The Lady Outlaw Rides Again: Jessi Colter reflects on life through rapturous psalms and the Waylon Jennings Looking-Glass.
Legendary country-rock singer-songwriter Jessi Colter has never been known for her prolific artistic output, at least not since her heyday as a major recording star and icon of the seminal “outlaw” musical movement of the 1970s. To those familiar with her nevertheless impressive body of work, it may come as a pleasant surprise that the still-vibrant (and still quite lovely) Colter has emerged from an eleven-year hiatus with a stunning one-two punch aimed at the marketplace.
Last month, Colter released her 10th major studio album –a near-mystic tour de force entitled The Psalms, wherein she gives alternately exalted and elegiac interpretation to a selection of Old Testament Psalms –her voice as supple and full of earthy allure as it was in her youth. Buoyed by ambient electric guitar flourishes and accentuations created by Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Band) and an array of other top-flight musicians, Colter’s mellifluous and spontaneous piano arrangements become something spiritually transcendent.
It is a brilliant, stirring album of original melodies and superior craftsmanship, a work that I cannot praise highly enough. The poetry of the various psalms, given new life on the wings of Colter’s unshakeable devotion and insight, take center stage, but are nurtured in the warm nest of Lenny Kaye’s reverent production, resulting in a visionary sonic journey that is far more suited to the realm of World Music, than to country, or rock, or even Gospel. It’s soul music up at the sharp end, due to the innately inspired nature of the material, and to the undeniably inspired disposition of the singer.
The sounds on Jessi’s Psalms album seem to have a universal quality in their impact, and the entire record must stand as a both a personal and professional triumph for Colter, whose best material in the past has so often been unfairly subordinated, in hindsight, by the long shadow cast by her far more professionally gregarious (and personally overwhelming) late husband, Waylon Jennings.
Already, The Psalms has been praised by critics from Rolling Stone to No Depression, and deserves far more commercial attention than it is perhaps destined to receive, much like her equally praised country-rock masterpiece, Out of the Ashes, which was produced by Don Was in 2006.
As if the arrival of a new and celebrated Jessi Colter album weren’t auspicious enough, however, the lady has this month released her long-awaited memoir, An Outlaw and a Lady: A Memoir of Music, LIFE WITH WAYLON, and the Faith that Brought me Home.
The subtitle of the book, and the way it was structured on the page (“LIFE WITH WAYLON” is rendered in a conspicuous font that’s twice the size of the other words) reveals everything one needs to know about the thrust of the work. In many respects, the new tome (co-written with David Ritz) proves to be as spiritually attuned as Colter’s Psalms album and therefore serves as the most perfect companion-piece imaginable.
Published by the Thomas Nelson division of Harper Collins, the focus of Colter’s 300+ page memoir is indeed overtly religious in tone. Essentially, Colter is viewing her life and sharing her recollections through the prism of her avid, Pentecostal-esque, evangelical-informed Christian belief system, which certainly seems fitting for a book that emanates from the house of Thomas Nelson.
In An Outlaw and a Lady, Colter renders a sincere, often moving, and sometimes quite riveting account, beginning (of course) with her childhood. She was born Mirriam Johnson, a child of the Wild West, and raised in Mesa, Arizona by parents who, to say the very least, must have come across as colorful and probably even eccentric figures in their overwhelmingly Mormon environs.
Little Mirriam’s father, Arnold, was a regional race-car champ, inventor, builder, and owner of an isolated metals mine on 1200 acres of desert land. The various ores he extracted from the earth never made him wealthy, but the pursuit of hidden treasures satisfied the adventurer in his soul and helped keep a growing family afloat, along with a host of other irons kept in the proverbial fire. Mirriam’s mother was an even more imposing character. Known locally as “Sister Helen,” Mrs. Johnson was a formidable one-woman evangelical tornado who helmed her own, makeshift Pentecostal church, replete with a blinking neon sign that rose above the sanctuary to attract potential congregants and, presumably, to advertise her unique approach.
Talk about standing out and making a statement in a town of Mormons!
Even more intriguing, Sister Helen’s church was literally attached to the family’s living quarters, which had been an old army barracks. Either that or the entire house itself was somehow divided into spaces where, on one side, the Johnsons could live, sleep, and enjoy Helen’s fabulous country cooking while faithful congregants could “get saved” on the other. Colter doesn’t go into too much detail about the interplay of worlds, but it seems clear that everyday life crossed over into the sanctuary and vice versa. One gets the impression that the Johnsons were a loving but unusual brood. Revelations of this nature make it easy to understand how Mirriam herself might one day find a means to “stand out from the crowd” and pave her own way as a rugged individualist –red dirt of the Sonoran desert under her high heels and ambition sparkling in her hazel eyes.
Wait. Not so fast on the ambition part. More about that later.
The initial chapters dealing with Colter’s early family life in Arizona constitute my favorite parts of the book, by far. It was both fascinating and touching to countenance the stories of Arizona life and the deep, abiding respect that Colter conveys for her parents, and most particularly for her mother’s religious entrepreneurialism. In fact, Sister Helen D. Johnson may well be the undiscovered star of this entire exercise; forget Jessi Colter and Waylon Jennings! It must have been quite a thing to know the stalwart preacher-woman, swimming as she did against the local tide, in a time and amid a culture that did not easily accommodate self-appointed female authority figures. Colter insists that her mother was able to separate the holy-rolling side of life from the more mundane affairs of daily human existence, but one has to wonder how easy that was when their house was attached to a church.
I grew up with a heaping helping of Christian fundamentalist thunderbolts, and my mother’s church was twenty freakin’ miles away. The Recovering Baptist in me figures that the fanatical dynamic in Jessi Colter’s domicile must’ve been off the charts, but perhaps not. Rather endearing are various recollections of her mother’s down-to-earth personality, joyful spirit, and generous nature. No preacher of fire-and-brimstone was Sister Helen, and that reality may have constituted the truly redemptive difference that kept Colter from permanently losing her taste for the Gospel altogether, when years of doubt and dark nights of the soul began to encroach later on. Though Helen’s neighborhood congregation appears to have been a bit threadbare and sparse, it seems that she never lost her spirit, no pun intended. In grand Katherine Kulhmann and Aimee Semple-McPherson style, she would often take her show on the road, preaching and prophesying at elaborate tent revivals throughout the West.
One can easily imagine how this kind of upbringing would have informed Mirriam’s character and left a lasting imprint upon her imagination and artistic inclinations. In a town dominated by Mormonism, where doctrine must have been bouncing around in people’s heads 24/7, the Johnson family’s Pentecostalism was surely juxtaposed as pure rebellion in theory and theology. Colter says her family was accepted in Mesa, but I have to imagine that such acceptance came at a price, and that they had to earn it by being a bit weird, a bit wonderful, and a whole lot of adamant.
Whatever the case, the kid was in for an interesting life. By the time she was five, she displayed a prodigious talent for playing the piano. By the time she was eleven, she was tickling the ivories and leading the hymns in her mother’s church. By the time she was twelve, she was beginning to write little love songs and hymns and ditties of her own. All of this was encouraged by Mama, who saw great value in her daughter’s abilities and convinced her that they were both God-given and God-driven.
The ensuing years (as covered in Colter’s memoir) can be a bit of a narrative blur and one gets the sense that there was a lot of important stuff left unrevealed, especially in terms of Colter’s budding creative impulses. We learn quickly that she had become something of a local singing sensation by her mid-teens, and was enthusiastically promoted as such by her siblings, especially a feisty older sister whom Colter describes as having almost “endless connections” in the area. It was a bit of an enigmatic reference (older sister apparently got around) but the connectedness paid dividends when it came to introducing Mirriam to rock-stars who just happened to be breezing through Mesa in search of likely “girl singers.” That’s how Colter came to audition for Duane Eddy, the King of Rock & Roll Twang, in the early 1960s, performing a few covers and some of her own compositions in a dingy bar that her mother would surely have wrinkled her nose at, had she known about it.
What seems missing even at the early stage of this account, however, is any indication from Colter about her own, personal ambitions to have her music heard, or about her own, emerging drive to think beyond the parameters of church and home (or home-church, in this case) and realize the kinds of grandiose dreams that all teenagers entertain at one time or another, even if they don’t possess a whit of talent.
Colter dances around that specific subject, conspicuously so: it was the mother who encouraged her early gifts; it was the brother who wildly promoted her; it was the sister who made various clandestine arrangements, etc.
Yet Colter was the only one in the family with the big, pristine voice, the skill at the piano, the songwriting craftsmanship, and the good looks to sew those gifts into a prime little package of WOW. I was left wondering about the actual state of her own early ambitions, especially due to the fact that she remains evasive about this issue throughout the book. I would not go so far as to say it’s a flaw in her fine story, but I do find it in many ways a telling omission, as we shall see later on.
Did the piano-tinkling, nightengale-voiced, physically gorgeous, song-cobbling prodigy that was 16 year-old Mirriam Johnson ever, even once, think:
“I wanna be a star and I’m gonna be a star, damn it! Even if it means leaving this podunk Western town and traveling the world with a famous rock guitarist!”
Because that’s exactly what she did, not long after graduating from high school.
After leaving home and touring the European continent for a bit with Duane Eddy as a featured singer, Mirriam recorded a couple of singles for the Jamie label (covers of Lonesome Road and Making Believe being primo), but attracted scant attention for her efforts. After that, she married her impresario, with more than a touch of ambivalence, it seems. In no time at all, she found herself whisked from a life of family, high school sweethearts, tent revivals and lonesome Arizona horizons to a glamorous existence in the canyons of Los Angeles, where Shelly Fabares and Annette Funicello became her best friends.
Quite a change-up from dusty old Mesa.
Again, something seems lost in translation. The Johnsons were a family of distinct ambition, by nature and by lifestyle. These were also a set of beautiful, ambitious daughters. Colter’s sister, Sharon, later married big-time music producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement, though you won’t learn much about that in the book.
Still, in the Duane Eddy Days, Mirriam took it all in stride. Ever a thoughtful, intelligent, and well-spoken woman (check out any interview with Colter on YouTube today, or read one of her mid-1970s magazine profiles, if you care to dig ’em up on Google), she began to expand her horizons, just as one might expect. This is where we get the first real insights regarding the Lady Outlaw’s early forays into personal and intellectual growth as an adult. Though Colter at times recounts the story in tones that evoke images of her standing on a precipice above the Seventh Circle of Perdition, her Beverly Hills tenure with Duane Eddy was essentially wholesome (by rock star standards) and marked by the kind of casual, healthy vision-questing upon which anyone plucked from provincial life and transplanted to a cosmopolitan existence might embark.
The Eddys entertained diverse thinkers and idealists, salon-style. Mirriam found herself enjoying the California lifestyle, dandling the ideas of Ayn Rand (Oh, the HORROR!) and eventually beginning to question many of the faith-tenets that had formed the bedrock of her mother’s ministry and her own upbringing.
Not exactly a shock.
If at times in this memoir Colter appears to lament her days of garden-variety philosophical exploration in overly rueful fashion, it is perhaps best to remember how much her Christian faith came to mean to her later on. Looking back as she wrote this book, Jessi must have realized that even a “normal” period of youthful agnosticism and questioning could well have resulted in the permanent loss of her chosen spirituality.
There is no guarantee that any human being will find his or her way back to an original belief system, back to an ultimate touchstone. Even if Ayn Rand and the mutterings of an occasional yogi were as close as Colter may have gotten to the Utter Darkness, she might never have regained her true faith, and she’s aware of that. It is not a thing to take lightly, for writer or for reader. Her candor is thus greatly appreciated, in this sense.
Anyhow, Duane Eddy turned out to be another “encourager.” As his own career began to cool, he actively promoted his wife and songwriting colleague, even introducing her to the legendary Chet Atkins, who was impressed by Mirriam’s compositions and who acted as an agent, of sorts, for her music. By the end of the 1960s, her original tunes had been recorded by Don Gibson, Dottie West, Hank Locklin, and perhaps most prominently by Nancy Sinatra, who featured Mirriam’s “If He Loved Me” on her famous These Boots Were Made for Walkin’ album. Clearly Mrs. Eddy was not just languishing as a bored Housewife of Beverly Hills at this juncture; she was evidently invested, to some degree, in writing and seeing her work find a home in the marketplace. Still, for all the deeply personal information shared, we are provided no window into her soul about the measure of inner drive during this period –a strange thread that seems to run throughout her account and one that appears to have defined (or perhaps occluded) her self-perception to the point wherein it was later noticed by her peers and by the press. After all, Willie Nelson once remarked in his first autobiography that Jessi Colter was “not the most ambitious person I ever met.”
As things turned out, however, Duane Of The Twanging Guitar was not anywhere near as “adventurous” as Waylon Jennings would later prove to be. Though one could easily get the impression that Mirriam got bored or frustrated with the marriage, things aren’t ever that simple in life. The couple –proud parents of a beautiful daughter, Jennifer, by the late ’60s– were drifting in opposite emotional directions and jealousy issues on the part of Eddy played a major role in their ensuing split. Colter details the winding, wistful ways in which this can happen to a marriage, and she does so with poignant yet straightforward insight. The union was well and truly doomed, but not before a key meeting with Waylon Jennings at a recording session back in Arizona, where all of these rockers managed to retreat or congregate, due to the vibrant music scene, and where Mirriam could likewise touch base with her beloved mom and dad, who remained champions of their daughter without fail.
By the time the Duane & Mirriam Show was over, the Waylon & Mirriam Show was already experiencing its first heart-flutters of the future. Colter is careful to note that she not only remained faithful to Eddy and parted ways with him as a friend and ally, but that she put the very interested, very persistent Waylon Jennings off for a good six months until properly regaining her equilibrium –a process facilitated by the love and nurture of mother, father, and siblings back in Mesa. This, in my opinion, speaks volumes about the integrity of Colter’s lifelong character, no matter what her level of agnosticism or esoteric soul-searching at the time. Though by the late 1960s she had traversed continents and grasped the world from arid horizons to European skylines to ultra-hip life in the Hollywood hills, she was still a woman of great fundamental decency. The seeds of faith and doubt that coexist eternally in tandem within the human soul had perhaps sprouted a few tendrils in other directions, but they were admirable directions. Reasonable ones. Moreover, she was still young, and knew her priorities.
The rest, as they say, is history. Music history.
The remainder of Colter’s memoir is focused overwhelmingly upon Waylon Jennings and his personality, and what he did, and how he felt, and what he was doing and how she reacted to all of his doings, with occasional, glimmering insights into her own musical individualism.
It’s a story that has been documented before, by family members and other individuals connected in one way or another with the Waylon Jennings camp … including Waylon Jennings, who did not spare himself the lash when recounting his missteps, philanderings, and failures in a superb 1996 memoir co-written with Lenny Kaye.
I have no desire to render a critical assessment of Waylon’s peccadilloes, other than to note that Colter reveals her side of that whole story through a lens of unrelenting spiritual reflection. Her entire recollection of events is dominated by an intensely religious interpretation of the relationship, his career, her career, and life in general.
This is certainly not cause for surprise. Again, Thomas Nelson published the book and it was intended to be a distinctly God-oriented memoir. That’s either how Colter sold it or how she wanted to write it. I will not fault her for using a heavenly filter to process absolutely everything she ever experienced.
That being said, I find it unpalatable the way certain strains of believers sometimes separate the secular aspects of existence from the “saved” aspects in such acute fashion, essentially creating an almost territorial “Otherness” around themselves and about themselves –a condescending I’m Going to Heaven Because My Version of Eternity Is Accurate and Yours Is Not kind of aura. Colter occasionally skirts the edges of such attitudes in her account, even admitting that, when she first rediscovered her childhood faith in the mid-1970s, she went on a self-righteous rampage that further threatened her already tenuous marriage with Jennings. Jennings himself admitted that he had always believed in a higher power, but that Colter’s brand of religiosity was not his cup of tea.
To her everlasting credit, Jessi has the grace to acknowledge the inopportune nature of her initial zeal in the book, and that is a refreshing thing to encounter in any devout believer. Nevertheless, it seems to me that she continued to kind of passive-aggressively prod Waylon to “say the Magic Prayer” up until he was practically on his deathbed. It was only at this point that she could consider him, for the first time in their entire marriage, her “brother in Christ.”
I find that sort of business beyond the pale, and have no comment about it –at least no comment I wish to make within this context. To my thinking, whatever Colter needed to get through a marriage to Jennings, short of her own chemical substance abuse, was doubtless a worthy method and I say “more power to her.” Besides, however dysfunctional their relationship may have been from the beginning, it turned out to be a poignant and healing story on a purely human level, and I think these two birds were ultimately just a couple of feisty kids, a pair of destined soulmates who managed to find themselves playing in the same sandbox and who stuck around the playground, joined at the hip for posterity. That’s beautiful stuff, prayer or no prayer. God or no God.
My only quibble with the book is not its religious tone. Rather, it’s Colter’s evasiveness and equivocation about her own professional trajectory.
Jennings’s God-given ego propelled him to embrace his inner drive to be a success, even if the methods he employed to fuel that drive were for many years misguided and ultimately responsible for his tragic death. He wrote candidly in his book about what forces really motivated him to be a superstar.
We get no such information from Colter.
And I believe that Jessi Colter either completely underestimates herself in that regard, or else she flat-out doesn’t realize (or care) exactly how important an artist she was during her admittedly brief heyday and beyond, in terms of influence.
Need proof? Look no further than me. I grew up in an isolated frontier-town on the border of New York and Quebec in the mid-1970s. If we weren’t “country,” I don’t know who on the face of the earth might have qualified. Truly. You want trees? You got millions of acres of them. You want tractors? That was often the preferred method of travel. You want owls and hawks that’ll swoop down and take your dog or cat off a back porch? Had ’em. You want gun-owners? Dad had over 150 in his collection. You want isolation from Ivy League wingnuts? No worries.
But it didn’t mean we were idiots or bumpkins (well, at least not idiots) and we did have television and radio and turntables. Despite their provincial clime, my parents liked somewhat sophisticated, earthy singer-songwriters: Jim Croce, James Taylor, Nina Simone, Fleetwood Mac, Paul McCartney, Kris Kristofferson, Simon & Garfunkle, and Jessi Colter.
Yes, Jessi Colter. Every one of her first three Capitol platters dropped daily in our house, when mother loaded her stack … with no sign whatsoever of Waylon Jennings. I didn’t even know who he was or that she was married to him until I was in my teens. My parents didn’t even buy the Outlaws album when it came out (QUADRUPLE HORROR!)
Point being: it was possible to be literally raised on Jessi Colter music without even a whiff of Waylon Jennings. Without any direct musical reference to him. They didn’t come hitched at the hips in the marketplace. Jessi Colter wasn’t just some mint placed on the after-hours pillow of Waylon’s dreams. They could be separate artists, with entirely separate products and fanbases. I’m sure my parents knew she was married to Jennings, but as youngsters learning to enjoy music we weren’t interested in that sort of nonsense.
We grew up with the songs and the singers. And we knew all of Jessi’s tunes. Word for word. Even if we often hadn’t a clue about what those songs meant. For a short period in my childhood, I believe we kids were convinced that “What’s Happened to Blue Eyes” was about a lost dog.
“Has anyone SEEN HIM?”
Hey, it was kind of romantic, kid-style, if you think about it.
In the Summer of 1975, little kids could hear anything and everything, musically speaking, and create their own, extrapolated narratives based upon what they heard. We were glad to be kicked out of the house every bright morning so that Mother could spend the day cleaning, reading Gore Vidal, and crying over soap operas (her one entertainment weakness). Our entire scope of imagination was perhaps only as big as the back yard, but the door was open all day and those great tunes jangled-out.
And we remembered them.
The first records I ever bought in my life, once I was given an allowance, were ELO’s Out of the Blue and Jessi Colter’s Mirriam album. 1977. Like your first kiss, you don’t forget the first records you buy with your own money.
The dude at the cash-register said, “Interesting mix.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Can I have my change? My grandmother is waiting for me at the Bon Ton.”
As kids we remembered the songs of all of the above-mentioned artists who were on heavy rotation in our house. If people talk about the fabric of life, then music constitutes a whole damned roll of the stuff.
Heading back to the Lady Outlaw in 1970, however, Mirriam Johnson Eddy’s fabric was just beginning to unravel, in a good way. The Duane Eddy-established relationship with Chet Akins at RCA Records remained in place because Waylon Jennings was by then signed to the label and had exhibited some success of his own. After a less-than-razzle-dazzling Vegas wedding to Waylon, Mirriam compiled enough original songs of her own to merit a signing with RCA, and Atkins produced her first album for the label, A Country Star is Born. Before its 1970 release, however, Atkins and his chums suggested a stage name that was just a bit more interesting than Mirriam Johnson.
That was definitely a good idea.
Like most “regularly named” people, her given moniker was a tad bland for someone with their sights set upon the music marketplace. It certainly wasn’t a hideous burden (like, say, Frances Gumm must have been for Judy Garland) but Mirriam Johnson was a soul begging for a stage name. To wit, Mirriam reached back into family lore for a derivative of the name “Jess Colter,” an ancestor who had supposedly finagled with the Jesse James gang.
The pseudonym certainly signified: she was distinctive, her background was unique, her life was entirely unconventional, her original music went against the prevailing tide, and her formative years were lived, quite literally, in the Wildest West.
Jessi Colter she became. Jessi Colter she probably already was, to some degree.
Even after the name change and the assertive album title (Colter herself admits she thought A Country Star is Born was “a bit much,” right out of the gate), things didn’t happen overnight for her. According to the recollections of Jerry Bradley, one of the head honchos over at RCA, in the period between 1970 and 1974, Waylon’s albums were selling between 250,000-300,000 copies, which was actually very good for a country music artist. Colter also notes in the book that her husband’s early fan-base, while hardly mainstream, was broad and devoted. She would be outselling him in fairly short order, but what was she doing in those lead-up days to stardom?
Well, there were a couple of Top 40 chart singles in the very early ’70s with Waylon (covers of Suspicious Minds and Under Your Spell Again), a few more sessions with RCA, and, according to her own statements in the liner notes of EMI’s 2003 An Outlaw and A Lady “best of” compilation, she eagerly shopped her songs to a myriad of major labels –all of which declined to sign her because “they felt I was neither country nor pop.”
Enter Ken Mansfield, who, from the comfort of his home in Los Angeles, had managed to catch a late-night rerun of a 1971 husband-and-wife performance by Waylon and Jessi on the Hee Haw show, of all places. During that episode, Jessi also took to the piano for a solo rendition of a rather languid, lachrymose ballad she had written herself. The song was called I’m Not Lisa.
Mansfield recalled being riveted by the raven-haired beauty and her obvious talent. Having been a chief marketing executive at Capitol/EMI Records and later the stateside label manager for a little enterprise called Apple Records and a totally forgotten rock quartet called The Beatles, he knew a star when he saw one. When he later established his own production company and crossed paths with Waylon Jennings himself, Mansfield presumed that Colter already had representation and a label.
She had neither.
After hearing her original songs and bringing a few of his Los Angeles pop sensitivities to the production equation, Mansfield recorded a four-song demo with Jessi in Nashville, helping Colter to transform the somewhat turgid I’m Not Lisa into a mesmerizing gothic masterpiece. The result was electrifying. In mid-1974, he took the set of songs to Al Coury, who was then the VP of Capitol Records, at the famed tower on Hollywood and Vine.
Coury was floored by what he heard and signed Jessi Colter on the spot, under the auspices of Mansfield’s Hometown Productions unit, within the pop marketing division of Capitol Records. A few months after that, Colter had parlayed her four-song demo into a ten-track, entirely self-written album entitled, rather declaratively, I’m Jessi Colter.
There were a lot of other interesting tidbits that precipitated the release of what would become one of the great landmark albums for a female artist in the country-rock milieu. For those (like me) who are interested in the nitty-gritty details of the business, of how a singer is signed and developed in the actual industry of the 1970s, I highly recommend reading any or all of Ken Mansfield’s fascinating memoirs; they document some pivotal years at a truly groundbreaking time in the realm of contemporary pop music. Information about his work with Jessi Colter is featured prominently in his books, alongside recollections of his considerable experience with The Beatles, James Taylor, Waylon, Don Ho, Dolly Parton, David Cassidy, Nick Gilder, Claudine Longet, and many others.
Though Mansfield was absolutely crucial to the development and success of Jessi Colter’s music and the formation of her signature funky, swamp/rock/country/blues/soul sound, none of this makes it to the page in Colter’s memoir –an astonishing omission. Mansfield is mentioned a couple of times, but only in passing, and the experience surrounding Colter’s signing to Capitol is absent from the text, as is any forensic treatment of her explosive rise to fame on the wings of I’m Not Lisa, which took the nation by storm in Spring of 1975, hitting the top of the country charts and catapulting to even bigger success on the mainstream Billboard Pop list, where it became the No. 4 record in the country. Her self-composed album, I’m Jessi Colter, likewise became a national phenomenon, thrilling critics from Rolling Stone to Robert Christgau of The New York Times, topping the various country lists and spending months in the upper rungs of the Billboard Top 200 Pop chart.
It was rare for any woman in pop, rock, or country to record an entire album of her own, original material, at the time, much less to enjoy world-beating success with such a collection. Jessi joined the ranks of formidable singing-songwriting women like Carole King, Carly Simon, and Stevie Nicks in the rock sphere, and Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn in the country realm.
But Colter skips over this watershed moment of her life like the Devil skateboarding past a tent revival. She breezes over it like a falcon shaking its tail-feathers over a patch of unwanted air.
What was it like, Jessi Colter, to become, within a period of six months, one of the biggest names in American music? How did you feel when your single first started taking off? When your album topped the charts and churned the critics? What happened at your label as you were swiftly becoming the biggest sensation on their roster?
What was it like, Jessi Colter, to have Billboard’s music critic say of you: “When she writes, she writes masterpieces. When she interprets her own songs, she is brilliant.”
What was it like to score two additional Billboard Pop Top 100 hits that same year (charting simultaneously, no less!) with What’s Happened to Blue Eyes and You Ain’t Never Been Loved?
Why avoid these things?
One possible reason seems obvious, at least for those who know anything about Colter’s independent career. After all the dust settled from Jessi’s solo success and from the wider Wanted: The Outlaws album craze, the Jennings marriage was on the brink of falling apart by late 1976 and Mansfield would soon be on the way out after some apparently convenient but unfounded fiduciary allegations on the part of the notorious Jennings/Colter manager, Neil Reshen, who certainly turned out to be a paragon of fiscal virtue.
Bad blood? Bad memories?
Whatever the case, the relegation of late-1974, all of 1975, and Ken Mansfield to the margins seems too glaring a hole in Jessi’s story to be justified, even by the subjective standards of a memoir, and this was quite a disappointment for this lifelong Colter admirer.
Perhaps to compensate, we do learn quite a few interesting things about the personal motives behind some of Jessi’s greatest Capitol songs, like Storms Never Last, One Woman Man, Rounder, It’s Morning And I Still Love You, and The Hand That Rocks Rocks the Cradle —my personal favorite Jessi Colter song, a churning rock anthem that holds its own with anything written by Jessi’s male peers, at the time.
I like to imagine that Linda Ronstadt peed herself, a little, when she first heard that song. Peed herself in fear.
Because, on that song, Colter rocked rings around her, start to finish, up one side of the driveway and down the other.
Of course, all of these compositions were in some way connected to what was going on in Jessi’s relationship with Waylon, back in the day, but the insight she renders is powerful, nonetheless. Each song is described as representing a mood in the torrid marriage, and the way she and Ritz structured these bits make for a superb literary inclusion.
Naturally, Jessi relays some information about the genesis of the wildly transformational Wanted: The Outlaws album, which was released by RCA in early 1976 on the heels of her own big-selling follow-up Capitol album, Jessi. Once again, we get a myopic Waylon-rave: it was Waylon who put it together and Waylon who was brilliant enough to think of it and Waylon who blah blah blah.
That’s all probably true, to an extent, but I have to wonder whether certain folks in these outlaw circles would have sometimes preferred to endure successive root canals than give proper credit to label honchos and producers. Jerry Bradley of RCA made no secret of the actual circumstances surrounding the origin of the Wanted album, and Jessi played a very key role in those plans. In a 1990s interview, Bradley recalled quite distinctly:
“Waylon had been selling around 250,000 to maybe 300,000 albums up to that point. Meanwhile, Willie had sold a million records over at Columbia, Jessi had sold a million records over at Capitol, and I had back catalogue material on both of them. I was going to capitalize on that, whether Willie’s and Jessi’s labels wanted to cooperate or not. And they didn’t, at first. My plan was to include them and highlight Waylon’s photo just a little bit more so he could sell a million records, too.”
“Token girl,” my eye.
Jessi Colter was a big reason that Outlaws record even got made in the first place, from the horse’s mouth, if not from the Hoss’s.
Sadly, I have encountered way too many commentators in years far removed from that album’s initial release who believe (or assume) retrospectively that Waylon and Willie were doing Jessi some sort of “favor” by even including her on the project, at the time. That’s a case of revisionist history that needs to be addressed and corrected. But it also illustrates the perils of looking back at anyone’s personal or professional existence through what amounts to a casual glance into the limited dimensions of a rear-view mirror. Jessi deserves better “homework” on the part of some writers when it comes to such assessments.
Though more big recording success followed for Jessi (another No. 1, Mansfield-produced pop-crossover album in the hastily-cobbled but stellar Diamond in the Rough) the subsequent disappointment surrounding the relative failure of her Mirriam “spiritual album” in 1977 is also given detailed treatment. That was much appreciated, because the record’s release marked a change in her fortunes as a recording artist and I could never see why. As mentioned earlier, her Mirriam disc was the first record I bought with my own money, as a kid, and it quickly became a favorite. Even listening to the album today, it easily holds its own with her first three superb Capitol platters, in terms of originality and execution. Moreover, it is a quintessential Jessi Colter “roots rock” album; if she had changed the lyrics in such a manner that implied she was singing to a man (instead of to Christ) I don’t believe for a minute that the execs at Capitol would have batted an eyelash about its release. The idiots. Like all of her best work, it remains a superb song-cycle that stands the test of time, rife with great musicians and glorious musicianship. I rank it on a par with I’m Jessi Colter (1975), Jessi (1976), Out of the Ashes (2006) and, now, The Psalms, as superior American rock recordings by a troubadour(ette) of surpassing talent and style.
Jessi also mentions a bit about two subsequent Capitol albums, both of which were efforts of fine quality, but neither of which could hold a candle to the excellence of the above-mentioned sets, in my opinion. Mansfield’s production values and instincts were sorely missed on these recordings (That’s The Way A Cowboy Rocks and Rolls from 1978 and Ridin’ Shotgun from 1982) and I, for one, have never believed that her husband was the best producer of her material.
Interestingly enough, Jessi also spills a fair amount of ink lamenting the fate of her 1984 “comeback” album, Rock and Roll Lullaby, which was produced solely by Chips Moman for his fledgling Triad label. I remember buying that one at the Northern Lights mall in Plattsburgh, New York. It was the only copy they had, and I was lucky to get it, because apparently the label folded immediately after the record’s release and the album vanished from the bins in short-shrift. How a copy made it all the way up to our hinterland is a marvel, considering the circumstances, but I’m glad it did.
Colter calls Rock and Roll Lullaby the “favorite of my rock recordings,” and while that baffles me because it doesn’t remotely approach the quality and grit of her first four Capitol platters, it was a sterling return-to-form, in one sense, and represented the direction in which Capitol probably should have nurtured her career, once it became apparent that she wasn’t at all best categorized as a country music singer or churn-em-out honky tonk hitmaker. Namely, the focus should have shifted to Jessi Colter the rock/blues/pop/folk/roots chanteuse. Jessi Colter the stylist. The precursor of Norah Jones, if you will. I wouldn’t have wanted her to transition into a Rita Coolidge or a Crystal Gayle, to be quite honest, but an entire, well-promoted major label album of soulful covers along the lines of Spooner & Oldham’s Diamond in the Rough or their equally insinuating My Goodness?
I would have camped in line for days to buy it. And I have a feeling I would have needed to do so.
All of this leads me back to the earlier question about the nature of Colter’s artistic/professional ambition, and whether she possessed any. It’s a touchy subject for Colter, and she says as much in the book. A lot of reporters over the years have approached her under the assumption that she “sacrificed her career” to play the role of some sort of doormat to Waylon Jennings and his priorities. That’s a callous and insulting presumption, in my opinion, though I do believe that she cooled her own jets a bit in order to play the role of caretaker to hubby, and to their children –including son Shooter, who is now a tremendously gifted recording star and performer in his own right.
Waylon Jennings, for his part, spoke to the question in an interview from the late 1990s:
“Jessi had sold millions of records for Capitol and when she wanted to put out that [Mirriam record] for her mama, they didn’t want anything to do with it. It broke her heart, and she was never really into the business the same way after that.”
Even if Colter had opted out of the limelight in order to play a familial supporting role to her family, she shouldn’t be stigmatized for it. Little wonder she must be sick of hearing that narrative, by now. And the stories behind such developments are usually a bit more complex than even the artists can convey themselves.
For example, in one passage from the memoir, Jessi states explicitly that she had no interest in building the sort of publicity machine required to keep up with her musical rivals of the day. She has said as much in other interviews, and I believe her because she is a woman of honesty and candor. Even so, there are aspects of that answer which strike me as being a tad too facile. Not only because of her tremendous talent and originality, but because of another elephant in the room of Colter’s recollection: her looks.
After all, this is a woman whose album covers were carefully staged by the label and photographed by Roy Kohara, the artist who captured some of the most iconic sex-symbol images of the era (anyone remember a certain Farrah Fawcett poster?)
I have to imagine that someone, somewhere, in some smoke-filled Hollywood office, was plotting and planning to get La Colter into films. On that note, Jessi was indeed once slated to play the role of Robert Duvall’s wife in a planned-but-aborted 1980s production of the movie The Apostle: a role ultimately usurped in 1997 by … Farrah Fawcett.
Then again, on her first three albums, Capitol was also promoting Colter as a serious songwriter and artist; the cover and sleeve images –undeniably sexy as they are– testify to the fine line Capitol’s marketing department was walking in its presentation of a stunningly beautiful woman whose songs had to come first, as a product, and whose music could not be subordinated to mere imagery.
I also find it difficult to believe that Colter, who spent so much time at her piano, who studied music theory, who found herself signed to a major label, who was positioned so distinctly, with such mystique, with such careful handling and calibration, ever approached her career casually, as if it were a complete accident.
Yet, in another chapter of the book, Colter recalls meeting with a persistent journalist in the late 1980s, one who kept asking her about her career, her focus, and her goals, as opposed to Waylon’s. She demurred entirely, claiming that her career happened almost in spite of herself. And elsewhere she claims that she found show business to be nothing more than a “less serious” way to sing songs and entertain people.
I find that a bit hard to swallow and say the lady doth protest too much when it comes to the question of personal ambition, but that’s only one writer’s opinion. If someone in that industry is merely a blithe spirit, floating through the business, allowing things to happen “almost in spite of [one’s]self,” from sibling-arranged auditions to self-written albums to magazine profiles to husband puppeteering, one doesn’t stand up to a major record company and insist upon releasing a record they don’t want.
And yet Jessi Colter did just that, with her achingly beautiful Mirriam album. And I admire her for it, because (like most of her other records) it is one of the most original and striking works of its day, and she fell on her sword because of it. So I think there’s more to the story of her professional determination than meets the eye, and believe there’s no single, simplistic answer to the trajectory of her enduring but interrupted career.
It is difficult, objectively speaking, to see Colter as being an artistic entity who was led entirely by the hand through all of the processes of work, struggle, success, and stardom. Sometimes people ought to remember that, for a significant amount of time, Colter and Jennings were on competing labels, with very different business interests, obligations, demands, and bank accounts. (One of my favorite anecdotes in her book was when she described buying their legendary Nashville mansion, Southern Comfort, with her own royalty money because Waylon was broke at the time and they had maintained separate accounts! Ha!)
Perhaps it doesn’t seem so in hindsight, when stories are spun this way and that to suit what might be a currently predominant narrative, but Jessi Colter and Waylon Jennings were once competitors for the consumer’s dollar in the musical marketplace.
And, just maybe, therein lies the crux of the matter when it comes to a balanced perspective on the whole Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter dynamic and the question of her supposedly “sacrificed career.” Namely, I suspect we’re looking at the age-old abhorrence or disdain for the very idea that a wife could or should compete with her husband on an equal footing in the same office, so to speak … and if she does, complications are bound to ensue. It’s a subject and a construct that almost always attracts attention and draws a kind of reptilian –sometimes even lurid– curiosity, though it may be unspoken. Certainly at that point in American culture, even in rock music culture, the above-described scenario was hardly without precedent (James Taylor and Carly Simon, anyone?)
Anyone who knows her story knows that Jessi Colter has been quite content, ever since the mid-1980s and the end of her mainstream recording phase, to play the faithful sidekick in Waylon’s World. She is the shadow, the wife, the widow, the muse. But also a star, a partner, a survivor/thriver, and a creative power. Yes, much of what she communicates about herself seems to be refracted through the prism of her late husband’s admittedly genius personality, and as an admirer I do worry that her own genius-level accomplishments might be lost, partly due to her own ambivalence.
But you know what? That’s her lookout, not mine, and if I learned one thing from her lovely, compelling, page-turning, and highly recommended memoir, it’s that Jessi Colter is very happy with the way things turned out in her life, and finds every day of existence –past and present– rich with meaning. Comfortable on her Arizona ranch, she is still making fabulous music, still surprising critics and fans with her talents at age 73, still looking marvelous, and still looking –with God’s gracious help– towards a joyful and challenging future.
Let us wish the Lady Outlaw well.
In addition to Jessi’s spectacular album The Psalms, and her must-read memoir An Outlaw and a Lady: A Memoir of Music, Life with Waylon, and the Faith that Brought Me Home, I also recommend a few other good books dealing with the peak years of these fantastic “outlaw” artists. Waylon Jennings’s autobiography, Waylon, is a necessity. Any of Ken Mansfield’s books are likewise endorsed, especially Between Wyomings. Equally compelling is the fabulous memoir, Playin’ On the Tracks, by Carter Robertson, who sang with Waylon’s band for years and who was a vital part of Jessi’s Capitol recordings, as well.