In the Studio with Vincent Neil Emerson and Shooter Jennings 

The Grammy-winning producer Jennings helps Emerson tap into his rock-and-roll spirit on his new album, The Golden Crystal Kingdom

Two men working and recording in a music studio

Photo: Keenan O’Reilly

Shooter Jennings and Vincent Neil Emerson.

East Texas singer-songwriter Vincent Neil Emerson cheekily lamented the indignities of life as a working country musician in “Letters on the Marquee,” a standout on his 2019 debut album, Fried Chicken and Evil Women. When the bar or tavern—no doubt like the hundreds he’s played in backwater towns and major metropolises alike—doesn’t have enough letters to spell his name, he responds by affirming his worth, inviting the listener to “watch me get gone.”

With The Golden Crystal Kingdom, Emerson’s third album, he takes that line he drew in the sand and fills it with concrete. The narrator on the title song, who finally earned his headliner status, has had enough of the dusty honky-tonks and dance halls, and he’s ready to get back home. But if we’re taking Emerson as a first-person songwriter—which isn’t always the case—home will likely be a figurative concept for a long time. 

Teaming up with Shooter Jennings—the son of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, whose solo career has recently taken a back seat to his producer’s chair—helped Emerson stretch his traditional country sound into rock and roll territory. While there’s plenty of acoustic strumming and steel guitar wrapped around his even-keeled, laidback drawl, he taps a vein of Crazy Horse–inspired fuzz-guitar fury on songs like “Hang Your Head Down Low” and “The Man from Uvalde.”

“I just wanted to expand things a little bit more,” Emerson says. “And as songwriters, we put it in a blender and hopefully it comes out sounding like us. But the songwriting started veering towards that sound.”

Emerson, who has Native American roots through his mother, found inspiration in the 2017 documentary Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, especially in rock pioneer Link Wray. He also cops to a healthy amount of Neil Young worship, including Young’s work with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. “I don’t want to compare myself to anybody, but I like Bob Dylan and I like Neil Young. They both did the acoustic singer-songwriter thing very well, but they also do the rock and roll thing,” he says. “At the end of the day, this is still a singer-songwriter album.”

G&G spoke with Emerson and Jennings about their friendship and working together on The Golden Crystal Kingdom, out now.

You two have had a mutual admiration for some time. Can you take us back to the first time you worked on music together? 

Jennings: He stayed with me throughout the whole [process of recording the] record. One morning he came upstairs, he said, “I just wrote a song,” and it was “Time of the Rambler.” He’d just written it down in my little guest studio area. He’s such a genuine lover of music who’s so talented—it was like an instant lifelong friendship. And on top of that, one of my favorite things I’ve ever been a part of is just working on this record.

Emerson: Yeah, I stayed in your basement studio and I could see the highway. That’s where I got the inspiration for that song. But it was nice; it felt like I was staying with a cousin or something. I was staying with family. 

“Little Wolf’s Invincible Yellow Medicine Paint” is another of the album’s highlights. Did you base that on something you heard from your ancestors? 

Emerson: My wife and I like to go to antique stores, and one day she came home with a big stack of old Western comics. One issue was from 1969, and on the cover, it said “Little Crow’s Invincible” something—kind of a vague title. I was flipping through it and I just saw this story about this medicine man who was basically tasked with trying to motivate warriors to go and fight against all these white soldiers who had guns. They didn’t want to go, obviously, so he made this yellow medicine paint, and he said, “If you put this on your body, you will be invincible, and no arrow can pierce you. No bullet can pierce you.” And they went and fought.

photo: thomas crabtree
Vincent Neil Emerson.

Shooter, what got you excited about that concept? 

Jennings: The first time he told me about it, we were in the lobby there at Steakhouse [Recording Studio in L.A.]. He told me about the comic and he’s like, “I got this song called ‘Little Wolf’s Invincible Yellow Medicine Paint.’” I thought: That is awesome. Because when I buy an album or if I’m looking on Spotify for a new album by somebody I really like, I’ll look at all the titles and think: Oh, that one’s a weird title. And it always is the best song on the record—always. So, he played it, and I was loving it, and then he gets to the “everything is dead” [lyric], and I think that’s when I shot out of my seat. [To Vincent:] I think I told you, this is the song you’re going to play at the end of every show for the rest of your life.

Listen to The Golden Crystal Kingdom, out now, and get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the album, below.