An hour before the show, Johnny Cash was piped through loudspeakers as a crowd assembled. Toasts and introductions were made. In the low lighting and rustic interior of the Bluebird, one could feel they were miles outside Bloomington.
On the menu was a mix of original compositions, covers and tributes to Shooter’s father, country legend Waylon Jennings.
The Waymore’s Outlaws — originally known as “The Waylors” — backed the singer in the same manner they’d backed his father from the 1960s until his death in 2002.
“I began playing with Waylon in 1961,” drummer Richie Albright said. “Now I’m playing with his son. How about that?”
The Bluebird was Jennings’ last stop in the Midwest before he was scheduled to perform with his mother, country singer Jessi Colter, in New York City. However, “country,” would not be the most accurate descriptor for the Jennings-Colter family musical tradition, according to stage manager Al Waugh.
“It’s not mainstream country, it’s outlaw, which is pretty rockin’ and it has its own fan base,” Waugh said. “You’ll hear Shooter and (Waymore’s) Outlaws go from a southern rock stomper to a Merle Haggard sound real fast.”
Jennings drew a mixed crowd from across the state. While some fans wore cowboy boots and bandanas, others came dressed in grunge-rock shirts and motorcycle gear — a testament to the singer’s genre-bending style.
“The outlaw roots are definitely from his father but Shooter is making his own stuff, for sure,” Waugh said. “When he comes out about halfway through his show, it turns into almost a rock fest. Countach, his new album, is especially heavy. Kick-your-ass outlaw heavy.”
Opening the show was singer-songwriter Billy Don Burns, a mastermind behind the music of Merle Haggard and Johnny Paycheck. Though celebrated in his immediate circle of fans, Burns — whose career has been hindered by bouts of incarceration and addiction — was relatively unknown to many.
Following three numbers by Waymore’s Outlaws, Shooter walked onstage and performed his father’s 1978 hit “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bits Done Gone Out of Hand.”
The rhythm was palpable: benches began to clear as audience members filed onto the dance floor. Shooter’s grungy riffs and Albright’s strong backbeat, paired with virtuosic rags from steel guitarist Fred Newell, made it nearly impossible to sit still.
The singer continued on a darker note with “Manifesto No. 1” from his popular 2005 album “Put the ‘O’ Back in Country.”
My life has remained so lonely since you ain’t been around / Gonna climb a mountain / When I get to the top I’ll find a honky tonk where I’ll sit and drink, wondering where you’ve gone.
Next up was a cover of George Jones’ “The Door” and two numbers from Countach, Shooter’s newly released album. Both Countach songs progressed from plaintive opening lines to “true grit,” in the words of audience member Nicole Smith.
You’re right, our love was so wrong / I knew she never cared for me.
He then segued into his closing number, “Born To Die,” which he recorded with guest vocalist and close friend Steve Young before Young’s death in March 2016. Before he began he addressed the audience in a brief ode:
“2016 — we’ve lost so many people this year. Merle Haggard, David Bowie, Prince, I could go on forever. But a great songwriter left us. Steve Young was someone I loved, and I was lucky enough to have him sing on my new record.”
The song was greeted by hand-over-head applause.
“Shooter can really put on a show,” said Kathy England of Stinesville, Indiana. “I’m all up for a bar concert,” she said. “Twenty bucks instead of the hundred you’ll pay to see him at Deer Creek? Oh god, yes. None of that ‘bro-country’ with Beyoncé mixed in.”
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