Jessi Colter – After the storm
“Storms never last, do they, baby?” she’d asked — no, maintained — in a celebrated song she wrote and recorded in 1975, a tune later recorded by her husband Waylon Jennings, and by the two of them together. “Bad times will pass with the winds…Your hand in mine steals the thunder…”
That specific, fundamental balm for withstanding life’s storms has been gone for four years now, but Jessi Colter has always been a woman with a substantial array of resources, not least of which, given music’s key role in her life, are her own formidable talents.
As a singer, Colter is an unmistakable stylist. She’s as likely suddenly to talk a word or phrase as she is to hold a note, tugging at the words, and with a voice that can haunt as she whispers, sear in her higher register — scaling emotional high points in country and gospel songs, or grabbing you and teasing when she rocks.
As a songwriter, she’s had a singular facility for being direct and unequivocal about being vulnerable — an unusual, seemingly contradictory combination suggested tangentially in the title of the 2003 Capitol compilation of her 1970s hits: An Outlaw…A Lady.
Directness about vulnerability was one strong element in her most famous song, the smash hit “I’m Not Lisa”, a pointed, poignant reply from a woman when her man calls her by an old flame’s name. It shows up again in “The Phoenix Rises”, a brave new song on Out Of The Ashes, released February 28 on Shout! Factory Records. It’s her first new recording in 20 years, some children’s CDs aside.
“If I give my heart to you,” she just comes right out and asks a potential new companion in the song. “Are you gonna break it?” And you can hear that the woman wants an answer.
As we sit talking in the lobby of Nashville’s elegant Hermitage Hotel in mid-January, Colter is as striking as she always has been, brandishing a cowgirl hat utterly natural to a woman raised in and living again in the southwest, near Phoenix. She’s carrying some blue aviator shades as a proud mama’s tribute, she noted, to the swelling hard-country ballad “Aviators” on her son Shooter Jennings’ upcoming CD.
She’s as direct as you’d figure when I bring up that bluntness about vulnerability so characteristic of her songs.
“I don’t know how else to do it!” she says. “I’m not sure if that’s the right way or the wrong way; it’s the only way I know to be. Going through life and expressing it is just a desperate need of mine. I do think I have a reading of the genuine, and just express it. If there are things I couldn’t live without, they would be first, of course, my faith, and secondly my piano, because my piano and I process life.”
After years without encountering a substantial record label that was hospitable to what she wanted to do as she wanted to do it, or producers who seemed truly simpatico, Colter had not actively sought to make records for some time. But she’d hardly stopped making music.
“No!” she emphasizes. “After I peaked, so to speak, as a younger artist, I did not leave my craft for a second. I did not stop writing. And I did not stop performing in all those many years with Waylon; I toured with him constantly.
“Only in the last six months of his life were we not performing,” she continues, referring to Waylon’s illness and eventual death of complications from diabetes in 2002. “It’s just that, with Waylon leaving, I continued to express myself, and with great intensity, but also pursued, myself alone, some hearing of what I’m doing.”
She’s done a few shows in the last couple of years. She played a benefit in Scottsdale to help launch satellite radio network Sirius’ “Outlaw Channel,” and made appearances during industry events such as Austin’s South By Southwest and Nashville’s Americana Music Association convention. A well-received appearance with Shooter at New York punk palace CBGB a year ago inevitably recalled Waylon’s groundbreaking, attention-grabbing stand at Max’s Kansas City in the ’70s, as the so-called country “Outlaw” movement was taking hold in earnest.
In Nashville, passing most every corner can have a similar double-edged effect. “There are so many wonderful people who love me here, and who I love, and this is where we raised Shooter. So that part is good,” she acknowledges. “But I have conflict if I’m here very long — with nostalgia that overwhelms me. And this was also Waylon’s battleground, in a way. I can come here sometimes, but I can’t live here.”
All of these things add up to the context in which Out Of The Ashes appears: the much-documented history of intense personal and professional successes and struggles for both Jessi and her late husband, a revitalized interest in getting her own creative work heard, the “overwhelming” experience of witnessing her son’s swift success across the modern country/southern rock borderland — and above all, coming back into life and carrying on fully after a great loss. As the title suggests, it’s essentially a theme album — if very varied in tone, from elegiac to raucous — about getting on with life again.
The theme hasn’t just come into the Colter repertoire recently. Waylon and close family friend Tony Joe White appear with her on White’s “getting back on track” ballad “Out Of The Rain”, which was laid down years before Waylon’s death and brought in by her manager Dan Gillis because the fit was so right. Colter reveals that there is, in fact, a deep unreleased catalogue of material she’s written and recorded over the years since her last album in 1985 (some including turns by Jennings).
With virtually all of her earlier LPs long out-of-print and never released on CD — including such essential albums from her peak years at Capitol as I’m Jessi Colter (1975) and Jessi and Diamond In The Rough (both 1976) — there is by now a generation of country and rock fans to whom she’s been something of a cipher, recognized mainly as Waylon’s sometime duet partner, and as the only woman who appears with Waylon, Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser on the patched-together RCA compilation Wanted! The Outlaws, a commercial and cultural phenomenon that became country’s first platinum album.
“I looked like the token female!” she laughs now. “It’s little-known — and it still leaves me sitting here grinning — but I was the only one on that record who’d gone gold before that came out!”