Few artists can claim a bloodline as potent as the one running through Brianna Harness. But country fans be warned, this 20-year-old newcomer has inherited the same independent spirit as her great grandparents, Jessi Colter and Waylon Jennings.
The daughter of indie rapper Struggle Jennings and granddaughter of Jenni Eddy Jennings — who was born to Colter and the country star’s previous husband, rock legend Duane Eddy, but raised by Jennings as his own — Harness has nodded to her country roots on her 2020 album, Welcome to My Nightmare. The set includes a breathtaking cover of Colter’s “The Canyon,” full of family pride and showcasing an evocative voice that’s worth keeping track of. But for now, that’s about as far as she intends to go down the country road, Harness tells Sounds Like Nashville, as this Nashville native refuses to be boxed in.
Of course, that’s the same impulse that made her great-grandparents leaders of country’s Outlaw movement in the 1970s, now reborn for the 21st century.
“Ohhh yeah. I think it can be a blessing and a curse at the same time,” she says of her tendency to zig when others zag. “I get a lot of shit for always wanting to do things my way, but I have that instinct. I want to do things the way that will make me happy, not others. Regardless of who that is.”
Speaking by phone in December, Brianna Harness says the pressure on her to “go country” was pretty high after her 2019 EP debut, Sunny Days, which she says turned out country almost by accident. But since then she’s gone through a period of self discovery, growing into adulthood and living on her own for the first time. So when it came time for her first full-length album, Harness had no interest in being labeled a country singer — that road would be too easy, and too expected. Instead, Welcome to My Nightmare lands outside the bounds of even contemporary country, creating a sound she calls “alternative blues” that mixes haunting vocals and soul-baring lyrics with modern production. But even so, she couldn’t resist covering “The Canyon.”
First recorded for Colter’s 2006 album, Out of the Ashes, the stirring ballad is a deeply personal reflection on the sometimes-turbulent relationship she and Jennings shared for decades. It was often my-way-or-the-highway for the pugnacious Jennings, Harness explains, but their love was built on solid bedrock. And Harness has learned much of that love by making the song her own.
“There is a lot to pick from, but this one was just really heartfelt and emotional,” she says about choosing which of Colter’s tracks to cover. “Every time she performs this song she damn near cries. It’s beautiful and it matches my attitude about a lot of things. … She’s basically saying she tried to give everything she could, and now it’s just like ‘Take it and go, I don’t care any more. You can have it all. Whatever.’”
Colter’s original featured just her voice and a piano melody, but Harness has reimagined it slightly, opting for an acoustic guitar backing. Her voice rises and falls with the song’s weary romantic contours, adding new depth to a love story most fans never truly understood. Jennings passed away in 2002, and Colter is now 77 years old.
“For me it helps show how strong her love for him was,” she explains. “She loved him so much even with all his rambling ways and all the shit he put her through, he was still her number one. She stuck through everything all the way to the end. And I took a little different approach to it, but the sentiment is the same.”
Harness goes on to say she believes Colter has been overlooked by country fans for too long, who often saw her only as Jennings’ wife. Her own songwriting catalog is much deeper than “The Canyon,” as it were, and she hopes the cover will inspire others to venture into it. Meanwhile, the rest of Welcome to My Nightmare introduces fans to a new artist with a sense of musical self-determination all her own. It may not be country through and through, but you can definitely hear the outlaw spirit.
“I want people to take away that I am my own artist,” Brianna Harness says of her project. “Even though I have theses legend in my background who paved the way for me, I don’t feel like I have to go down that specific way they paved. I just want to be my own artist, but I also wanted to give my grandmother her props. She was such an incredible woman.”
Colter was also featured on a track called “Ace In the Hole,” which likewise included her father and grandmother, Jenni Eddy Jennings, and appeared on Harness’ EP debut, Sunny Days. Her latest single, “Cry for Help,” came out in December.