What is the right way to promote a country rocker’s tribute to Giorgio Moroder? There have not been many of them – OK, there haven’t been any before – but the way Shooter Jennings, whose Southern take on the disco legend’s music, “Countach (For Giorgio)” comes out Friday, decided to do it is truly out of this world.
Two weeks ago, ahead of the official release date for "Countach," Jennings debuted the album inside “Shroud of the Avatar,” a massive multiplayer role-playing game where people typically spend more time slaying dragons than listening to records. Yet there Jennings was, inside one of the virtual world’s taverns, playing to a crowd so big that the game’s engineers had to split the world into multiple instances to accommodate everybody who showed up.
It was the first time the game’s creators had ever been forced to do that, and afterwards, one of the game’s founders summoned some monsters to chase everybody out. Jennings couldn’t have been happier. “It's my wheelhouse, all this stuff,” the musician said. “It may not be what people want to be in my wheelhouse, but it is what it is.”
Despite what his outward appearance would suggest, Jennings is an avid gamer. He has been playing computer games his entire life, even building his own, and he cites his gaming and technology obsessions as the things that got him into music.
“I wouldn't have started playing music if I hadn't started making music on my computer,” he said.
Though Jennings’ taste in games is eclectic, he had a special place in his heart for the Ultima series, a batch of role-playing games that’s been described as one of the most important video game series ever made. Those games in a way served as a precursor to "Shroud," and many of Ultima's devoted fans, Jennings included, migrated over to the new game, bringing a new generation of fans with them: Jennings' 8-year-old daughter met the son of one of his oldest friends inside the game.
Jennings got to know Ultima’s creator, Richard Garriott de Cayeux, on Twitter, and while he was making “Countach,” he suggested that Garriott de Cayeux record some thoughts on the difference between real and virtual worlds. Garriott de Cayeux, at the time living in New York, bought a microphone, then sent Jennings some files, which wound up laid atop “Chase,” a famous Moroder composition from the soundtrack to the 1978 film “Midnight Express.”
“It really spoke to me, as something that I love,” Jennings said. “I thought it’d be an amazingly cool backdrop.”
But while that collaboration happened entirely online, it took a meeting in real life for the premiere-in-a-game idea to materialize. Over dinner at the Magic Castle, a members-only clubhouse for magicians in Los Angeles (Garriott de Cayeux is a member, thanks to some magic tricks he did in space), the two men and their wives hatched an idea that has been growing ever more elaborate.
It wouldn’t just be Jennings and a band playing the album in a tavern. Copies of the album, in the form of wax cylinders — an antique recording technology — were made and hidden throughout the game, but shortly after the premiere, the cylinders proved so popular that they’re now available for sale inside the game, with the proceeds going toward breast cancer research. All of that was possible thanks to crowd-sourced gameplay in "Shroud," which allows participants to create things inside the world that other players can buy, sell and use.
“They had everybody in that community working,” Jennings said.
Viewed from a certain vantage point, the story of “Countach” is one of an artist simply weaving his personal passions into his art. But as the son of outlaw country music icons Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, Jennings has spent years dealing with fans who expect him to take on his father's aesthetic mantle.
Some of what he’s done, like "Put the O Back in Country," has fit those preconceptions. Other albums, like the dystopian concept album "Black Ribbons," have not. But at this point, more than a decade into his recording career, he’s well past the point of caring. “I hope two sweaty bikers in David Allan Cook T-shirts come to my house and take away my outlaw country card,” he said.