That Electric Rodeo, the second album from Shooter Jennings, represents something of a step backward from the already limited accomplishments of his debut, 2003’s head-slappingly titled Put The ‘O’ Back In Country, makes at least some sense if Jennings’s recent interviews, in which he claims to have recorded the songs that appear on this album before the songs that were released as his debut, can be taken for gospel. What ‘O’ offered that Rodeo doesn’t—beyond a title that would embarrass anyone with a fully developed sense of shame, that is—is at least one obvious choice for a summertime radio anthem. While “4th Of July” was far from a great single, it had a far stronger hook than any of the eleven tracks on Rodeo.
The challenge for a second-generation artist, the offspring of a legend, is to forge an identity that’s clearly distinct from one’s parents. Jennings, the son of country giants Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, comprehensively fails to meet that challenge. While he’s done no favors by the astonishing albums released already in 2006 by fellow second-gens Rosanne Cash and Hank Williams III, chief among Jennings’s problems is that he actively baits comparisons to his father’s legacy as the premier “Outlaw” of country music, to the point that every song on Rodeo sounds, in some way, like a poor imitation of something his father already did. Hank III, as perhaps the perfect counterexample, both understands the significance of his genealogy and actually does something with that knowledge, recording a unique version of country music that sounds like what his grandfather would’ve written had he lived to hear the Sex Pistols.
Jennings, on the other hand, does a piss-poor impression of his dad’s distinctive, booming baritone on songs like the openly misogynist “Some Rowdy Women” and “Hair Of The Dog.” Even more stridently, he makes up an interminable laundry-list of credibility-straining sins (to wit: “…Like that time I took you to Waffle House/And you made me mad and I made you walk home in the rain…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 comin’/And I’m sorry about that time I accidentally shot your dog/While I was huntin’ and told you he ran away/Oh wait, I told you about that, didn’t I?”) on the spoken-word bullshit ramble of “Aviators.” Again, it should be embarrassing, but the whole of Rodeo makes it clear that Jennings means every bit of this and that he thinks it’s of the same inspired spirit as his dad’s best work. Songs like “Little White Lines,” instead, are of the same mettle as Gretchen Wilson’s garbage and the recent efforts from Kid Rock: utterly lacking in authenticity, it all reduces to empty posturing.
Whether or not any of it is worth paying attention to, then, depends entirely on its possible escapist use, and that’s how Rodeo regresses from Jennings’s debut. An aggressively bad singer—he lets Kenny Chesney off the hook as the most limited vocalist earning a comfortable living in Nashville—and a songwriter without any novel ideas of his own or an interesting take on anyone else’s, Jennings has, flying in the face of all logic, assembled a truly first-rate backing band. Guitarist Leroy Powell, bassist Ted Russell Kamp, and drummer Bryan Keeling all perform some tight, rollicking Southern blues-rock that, in its best moments (“Bad Magick” would make for a killer instrumental, and the title cut is a fair approximation of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”) recalls Drive-By Truckers. That Tony Joe White provides a guest vocal on “Alligator Chomp” and former Ikette Bonnie Bramlett sings backup on several cuts suggests that someone called in favors owed to Jennings’s father. None of these people should be playing behind him at this point in his career.
Unfocused in its tone, unbelievable in its would-be badass myth-building, and simply uninspired in latching onto everything wrong with the current crop of Nashville’s heavily-promoted “outlaws,” Electric Rodeo is a hot mess. Jennings may have first dibs on his father’s legacy, but between this album and his cameo in Walk the Line, it’s clear that he hasn’t yet figured out a way to stake his own claim as an artist worth taking seriously.