LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - On the title track to his 2005 debut, "Put the 'O' Back in Country," Shooter Jennings, the son of country legend Waylon Jennings, sang about "playing hillbilly music, like I was born to do." The Southern rocker takes an unexpected, darker turn on his fourth studio album, "Black Ribbons," by tapping novelist Stephen King to help narrate a 70-minute concept album that explores an apocalyptic future.
With the help of his new band, Hierophant, Jennings moves beyond the country-rock barriers by experimenting with multiple genres, ranging from electronic to punk -- and even Auto-Tuned vocals -- on the set, which is scheduled for release March 2 on Black Country Rock/Rocket Science Ventures.
Billboard: "Black Ribbons" is darker and more experimental than your past releases. How did you develop the concept?
Shooter Jennings: There were many elements in my life that led to this record; I went through a lot of big changes. I had a daughter and left my label and management in Nashville. So I had all this swirling emotion. In 2008 I moved across the country again from New York to Los Angeles. I drove in an RV with my fiancee, our daughter and our dog. That was the week when the economy completely fell apart. There was this feeling of being in the middle of the U.S. while all of this craziness was happening and hearing the fear from people on the radio. It opened my eyes to the injustice of how society is panning out. So I had a concept for the album by the time I got to L.A.
Billboard: There are only a few songs that could work for country radio. Was this album a planned departure from country music?
Jennings: It was 100 percent natural. There were some songs that didn't end up on this record that were country-esque. With all these changes, part of that was also examining who I am. That includes all the work I've done before, which I'm very proud of. My past records were exactly where I was in my life at that time. For now, I feel like there's more of a bigger picture to my tastes and what I can offer.
Billboard: The fictional talk-radio host/album narrator Will O' the Wisp paints a post-apocalyptic picture of the world. Did anything other than the poor economy inspire this?
Jennings: I've always been drawn to the darker side of things. When I was doing this record, I was reading a lot on everything, from past civilizations to government conspiracies to UFOs to the brief history of time to books on the occult. I was soaking up this dark counterculture of the world. We're in a very grim time. So I needed to paint the grim picture to let the colors of the positive message of the record shine.
Billboard: How did you get Stephen King to be the voice of Will O' the Wisp?
Jennings: The idea popped into my head by the time I reached L.A. Someone at Entertainment Weekly hooked us up and forwarded an e-mail from me to him. It didn't hit me that I got Stephen King wrapped into some scheme until he e-mailed me back. But I knew he was a fan. Eventually I sent him my idea for what Will O' the Wisp should be and he liked it. The next thing I knew, there was a CD of his recording on my doorstep, with a photograph of him in the studio and a transcript.
Billboard: In 2008, you and your band the .357s worked on "Waylon Forever," a tribute to your father. Do you have any similar projects lined up?
Jennings: We're doing some "Waylon Forever" shows, where we play the whole record and then play some other stuff. There's a Waylon tribute record (being put together for ScatterTunes) that has a lot of different people on it. I have a couple songs on it, and my mom (Jessi Colter) is on it a few times. I took part in that, but it's not necessarily anything of my artistic creation. But you never know. The "Waylon Forever" thing was important for me to get out there. Once I did that, I felt like I had achieved one of my goals.