘O’ but it’s a little more introspective and it lacks a grab-you-by-the-collar song like “4th of July”. Still it’s a great album for someone doesn’t know much about country but wants to learn more and has a sneaking suspicion there’s more to the genre than what gets played on the radio.
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