Long after Yelawolf and Shooter Jennings finished making the album Sometimes Y with their band, the rapper and the songwriter-producer know they’ve made something special. Because they’re still listening to it.
“I normally never listen to records when we’re done with them,” Jennings tells Classic Rock. “I’m moving on to the next thing. It’s in the past. But I’m still listening to this one.”
We suspect you might want to live with it a while too. Because with Sometimes Y this unorthodox pairing has turned out one of 2022’s most unexpected debuts. At heart it’s a classic, southern-accented rock record, but in detail it’s a more original affair, laced with diverse influences, quirky touches and trenchant lyrics.
Despite Jennings’s name being closely associated with Americana (when you’re the son of the late outlaw country star Waylon Jennings, that’s kind of inevitable), he has long had a foot in the rock field. As far back as 2009 he was on the Warped Tour, shortly before his horror-themed 2010 concept album Black Ribbons ventured into progressive metal territory.
More recently, as well as becoming an increasingly in-demand writer-producer for artists such as Brandi Carlile, he co-wrote and produced 2020’s We Are Chaos with Marilyn Manson (“a great experience,” he said, although he declined to comment on the shockrock singer’s more recent troubles) and played on Duff McKagan’s Tenderness the previous year.
But Sometimes Y is something else. And it’s an even more unpredictable move for rapper Yelawolf – a protégé of Eminem, releasing four albums on his Shady Records imprint – who fronts this project not with his customary hip-hop vocal delivery but, for the most part, adopting a more traditional rock singing style.
For the artist born Michael Wayne Atha, rock’n’roll was an itch he had always wanted to scratch.
“My mother’s boyfriend worked in the industry,” he tells Classic Rock from his Nashville base. “He toured with Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Mother’s Finest. I grew up surrounded by bikers, leather, lots of pot smoke and Tom Petty! I’ve always had this, like, yearning to make a rock’n’roll record, but the way that I heard it, and the way that I felt it.”
He first met Jennings around a decade ago, partly through the connection of Shooter’s nephew, the rapper Struggle Jennings, who had worked with Yelawolf on mix tapes in the early 2010s.
“I was a fan of his rap stuff,” says Jennings. “I knew there was something else going on under there that I really connected to musically.”
The pair talked music over the phone many times, and bonded over all kinds of shared tastes, from the Tangerine Dream soundtrack to 80s film Legend, to Jennings’s own tribute to electro-pop legend Giorgio Moroder, 2016’s Countach album. They finally got together in earnest just as covid gave more time to spend on indoor creativity, and demos of ideas were exchanged to the point where they had nearly a dozen rough songs ready to go.
But once they hooked up in person for a 10-day session at LA’s Sunset Sound at the end of May 2020, plans went out the window.
“When we got to Sunset Sound, he [Yelawolf] was like: ‘You know what? Let’s just make it all up here,’” says Jennings. “I was like: ‘We only got ten days, I’m nervous…’ But he was like the cheerleader, pushing, like: ‘Now let’s try something like this…’ So we would just mess around, and that’s how most of the album came together.”
That might be why much of Sometimes Y exudes such an invigorating energy, on tracks such as anthemic lead single Make Me A Believer and the Bryan Adams-driving-The Cars FM rock banger Radio.
There’s a huge swathe of heartland in these tunes, but lyrically there are more conflicting emotions involved, as on the Tom Petty-esque, country-streaked tale of the conflict between home and hedonism that is Hole In Your Head, and the brooding, claustrophobic Rock And Roll Baby. There’s also a pronounced ‘whatever feels right’ philosophy behind the record that informs an eclectic but invariably effective approach to songwriting.
That’s what the title refers to, as Yelawolf explains: “It’s like in school, when you’re trying to spell, you know, the ‘Y’ kind of throws the rules out of the window. And also the question: ‘Why?’ But there doesn’t have to be an explanation. It doesn’t have to make sense. We can stylistically go wherever we choose.”
And indeed they do. Diverse shades emerge, such as the beautifully REO Speedwagon-ish power ballad Catch You On The Other Side, and Shoe String – the closest we get to what you might imagine a collaboration between a rapper and a country star would sound like – as the MC performs a brooding rap monologue over Jennings’s shimmering pedal steel.
Meanwhile, the weather outside the studio during the making of the album informed Fucked Up Day, politically speaking, which was written just as Black Lives Matter protests were raging through LA and across the world following George Floyd’s murder by police.
“There was thousands of people on the streets,” Yelawolf recalls of that troubling and in many ways revolutionary time. “Helicopters whirring overhead, and we were sitting out on the porch smoking, and I’m playing about, tappin’ a rhythm with two pencils on a little toy xylophone, and then Shooter picks up his guitar…”
That’s one of several examples of spontaneous ideas that proved jumping-off points for songs. The album is book-ended with two high-octane rockers: Sometimes Y grabs our attention via Yela’s machine-gun vocal delivery over an electronically charged, Skynyrd-meets-Chili-Peppers funk-rock blast, while the final track builds from Yelawolf’s recording of an old friend from Alabama explaining over the phone how to make bootleg liquor. That’s the intro to Moonshiner’s Run, a full-throttle, verging-on-thrash blow-out.
None of which is necessarily going to make a whole lot of sense until you hear it. At that point, though, you won’t need to ask why, you’ll just have to keep listening.