Two men, a bottle of straight rye whiskey, an empty bar and the ghosts of country music legends Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard.
It sounds like the making of a great drinking song but on a recent afternoon Shooter Jennings was in Brooklyn for a concert at the Knitting Factory. Given that his latest catchy song, D.R.U.N.K., is all about the joys of a good drink, it seemed only logical to meet before the show at the Shanty in Williamsburg for a glass or two of its signature Ragtime Rye and a look inside the adjoining New York Distilling Company.
Despite being a second-generation star, Jennings rolled in with a small entourage of just two. I fixed us a couple of healthy whiskies on the rocks and he quickly settled into a stool at the edge of the industrial bar top. Despite admitting, “I’m usually Jack Daniel’s all the time,” he was up for drinking something new. “I like trying different stuff, man.”
I pointed out that a lot of musicians, including Frank Sinatra, famously drank Jack. “Whenever I first started drinking it, I liked it,” he remembers. Now, the ubiquitous Tennessee whiskey and Tito’s Vodka are both in his band’s rider and are usually waiting for them in the dressing room.
Not only is it a question of personal preference but there is also a practical reason. “If I start drinking other stuff I don’t know well, I’ll get too drunk,” he says. “You know what I mean? I know my limitations.”
I nod and admit with a chuckle that beer often seems to affect me more powerfully than whiskey. “Beer will sneak up on you,” he cautions. “I drink beer when I’m in the studio if I’m working on a record. I’ll drink beer because I don’t get too drunk. You got to keep the buzz going. But on the road I’ll have a beer occasionally. If I keep drinking beer all day, I’ll get tired and full.”
However, given that his show was in just a few hours, whiskey seems to be another story. “I have a couple drinks before a show,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll do shows where I don’t drink before, but I’m usually kind of stiff with it. Like I get in my head a little bit. So I kind of like to make sure I got a little buzz going on. I can’t really smoke very much pot before a show or anything like that because I’ll forget words.”
I’m always impressed that musicians can remember all the lyrics of their songs, especially the performers who are as famous for their acts on stage as for partying off of it. “I still trip myself up,” he says. “Performing has never not felt like a recital to me. Like when I was a kid I took piano and I had a recital and I remember I ran out on stage, just played the thing and like ran right off the stage. My dad used to tease me about it. I still feel that way. I still have my eyes closed most of the time. Being in front of people and doing something is such a weird concept to me.”
While his father, country music legend Waylon Jennings, might have joked about his early piano playing, he was overall very supportive of his son’s music career and never tried to control it. “He never jumped in and told me what I should or should not do,” he says. “It definitely made me feel confident that I could just do whatever I wanted musically. That was what I should do.”
Given that his father famously sang the the theme song for the Dukes of Hazzard, immortalizing backwoods moonshiners, was he a whiskey drinker? “My dad didn’t drink at all. I maybe saw him drink ten times in my life and it was at some event and they had wine or they had something. And he wouldn’t really drink it. He partied back in the day but he did not drink. That’s actually a big trigger when people tell me ‘I knew your dad and we used to get drunk together.’ I know that they’re lying. I know it’s not true.”
“It’s funny that’s why my dad didn’t really have many drinking songs either,” he says. “He would do songs by other songwriters but he didn’t really write any drinking song. He wrote “Hittin’ the Bottle Again” later. He started writing some other stuff later when he was in his 50s just for fun.”
However, Shooter doesn’t seem to have any problems coming up with drinking songs. Perhaps, it’s because “over time I have gotten opportunities to hangout and drink with a lot of my heroes and become friends with them.” That includes his father’s close friends and collaborators Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, as well as legend Merle Haggard.
His recent bar anthem, D.R.U.N.K., which is off his latest album “Shooter,” he wrote with Aaron Ratiere. “We had a great time writing it,” Jennings says.
While the song is up tempo, he still insists “the best drinking songs are the sad ones at the end day. “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound” is one of the best drinking songs of all time. Also, “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me Her Memory Will” by George Jones—that’s dark. Those ones are pretty outstanding. There is one that was kind of new, that came out like ten years ago, called “Whiskey Lullaby” that Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss did and that was a great sad drinking song.”
So what does Jennings like to listen to when he’s drinking? “I get hammered and I always put on Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All these Years.” That’s my drunk go to. That’s my favorite record. Like songs like “I Do It for Your Love” and “Night Game” and all those weird b-sides on it.”
Shooter Jennings latest album, “Shooter,” was released this summer. He is kicking off a concert tour on January 24 in Huntsville, Alabama, and is producing Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan’s new album.