Black Music Matters Festival

Jessi Colter rises out of the ashes

By Brian Baker, March 2006

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Jennings and Colter toured relentlessly through the end of the '70s. After the birth of their only son, Waylon Albright "Shooter" Jennings, Colter relaxed the pace just slightly and continued to release solo albums.

She and Jennings did a duet yet again on "Leather and Lace" in 1981, which spawned the hits "Storms Never Last" and "Wild Side of Life/It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels." They continued touring, taking Shooter on the road with them and giving him a musical education that would serve him well when he started his own career.

Late in 1981, Colter released "Ridin' Shotgun," which contained her final charting single, "Holdin' On" in 1982. Her final solo album came in 1984; the Chips Moman-produced "Rock 'n Roll Lullabye" was a beautiful album, but it suffered from poor distribution through a tiny label and it sunk without a trace.

From that point on, Colter put her solo career on hold in order to fully support Jennings. Professionally, she and Jennings were on the road 6 to 10 months a year during that period, and while she recorded a couple of albums in that time on her own, they remain unheard gems in her personal collection.

Personally, Colter had to contend with the substance abuse demons that had plagued Jennings' life since the mid-'60s.

In the mid-'90s, Colter took an interesting detour, helping Jennings with his children's album and getting involved with a children's video/music project called Jessi Colter Sings Songs From Around the World Just for Kids.

"It was a study of the most commonly known children's songs to a country...Japan to China to France, so it was really a form of musical education," says Colter. "It was really difficult, because singing to small children is like singing to dogs and cats; they act like they're not listening, and they go away memorizing it. It was offered to me, and I did it. I couldn't make a career of it, it's way too hard. I'd rather sing to losers or nuts because they act really interested."

Jennings and Colter continued to work into the new millennium until Jennings' health issues forced them to curtail touring in 2001. In December of that year, doctors were forced to amputate Jennings' foot because of his diabetes; he died in his sleep four months later.

Jennings' presence in Colter's life was astonishingly huge, and his passing left an incredible void. Not surprisingly, Colter has been nearly as busy in the four years since Jennings' death as she was in the hard-charging years prior.

"I've had two major benefits in this area at the club where Waylon first came to play," says Colter. "I've had Hank Williams Jr. and Kris Kristofferson and Andy Griggs and Beth Nielsen Chapman, a lot of people I sponsored coming in. I've been taping in Nashville on the Outlaw concert; Hank Williams (Jr.) and (Metallica's) James Hetfield were on that. A&E Biography came here and filmed me. I have been staying in the running of working and before the people in one form or another always."

After the shock of Jennings' passing subsided somewhat, Colter threw herself into writing songs again.

"I began writing [the album] six months after Waylon's death," says Colter. "I had gone back to Nashville to great musicians I was used to recording with and done a few demos, and I cut a couple in my house with my grand piano and a cello. I showed Don Was one of my songs, and I said, 'Do you think this is the record?' And he said, 'Yeah! Give me 10 more just like it, and we've got a record.' It was like a little baby, and it just grew."

Don Was is an old friend of the Jennings/Colter family, having produced The Highwaymen (the Jennings/Willie Nelson/Johnny Cash/Kris Kristofferson project) and Jennings' "Waymore Blues (Pt. II)" in 1994, which Colter points to as one of Jennings' favorite recording experiences.

"We met at a Highwaymen concert, and I just loved him on sight," says Colter. "You could just feel him. He loves music."

Just as intuitively as she was drawn to Was when she met him, Colter knew that he was the best producer for her first album alone in over two decades.

"You trust Don because you can, musically," says Colter. "Don knew he wanted to cut it live. He did not want it to be done it in pieces. He said, "It came to me, I know how I'm to do this in the studio. We'll put everybody in a semi-circle.' It's the old way of recording that's not done too often. That's how we did our studio recording, we just all sat around together. It was very spontaneous."

Only one track on "Out of the Ashes" was not contemporarily written and/or recorded. The song "Out of the Rain" is an old Tony Joe White song that Colter recorded around 15 years ago for an album that remains tantalizingly unreleased. It is a moving song, with both White and Jennings providing vocals.

"It was a Southern gospel rock album," says Colter of her long-shelved album. "It has Johnny Cash on a couple of tracks, and Waylon, and it's pretty interesting. I didn't find the right ear for it at the time, so I'm holding it."

"Out of the Ashes" has a fascinating sonic quality, bookended by a pair of gospel numbers (the traditional "His Eye is on the Sparrow" to open, the Shooter/Colter penned "Please Carry Me Home" to close) with a ton of gritty, heartfelt country blues in between (including a brilliant take on Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," the rolling blues of "You Can Pick 'Em," the gorgeous piano balladry of "The Phoenix Rises" and the roadhouse shuffle of "Velvet & Steel"), featuring inspired performances from friends like Reggie and Jenny Young, Richie Albright, Jim Horn and Colter's co-writing partner Ray Herndon.

By her own estimation, "Out of the Ashes" may be the most natural album Colter has ever made.

"When something has a pure feel to it, it will reject what doesn't work," says Colter. "Things that we had that didn't make it onto the album, that we worked too hard on, just didn't happen. It just has to be nice and easy, like a simple menu that you know is going to work."

The prospects for Colter's renewed solo career are more than promising. She's looking forward to some limited touring to support the album, and then she'll start mapping out her release schedule for the next couple of years, which could include the two finished albums she has in her archive and two that she plans to record, one by son Shooter and another, a musical reading of the Psalms, produced by veteran Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye (who co-wrote Jennings' autobiography, Waylon).

Whatever happens from here, it has begun with a magnificent start on "Out of the Ashes."

"My writing, Don Was, the company who could hear it, the musicians, the man who mixed it; it was all part of the evolution of it," says Colter of the genesis of "Out of the Ashes." "I think it was the right time and the right place. Perhaps the world is ready to hear it."