Jessi Colter takes a sip of wine.
She’s ordered a white, something not too tart. Apologizing, she tips a carafe and adds a liberal splash of water to her glass. She tastes again. It’ll work. With a slight adjustment, the First Lady of Outlaw Country.
We’re seated at a small wine bar called the Living Room at DC Ranch in Scottsdale, its garage-style doors open to an unusually warm March evening. Colter has spent much of her life in Arizona; she grew up here, raised Mirriam Johnson in the mostly Mormon town of Mesa, where she attended a Pentecostal church before wandering off to Topanga Canyon in 1961 with her then-husband, guitarist Duane Eddy. When that marriage ended, she found her way back to Phoenix, where she met Waylon Jennings, a country rebel known around town for his electrifying sets at local club JD’s. The two quickly fell in love. They married and headed to Nashville, where she released albums like I Am Jessi Colter and Mirriam and recorded hits with Jennings, like their cover of Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”
Along with recordings by Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, Tanya Tucker, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Jennings and others, her LPs helped define the burgeoning outlaw country movement, an expression of the desire to rough things up a little in the button-down music city.
But the desert kept calling to her, and she returned to Arizona in the late ’90s with Waylon in tow. He passed away in 2002 from complications involving diabetes and was buried in Mesa. She’s remained here since, frequently heading out to Los Angeles to visit her son, Shooter Jennings and his family.
The Living Room is a nice enough place, but given its chipper waitstaff and top 40 playlist, it’s an incongruous setting to discuss Colter’s two new projects, both intense documents of her faith. First, a memoir, An Outlaw and a Lady, about her life with Jennings and her lifelong Christian faith, and The Psalms, her remarkable new album. Produced by Lenny Kaye, with whom Jennings collaborated on his own book, Waylon: An Autobiography, the record features Colter on piano, mostly improvising chording and melodies, singing from the Old Testament psalms of King David.
The “aching and paining in misery” of the warrior poet’s words has long been a comfort to Colter. After Jennings’ death, she began devoting herself to the Old Testament book, finding in the prose a sustaining expression of humanity. The resonance of the psalms, Colter says, stretches across multiple faiths. “Muslims, Christians, Jews,” she says, “King David is very important [to them all].” The roots of the project stretch back a decade, when Colter began collaborating with Kaye, sitting at the piano in her home, singing direct quotes from her family Bible, a treasured gift from Waylon. For later sessions, she recited from Kaye’s bar mitzvah Bible.
The early takes were entirely improvised, and over the next ten years Colter and Kaye augmented them. Often, the resulting record take on an avant-garde tone, with Colter chanting the words over rumbling piano and Kaye’s ambient production. Though the country never leaves Colter’s voice, to call the album “Americana” requires a suitably broad definition. It fits more comfortably under the designation “spiritual music,” thematically connected to the goals of John and Alice Coltrane, George Harrison, The Staple Singers, Leonard Cohen, and Judee Sill, or even the ecstatic raves of Kaye’s longtime musical partner Patti Smith. The sonic terrain is different, but the goal’s very much aligned: to make truly worshipful music. To speak and connect directly to the divine.
“I’m relational,” Colter says. “I relate to God. I relate to Jesus Christ.”
She wanted to illustrate her attachment “to God, to a perception of the infinite,” with the record. And she wanted to put her continuing revelation to music. “He can reveal himself in a day to somebody who’s never seen it, who’s never understood it,” Colter says of her creator. “I don’t have a clue how He does it. So that came to me, longing and looking.”
Colter’s “perception of the infinite” never feels out of touch on The Psalms. But An Outlaw and a Lady does touch on her doubts and struggles. “A nonbeliever. Is that what I had become?” she writes, of her early days in California, attracted to “New Age thinking” and Objectivism. “At the start of my twenties, I entered what would prove to be a long period of agnosticism.”
Colter found her way back, but as she writes about returning to her faith, she does so in a way that never feels self-righteous, but rather, exploratory. Folding in references to the hippie friendly “Jesus movement” (its practitioners self-identified as “Jesus freaks”), Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and Catholic scholars, she finds beauty in multiple strands of the Christian faith.
Eventually, she found spiritual home among a congregation of black worshipers at Greater Apostolic Christ Church in Nashville. “The teaching was vivid and direct,” Colter writes. “That was where I lived it.” Colter’s Christianity feels inclusive and mystic. She pulses with warmth discussing it, driven by a spirit equally rooted in curiosity and devotion. As such, she was nervous to share The Psalms, fearful those words might lose their worshipful power for her personally when shared with listeners and audiences. The recordings felt reverential to her, more like private prayers than her own songs.
“There’s something solitary about me as a writer,” Colter says. “When I spoke with Roger Miller about co-writing one time, I said ‘Roger, do you ever co-write? He said, ‘Uh, yeah, but I’m kind of like a coon, I just like to take my stuff in the corner and work on it.’ I’m a little like that. A lot like that. I couldn’t write a song with people in the room.”
But interpreting the poetry of David felt like an entirely unique challenge — beyond the creative process, singing these songs required bearing witness.
“These are words I have lived on and because I have fed off them, I almost didn’t want to share them,” Colter says. “I’m careful, because they minister me every day.”
Her writing about Jennings is no less considered. Though she doesn’t shy away from his various struggles, chemical and spiritual, An Outlaw and a Lady isn’t a brazen tell-all about her life with Waylon. It’s a tender look at their time together, their shared joys and pains, but ultimately, it’s a book about faith — Colter’s and the one Jennings came to near the end of his life — and how to implement that faith in creative action.
Jennings’ bombastic presence has continued to linger over many conversations Colter has. Interviewers have even asked her if she was thinking of Waylon when singing the songs on The Psalms, she laughs.
“No, I wasn’t thinking of Waylon at all,” Colter says. “This is King David’s work. I don’t want to take it lightly.”
She did however, from time to time while recording, think of her mother. Helen D. Perkins Johnson was a fervent Pentecostal apostle, whose preaching she remembers at that church in Mesa.
“I just remember my mother had a way of eloquence,” Colter says. “She commanded the English language. She was from Kentucky; passionate but also very educated.”
Recording with Kaye, pulling from the ancient Jewish praises, it’s easy to imagine Colter finding her way back to that inner state, surrounded by family, alive to the mysteries of the universe as only a child can be.
“It was a heavy worship,” Colter says, finishing off her watered-down wine with a smile. “A heavy worship.” words/j woodbury