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Jessi Colter rises out of the ashes

By Brian Baker, March 2006

Everything Jessi Colter has ever done has been in the name of love. Love of family, love of God, love of life and, perhaps most acutely, love of music. It was love of music that led her to pursue a career as a singer and songwriter, and it was love of family that ultimately led her to put her solo career aside for over 20 years and concentrate on the work of late husband, Waylon Jennings.

"I had been working 180 to 300 days a year performing with Waylon; all the people know me," says Colter from her Phoenix home. "Actually six months before his death was the only time we didn't work."

After Jennings' passing in 2002 from complications arising from his earlier diabetes diagnosis, Colter took solace in the music that had united she and Waylon since their 1969 marriage.

And for the first time in many years, Colter was moved to put pen to paper. The result of Colter's sudden surge in inspiration is her first solo album in nearly 22 years, the gritty and captivating "Out of the Ashes," released by Shout! Factory.

Produced by veteran boardsman Don Was, mixed by the revered Ray Kennedy and populated with guests like Tony Joe White, her son Shooter Jennings and even her late husband, "Out of the Ashes" is a phenomenally satisfying comeback for an artist who never really left.

"There's a great scripture in Isaiah that says, 'I will give you beauty for ashes', and it's true. It's a promise given me for the life I now have," says Colter. "I'm very grateful for being alive and having a part to play. It's giving me a chance to do what I love to do. Sing the blues, baby!"

Colter's musical journey began in her native Phoenix - back when she was still known as Miriam Johnson - after she left her strict Pentecostal home as a teenager to provide background vocals for iconic guitar legend Duane Eddy. Colter's sister Sharon was married to producer Cowboy Jack Clement and had introduced the two, leading to their working relationship.

A talent show participant since the age of 12, young Miriam jumped at the opportunity to tour with a star like Eddy; their travels took them around the world several times.

In the meantime, love blossomed between the pair, and they married in 1962. After the couple relocated to Los Angeles in the mid-'60s, Colter began writing songs - under her married name, Miriam Eddy - that were covered by the likes of Nancy Sinatra, Don Gibson and Dottie West.

Colter and Eddy eventually grew apart and divorced in 1968. Colter returned to Phoenix where she fortuitously crossed paths with hotshot young country singer Waylon Jennings who was honing his electric guitar driven sound gigging in a bar called JD's.

Jennings, signed to RCA Records by Chet Atkins only three years before, was intrigued with Colter's voice and helped facilitate her own RCA contract.

In 1969, the thrice-divorced Jennings and Colter were married; Jennings then assisted in the production of material that would become Colter's debut solo album in 1970, the prophetically titled "A Country Star is Born."

By this time, Colter had adopted her new professional name, but it was no mere caprice or phone book perusal that led to her name change. Colter drew her new identity from her prescient love of outlaw culture and her own family tree; she feminized the name of Jess Colter, an ancestor who robbed trains, counterfeited money and rode with the James gang. Outlaws were soon to become even more important to the newly christened Jessi Colter.

Jennings and Colter duetted on a pair of strong Top 40 hits, a cover of Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds" in 1970 and "Under Your Spell Again" in 1971. Colter also began guesting on Jennings' albums.

After years of frustration with the string sweetened Nashville sound, Jennings' manager renegotiated his RCA contract to allow more creative control and his rockier country approach yielded the album "Ladies Love Outlaws" in 1972; the title track is often cited as the launch point for the outlaw country movement.

Jennings' career skyrocketed commercially and critically in this period, resulting in mid-70's classic albums like "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean," "Honky Tonk Heroes" and "The Ramblin' Man."

In 1975, Colter released "I'm Jessi Colter," co-produced by Jennings and written entirely by Colter herself. The first single was the number one country smash "I'm Not Lisa," which ultimately achieved crossover success on the pop charts as well, vaulting into the Top Five and establishing Colter as a legitimate musical entity on her own.

As Jennings' albums continued to notch impressive reviews and sales, Colter followed up her monumental success with two acclaimed albums in 1976, "Jessi" and "Diamonds in the Rough."

Later that year, Colter and Jennings teamed with old friend Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser for the "Wanted! The Outlaws" album, the first country album to be certified platinum and which also set the stage for the whole outlaw country movement.

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