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.
Jessi Colter :: PSALM 150 Praise Ye The Lord