February 18, 2006


In 'Ashes,' Colter steps out of the shadows

By Geoff Boucher, Times Staff Writer

Ask country singer Jessi Colter where she has found salvation and she might describe the cowboy congregation at her church, a wood-frame chapel that backs up to the mountains north of Scottsdale, Ariz. But she might just as well rattle off the names of her favorite L.A. bars, such as Molly Malone's and Malibu Inn, because "the streets can be about salvation too, and they can be an awful lot of fun."

In either place, you can be sure that when Colter walks by, someone will whisper "There goes the widow of Waylon Jennings." It's a title that carries a measure of accomplishment as well as grief: It may be hard to be an outlaw, but it's nothing compared to being the wife of one for three decades.

"Early on, I knew I had to learn to share him with the world," Colter, 58, says of her husband, who died in 2002 after 33 years of marriage. "The fact of the matter is that he was a loner. It was that whole cowboy mentality. He was generous and loving and he gave me all the love he had to give, but he was his own man too."

And now Colter is, truly, her own woman. She has a new album of country music, her first since 1984, titled "Out of the Ashes," a music meld of roadhouse and church hall — a pretty good description of the singer herself. On Wednesday night she visited the Viper Room to play the songs with her son, Shooter Jennings, at her side and her late husband on her mind.

"After he died I was rocked and I was fighting for my life," she said in hushed tones. She was sitting in a backroom at the Sunset Boulevard club a few hours before stage call. "I found that if you don't keep taking steps forward, there ain't a cut dog's chance that you're going to survive. Part of you is gone, but you got to hold on to the rest or you're done. And I've always been a person who has lived life."

Colter was born Mirriam Johnson in Phoenix and was playing piano in a Pentecostal church by age 11. She got her stage name from an ancestor who purportedly rode with Jesse James.

Her talent caught the ear of early guitar hero Duane Eddy and her pretty face caught his eye. He produced her 1961 single "Lonesome Road" and two years later married her. In 1968, they divorced. A year later she was at the altar with Jennings.

"I was married as a teenager and been pretty much married my whole life," she said. "I never had that span of being single. So after Waylon left, I started hanging out with Shooter in L.A. with all of the 20-year-olds on the street, all the rockers. They were intelligent in their perspectives, and they have such great drive. I came into a real period of discovery for myself as a woman. And the new songs are about that discovery." The album came together after Colter, having lunch with old friend Don Was, picked up a guitar and casually played some of her new compositions for the Grammy-winning producer.

"I was blown away," Was said of the raw music he heard. He told her if "you have 10 more like that, we have an album." The final collection is songs of honky-tonk flirtation and from-the-gut spirituality with bluesy guitar and harmonica work. In some spots it has the feel of a low-fi Bonnie Raitt and in other places the cadence of Patsy Cline singing spirituals.

Kris Kristofferson once described Colter as "the real thing — truth and beauty ... No music is closer to the music in my soul" but, except for famous family connections, she is largely unknown to the alt-country audience she's reaching out to with the new CD, which will be released Tuesday by Shout Factory. Was said the new music reveals plenty about its singer.

"She has always had a powerful personality but married to Waylon, I mean this was a guy larger than life, an enormous character," the producer said. "It's easy to get lost in the shadows around somebody like that. This is the music of her finding her way out."

The album is driven by Colter's keyboards and her "funky internal groove, which defies customary country music in a way," Was said. It's not an album that Colter could have made when Jennings was alive. "No," Was said with a chuckle, "that would be downright discourteous."

The reason for that are the moments of sexuality and flinty resolve that speak to the widow's new path. The producer added: "It's the best work she's ever done. It's a new chapter to her career." Colter's biggest solo hit was the 1975 "I'm Not Lisa," and she was well-known to Jennings fans as part of his stage shows, for their duet on "Suspicious Minds" in 1976 and the tender "Storms Never Last," which she wrote and which includes these lines: Storms never last do they baby /Bad times all pass with the wind /Your hand in mine stills the thunder/ And you make the sun want to shine.

With the exception of recording two albums of children's music that were released in 1995 and 2000, Colter set aside her career almost completely as her husband's substance-abuse and health issues mounted. The iconic outlaw singer beat his cocaine habit but, in his fading years, he lost a foot and his strength to diabetes. He died at 64.

Colter's son, Shooter, has a growing country career of his own and resembles his father enough that he portrayed him in the film "Walk the Line." At the Viper Room show the crowd gave a rousing ovation for the mother-son tandem as they ripped through songs from the new album. Especially affecting was their performance of "Please Carry Me Home," a gothic gospel number the parent and child wrote together. Famed sideman Tony Joe White gave grit to the set as Colter played keyboards and Was handled stand-up bass. Colter, who looks at least 15 years younger than her age, seemed giddy looking out on the crowd, but her performance was focused and endearing.

Early in the night, before the crowd arrived, she conceded that she was nervous about the show.

"Oh yes, I'm scared to death. But I don't care about the fall; I'm going to take that leap. Waylon would kick my ass if I didn't do things that scared me."

Asked what song by her husband she enjoys performing most, she answered without hesitation: "I Wonder Just Where I Went Wrong," a lesser-known 1966 song about a lover losing faith in the only thing he's sure of.

"God, the way he wrote songs, the way he used minor notes. Oh yes, I do miss him. His maestro, his talent.... He was a great satisfaction to me." Now Colter gets satisfaction from watching the strange dance of single people sizing each other by the jukebox glare. "It fascinates me to watch people and also discover life myself out there. The main thing is to keep an eye on the hard parts of your own heart and to keep God in my life. The most important thing I do everyday is to learn about God, everything else is second."

That quick conversational slide from earthy Saturday night to heavenly Sunday morning is an easy one for Colter. "You can find salvation and discovery in both as long as you're true to yourself."

The new album's title song, "Out of the Ashes," is a fitting one for a widow who was herself born in Phoenix. The song was inspired by a different Arizona locale — Lees Ferry, where copper cliffs and a river painted by emerald algae create a vista that Colter keeps in her mind no matter where she goes.

"The black night there, it puts stars in your eyes," she said. "I have that image in my mind always and it fell into this song. It's a place where he can feel the things you fear, all the things that pierce your mind."

It was time for Colter to go and get ready for the show. She nodded, dipping her cowboy hat, and shook hands. She paused and then tried to sum up everything she has learned and sung about since her husband passed away.

"You have to face things and you have to face them barefoot. You can't run. You have to choose to live. And I'm good at that."


Jessi Colter, Out of the Ashes (* * * ) Colter is the polar opposite of the young vocal show horses strutting their stuff on commercial radio. Worlds of experience and emotion lurk beneath this country veteran's seductively frayed, nuanced singing. And on her first solo album in 20 years, that wealth is channeled into bittersweet ballads, gospel-kissed reveries and bluesy romps, including a tasty cover of Bob Dylan's Rainy Day Women #12 & 35. Colter's late husband, Waylon Jennings, and Tony Joe White appear on the inspirational Out of the Rain, one of many tracks here that remind us you can sing softly and carry a big impact.
—Elysa Gardner


March 3, 2006

Out of the Ashes (Shout Factory)

Waylon Jennings’ widow, who had a crossover country hit in 1975 with “I’m Not Lisa,” returns from a two-decade musical exile with this affecting record, which was produced by Don Was. Given the album’s restraint and good taste, however, it sounds more like something Rick Rubin might have worked on. Colter’s ‘70s sass is gone, replaced by a voice that sounds cured in gospel and cigarettes. But her gift for writing bittersweet, bluesy songs is still intact. File this under ‘secular spiritual.” B+ -- Marc Weingarten





March/April 2006

Jessi Colter

Out of the Ashes

The press release for Jessi Colter's comeback album dismisses the opener, "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," as a "perfunctory blessing." But although Colter's more earthy than ethereal on Out of the Ashes, the title provides a clue to a theme of rebirth. "Out of the Rain" even resurrects Waylon Jennings, who rejoins his old partner via an old vocal track; the result sounds eerily--and appropriately--unfinished. Colter also rebirths Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 & #35," scrubbing it totally clean of druggy double-entendres but still keeping it real.

Producer Don Was keeps things stripped-down, almost demo-like, with solid, unremarkable backing, allowing Colter's humanity to glow. "Sparrow" reveals a passion that's almost too naughty for the choir loft, one that's played out in "You Can Pick 'Em," where the outlaw-country legend, now living in Arizona, geographically catalogs someone's exes: "There was one from Texas/Oh she made you squall/But the one from Arizona left you no soul at all." This must be the same demon-woman who sings ominously, in the provocatively imagistic "The Canyon," "It's a long way down the canyon/Only the stars would see you fall."

By Pamela Murray Winters


Jan. 05, 2006

Outlaw country queen back for music's sake

By Chris Morris

"I've been circling," Jessi Colter says. "The recording had to happen at the right time and the right place."

Colter's circling is over: The queen of '70s outlaw country, who scored hits in her own right and with her late husband Waylon Jennings, returns to form Feb. 21 with the release of "Out of the Ashes," her first major solo release in 20 years.

Colter -- who scored a No. 1 country hit in 1975 with "I'm Not Lisa" and became one of the faces of Music City rebellion with her inclusion on the cornerstone 1976 compilation "Wanted! The Outlaws" -- withdrew from country during the past two decades to focus on writing and performing children's music.

Things changed in February 2002, when Jennings died after a long bout with diabetes.

"As time passed, after Waylon's death, I really needed to process," she says. She took inspiration from the music of Ben Harper, and from the country-rock fusion of her son Shooter Jennings, who released his debut album "Put the 'O' Back in Country" last year.

"I so realized the importance of music," she says. "Not that I could leave music -- I'm a desperate writer ... I needed expression. I began to live life one step at a time. I realized I had to keep living."

She ran some of her new music past a friend, A-list producer Don Was. "He heard the first song," Colter recalls, "and said, 'Give me 10 of those, and we'll record."

With Was at the helm and noted producer-engineer Ray Kennedy behind the board, Colter cut "Out of the Ashes" with a top-flight band that included Waylon's longtime drummer Richie Albright, Ray Herndon on guitar and vocals, session guitarist supreme Reggie Young and Young's wife Jenny Lynn on cello.

The album runs the gamut from the sinuous funk of "You Can Pick 'Em" and a cover of Bob Dylan's raucous "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" to the traditional spiritual "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" ("That's something I sing a couple of times a week," Colter says) and "Please Carry Me Home," a duet with her son that first appeared on an album inspired by Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ."

One long-in-gestation track is the Tony Joe White composition "Out of the Rain." Swamp fox White is featured on the performance; so is Waylon Jennings, who demoed the song years ago. "That was one of our masters," Colter says. "I'm not sure when it was recorded."

The act of making "Out of the Ashes" has plainly excited Colter: Words pour out of her in an endless flow, and the music has been pouring forth as well. She says she will make an album with musician-producer Lenny Kaye (who co-authored Waylon's 1996 autobiography) as well as a collection of musical interpretations of the Psalms. She also wants to record with Shooter, who will preface the April release of his sophomore album with a single Feb. 13, the fourth anniversary of Waylon's death.

Colter, whose live appearances have largely been limited to low-profile performances with Shooter in recent years, plans to get on the road in 2006. "I'll do it for fun," she says. "Gotta be fun, or I won't do it anymore."


December 5, 2005

Jessi Sings With Shooter, Waylon
Son, late husband appear on Colter's first solo album in twenty years

Six months after the death of her husband of thirty-two years -- country legend Waylon Jennings -- Jessi Colter finally allowed herself to grieve. Upon returning from a three-week European trip in February of 2002, the singer-songwriter found herself in the throes of solitude for the first time in her life. Looking out at the mountains that surround her Arizona home -- which she affectionately calls the "Rockin' JC Ranch" -- outlaw country's leading lady began writing her first solo album in twenty years.

"It was a major unhooking, and I had this great drive from the inside out to find expression," says Colter, 58. "After a loss like that, your emotions are frozen. As I chose to go forward and take on life, it bred in me a lot of questions like, 'What is this word 'widow'? I hate this word.' I learned it just means soul. I had to take a journey after being linked up with a cultural phenomenon like Waylon Jennings. So I decided to write as I lived."

Colter took her first songs to producer and friend Don Was (the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan) in Los Angeles. "I said, 'Don, what do you think it is I'm writing here?'" she recalls. "And he said, 'I don't know, but if you get ten of them, we'll record.' So I wrote songs on my grand piano and then took them in to record. It was something that happened out of need and love."

Due February 21st, Out of the Ashes is a collection of bittersweet reflections of a life passed and another reborn. Among the gospel-tinged roots-rock songs are the lilting "Out of the Rain," featuring Tony Joe White and a previously recorded vocal by Jennings, and a duet with their son (and new TV star) Shooter, on "Please Carry Me Home" -- originally written for Songs Inspired by the Passion of the Christ.

"Shooter and I working together was my very favorite," Colter says. "He's my guru. There's times his logic is so Waylon, I think, 'Who am I talking to?' I didn't lean on him on my down days, but when he caught me down -- and I couldn't really get up -- he said, 'Oh Mom, don't be down,' and he'd yell at me 'Jessi!' just like Waylon used to. It cracked me up and brought me out of it. It's been complex because I've never really been single."

Born Miriam Johnson (she changed her name in honor of her ancestor -- a train robber who rode with Frank and Jesse James), Colter left her hometown of Phoenix in her teens to join the backing band for Duane Eddy, whom she married and later divorced. She met Waylon in 1968, and the two married a year later. She signed to RCA and released her first album, A Country Star Is Born, in 1970. That same year, Colter had a hit with "Suspicious Minds," a duet with Waylon, and scored her own Number One with "I'm Not Lisa" in 1975. She's since released seven other studio albums, but says that she's only now discovering what it means to rock.

"I am totally fascinated with the cornerstones of rock, but I had just been listening, not out there hangin'," Colter says. "I was with Shooter in L.A. as he was doing the rock scene and I was finally excited by [the Rolling Stones'] Exile on Main Street; early Led Zeppelin, which I had never cared for; and AC/DC, which I never tapped into. I fell into a discovery mode, and I've been at it ever since."

Her exploration has led to a wealth of new material. Colter says that she's written two additional albums that will follow the release of Out of the Ashes, to be produced by Shooter and Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye respectively.

Although she's progressing down her own path, Colter says the memory of her husband remains her fortress. "Waylon had a way of equalizing everything, whether it was the Ritz or Holiday Inn, he was the same," Colter recalls. "He taught me that there's still real men in the world and that you can have a great time in life and keep very youthful dreams. He never grew up. Had his body not gotten ahead of him, he'd still be around kicking butt somewhere. It was a wild ride, and I'd do it again."