Jessi Colter – After the storm
Colter has come to accept the “outlaw” description as true enough, in a limited sense, since all of these artists could thereafter record differently, with musicians of choice in ways unconventional for the Nashville of the time, and because “Waylon ended up having the largest contract ever in Nashville” by holding out for those rights, she points out.
“It does seem like I always ride with the rough riders! But it’s so funny, because we were simply living our music. We’d been going into Las Vegas, totally wearing the wrong thing, just doing our music. The actual manufactured tag of ‘outlaw’ just happened. But it stayed because we continued to create.”
Those who know her best remark first about Colter’s extraordinarily balanced, accepting, spiritual nature, traits that leaped out even in our brief meeting. But there’s some rebelliousness there too. Born Miriam Johnson, Colter married twanging guitar slinger Duane Eddy and had been writing compositions (and even recorded some) as Miriam Eddy before adopting the more memorable name she’s carried ever since. The actual Jessi Colter was, family legend had it, an ancestral uncle who’d been the Jesse James gang’s regular maker of counterfeit cash.
The music business had a hard time figuring out whether Colter was a pop act, or country, or what, in a day when “Americana singer-songwriter” was not an alternative commercial description. She recalls “I’m Not Lisa” being turned down by six record companies before it got a yes at Capitol and hit on the pop charts. Only after the Outlaws LP went wild and she was touring constantly with Waylon did she become generally thought of as a country act.
It’s not what she’d started out to be. Already the official piano player in her evangelist mother’s church at age 11 in the 1950s, and living in a house where worldly music was banished, Jessi somehow picked up songs such as “St. Louis Blues” and “Lucky Old Sun” and learned the stylings of a Patti Page, for instance, enough to win talent contests and lead her own band at high school dances. “I was this Pentecostal girl,” she remarks, “but I had some great experiences!”
Still a teenager, she left home, left town, and in short order married Eddy, with Dick Clark of American Bandstand serving as best man. The 1961 single she recorded with Eddy In Los Angeles was no country record; it feature the honking sax of King Curtis. This isn’t too surprising given the heavier parts of her new CD, or her penchant for waxing poetic about the Stones’ Exile On Main Street, or the pre-New Years’ party she recently hosted for Shooter and his friends Audisolave.
In a day when more than a few hardass rockers would rule out listening to soul-felt gospel numbers and fundamentalist evangelical Christian songs about getting high, Out Of The Ashes includes both the traditional “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” and what’s arguably the first good cover version of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”.
“Pleasure is part of being alive!” Colter affirms. “I just must say that one of the most spiritual men I know, and the richest man I know, Will Campbell, sits down and drinks Jack Daniel’s with the people who come to council with him.” (Campbell is the celebrated civil rights and liberties activist, novelist and freelance preacher who presided at the Jennings’ 25th anniversary second wedding, and at Waylon’s burial, and remains Jessi’s pastor.)
After Duane Eddy had introduced her to Chet Atkins, Colter was soon writing hits for the likes of Dottie West and even the great country singer-songwriter Don Gibson. Then she was signed as a singer, and came to know Waylon.
If you could eventually point to psychedelia and eastern sounds and much else in her tunes, there would be a definite honky-tonk element in her music from this point. “With country music,” she says, “you have to come to a certain amount of experience in life, to feel somewhat depressed. I got depressed in my 20s! Which was very fortunate!”
With a sensibility and perspective not just smart but so specifically smart female (“I have no gender-identity conflicts,” she laughs), the songs Colter has created speak with extra force to the female part of her audience, woman-to-woman. It’s an effect she’d hardly realized until the success of “I’m Not Lisa” led to tape after tape coming to her of amateurs trying to sing it, some even by 6-and-7-year-old girls.
There had been no real female models for the sort of performer she was about to become, but the passion for music of several men she’d come to know in Nashville — Waylon for one, songwriting giant Harlan Howard for a second, and the way they threw themselves into it completely — struck a chord with her. Unsurprisingly, Waylon’s musical and performance ideas would have a lasting impact on hers, as hers did on him.
“He was a maestro,” she says. “He cared so much; he was so driven. And he was so true. One thing I’ll never forget is that he encouraged me to stay true to the song as I sang it on the record. So many people get out there and play with it, because they’re bored. But there’s importance to making a decision and sticking to it. That was very much a part of his character.
“He taught me to care about what you’re doing or else not to do it, and to give the people what they came to get, because that’s fair and square. And, not that I never would, but honestly, when people go to see somebody, they don’t want to hear what you think of politics.”
If faith and a passion for music have driven much of Colter’s work over the decades, the other always-lingering influence has been the southwest, especially the desert. That’s true even for the especially strong new “getting going again” song “The Phoenix Rises”.
“There’s the sunshine, and the beauty, and the struggle of the desert,” she says. “You either survive, or you die. The bridge in ‘Phoenix Rises’ is actually a physical description that I turned into a life description. Lee’s Ferry, at the mouth of the Grand Canyon, is one of the most exquisite sights you’d ever see: copper slate cliffs, emerald green Colorado River — emerald green because there’s blue-green algae that grows there. I was so stunned by the beauty and the closeness of the stars there. In Arizona, the sky is so black, and the stars are so bright.
“And that does have to do with where I sit, and how I see it now. I can see that you can live again, despite life’s worst. That’s my statement, and I’m sticking to it.”
ND senior editor Barry Mazor lives and writes in Nashville, Tennessee.