Duff McKagan was writing his third book when an album happened instead.
Produced by and featuring Shooter Jennings, the recently released Tenderness, covers nearly as much musical and lyrical territory as the tour that inspired it.
“I started writing little vignettes,” says the 55-year-old Guns N’ Roses bassist, author of two previous memoirs and a newspaper column. As the Seattle native surveyed his notes — observations made traversing the globe on the band’s mammoth Not in This Lifetime… Tour, and meditations on personal loss and the current sociopolitical climate — he began to hear music. With Jennings’ help, he crafted a warmly meditative mix of rock and Americana, melding classic riffage and acoustic twang.
Sitting side by side at the Grammy Museum before a recent showcase for the album, McKagan and Jennings are trying to remember when they met. The pair have gone down a rabbit hole of the early ‘00s LA rock scene attempting to nail it down. “There were the guys from Sweden,” recalls McKagan of a band they both loved, as Jennings reaches for a name that neither can quite grasp.
The consensus on the year is 2001. And they’re both pretty sure it was a show by McKagan’s side project Loaded. But there is some debate about the location: Was it Club Vodka or the Viper Room?
Wherever it was, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee and the Grammy-winning son of the legendary Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, who has carved his own path in music, agree that they hit it off immediately.
“I liked the whole band,” says McKagan of Jennings’ outfit at the time, Stargunn. “The French guy played left-handed guitar. And it was just like, ‘These kids are playing f—ing rock and roll!’ He was this young guy trying to find his way. I don’t know if I knew about his lineage or anything in the first couple meetings.”
Although the pair are close friends now, Jennings, 40, confesses to being understandably intimidated by McKagan. “I’m 22-23 years old at that time so, for me, it’s mind-blowing,” he says with a laugh, of hanging with the rock star who played stadiums anchoring songs like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Paradise City.” “But at the same time this guy couldn’t be nicer, couldn’t be more talented. I’m still s—-ing a brick that we’re even doing this.”
“This” is Tenderness.
The collection is reflective of its title with 11 lyrically thoughtful tracks that evoke both the Glimmer Twins and the Gutter Twins, traveling from darkness to light, encompassing love and loss. The album finds McKagan in a contemplative mood, ruminating on a range of issues including school shootings (“Parkland”), domestic violence (“Last September”), homelessness (“Cold Outside”), and the opioid epidemic and substance abuse (“Falling Down”) — a topic he knows intimately having confronted his own demons on his way to sobriety.
“I’m taking some social action with this,” say McKagan. “I made the record that I’ve always wanted to, and these topics presented themselves because that’s what’s going on in our world right now, and it felt important to tackle them.”
The album’s emotional apex comes on the melancholy yet comforting “Feel,” dealing with the loss of heroes like Prince and friends and comrades like Velvet Revolver bandmate Scott Weiland, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, and Chester Bennington of Linkin Park.
“This, too, shall pass is a common theme in the record. Not just about things going on in the world, but we’ve lost some friends. I happen to have been playing rock and roll for a million years, and these are my friends and the song really is written about us, but it applies to anybody, for sure,” McKagan says of the tune that features one of his most poignant vocals as he reassures himself and his departed friends that their memories will not fade.
McKagan cannot say enough about Jennings, who recently won a Grammy for co-producing Brandi Carlile’s watershed 2018 release By the Way, I Forgive You. (He reteams with Carlile as co-producer on Tanya Tucker’s upcoming comeback album While I’m Living, out in August.) The younger man attempts to demur — “He gives me way more credit than I deserve,” says Jennings — but McKagan won’t have it. “This is a real producer,” he rhapsodizes, pointing at Jennings and ticking off his various skills in the studio and praising his intuitiveness. “We started having these conversations about sounds and we referenced records and he would finish my sentences.”
All of which was a relief since McKagan admits to some initial trepidation. “I’ve known him for a long time, but driving up to his house for the first time — he lives way up in the hills and I don’t use Waze, just give me the directions, I’m still super old school, it’s my last fight against technology — and I’m like ‘F–k man, is this going to work?’”
It worked so well that the pair decided to hit the road, with Jennings’ band opening for McKagan and then serving as his backing band playing tunes from the album in addition to covers and GNR deep cuts. The tour will hit Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle this week.
Speaking of his day job, McKagan will be back at it with Axl, Slash, and the gang this fall including festival dates at Louder Than Life in Louisville in September and Austin City Limits and Exit 111 in Texas and Tennessee, respectively, in October.
His bandmates have given him nothing but positive feedback on his solo flight says McKagan. “They’re behind me for sure. Slash got me this really nice acoustic guitar for the tour. Axl’s been supportive. They know what I’m doing.”
As for new GNR music, for which there is always an appetite, McKagan says it’s in the pipeline. “There’s a lot of songs bouncing around, I’ll tell you that. These 11 songs that are on this record were in a group of, I’m not even s—ing you, like 70 that I wrote. Axl has some really kick ass s–t that he had coming into it. We’ve never been at a loss for material. So the next step on that, as far as just everything Guns N’ Roses goes, I’ll just say we’re in a really f—ing positive place. It’ll come when it comes.”