Jessi Colter withdrew from the public eye following her husband Waylon Jennings’ death in 2002. Colter was part of the original Wanted: The Outlaws album in 1976 with Jennings, Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser. She began occasionally performing in public again after son Shooter Jennings completed his debut album Put the ’O’ Back in Country in 2005. She recently released Out of the Ashes, her first solo album in more than 20 years. Here, she discusses her return to recording and performing.
I understand that Ben Harper was a factor in your deciding to record again.
During those first few months that are so trying [after Waylon’s death], I was out in the pool one day, and I had been listening to Ben Harper’s album. Ben had been through some tragedy, and he knew the bite of death. The creative way that he handled it and his free-flowing style and all that, as I listened to him, I thought, “Music is important.” I began to thaw out and could begin to express myself during that period. But he actually opened me up, and it made me realize that I’d always been on the giving end of music and creating. … I thought it really is important, during those times, to say I choose to live — literally to say it — because, whether you know it or not, half of you is not there. So you have to begin rebuilding some kind of good memories into this huge hole, and there’s just no vision. You have no ground, no vision, so his music was such a great comfort. Ben’s style opened me up to the possibility that maybe I would be accepted. He said he’d seen my picture on his door all his life because his mother had bought the Outlaws album and put it up there. And he’d been looking at me for years. Is that not serendipity?
How did you connect with Don Was to produce the album?
Well, after I began writing, I thought, “I’m on to something, but it’s kind of radical and certainly very vulnerable and very different.” So I went to Don in L.A. because I was hanging out with Shooter, you know, running the streets with the musicians who were really into their music. And that’s what made me feel good. And I said, “Don, let me show you something I’ve written. … Just give me a reading.” I was kind of lost. And he just flipped out and said, “Jessi, give me 10 of those [songs], and we’ll record.”
As I began to continue to write and take it to him, his reaction was just more than I could have ever asked for. He said, “The hand of God is on Jessi. I’ve got to cut her.” He just blew me away. So certainly I was encouraged, and I continued writing and recording. Twenty-two songs altogether, and we just weeded out which ones we’d use and came to Nashville and cut it. Some time passed, and then we decided to go back and remix it. Ray Kennedy [the album’s engineer] reminds me a little more of Glyn Johns in his ragged, funky kind of way — which really went with it. Shooter really loved it. He said, “Mom, it just sounds messy, like some of the early rock records do. I really love the way it sounds. It’s so dirty.” And I was like, “OK, Shooter, whatever you say. It’s just what it is.” … It just all happened in my stride.
There is a very spiritual feeling to the album. You were raised in church music because your mother was a minister. You sang and played piano in church.
It was much of my discipline. There was a time I left my faith, but when I came back, it has just been my backbone. “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” [the song which opens her album] was one of Waylon’s favorite songs that I sang. It was one of my mother’s favorite songs. Mother was a great force in her area of evangelism. Waylon was such a great force in music. And here is this song that they both loved, this song about how God watches a little bitty sparrow. In our depths, I think we all feel very small in relation to the greater universe and God. That song just says, “I’m just not alone,” and I think we all need to say that. But it’s something I do regularly. It’s part of what I do at my piano — the hymns — and then I write. If you stopped writing, what would happen to you? If I stopped writing and being at my piano, I wouldn’t know how to live. It’s your best friend, you know. Expressing yourself is so much a part of the gifts that come with creativity, and getting it out is very important. So the fact that this is getting released, and people are just now hearing it, kind of tickles me. This is just awesome that the media is open and excited to talk to me and find out what’s happening. I’m very happy. I was little scared because it’s such a big bite. I always kind of like working in and out of somebody else, but I’m working without a net. Help me!
Shooter’s progress is impressive.
Yeah, I am so proud of him. Isn’t that fun? I’ve got my blue aviators somewhere. I’m wearing it in honor of his “You Can’t See My Tears Behind My Aviators.” Is that not the most dark humor, redneck thing? Can you not see every snuff-dipping, tobacco-chewing redneck guy? … Before he had anything [music] out, we went down to DukesFest to work The Dukes of Hazzard festival. Here is the heartland of these rednecks, and Shooter gets them all singing with him, “A Country Boy Can Survive.” Here’s this long-haired kid, and somehow he gets them. It’s great. The people love him. I loved it when I saw him on Marty Stuart’s midnight jam [during the CMA Music Festival]. I came to be with him, and he got these dyed in-the-wool country people standing on their feet with an encore, a standing ovation. So they’re reading something. And what I felt is the same kind of love I felt between Waylon and his audience. And that’s what I miss.
And these new artists are wonderful to me — Kenny Chesney, Gretchen Wilson, Keith Urban. I go out to their concerts, and they are wonderful to me. Of course, Keith is so into his music, and I love that about him. … But that love between the audience and Waylon was so strong, and it’s there with Shooter. It’s that love thing. I see some some of these other guys, and they’re wearing the hats and they’re wearing the jackets and saying the words and they’re relating and they’re picking. But there’s not this love thing. There’s something missing.
Shooter’s about to cut an album that’s going to warp science. It’s going to be a year that you won’t believe. … He cut some tracks, he was 14, 15 then, with Waylon. One of them was “White Room” from Cream. Shooter made Waylon write a couple of rock songs with him. He was just doing these tracks with ProTools and stuff like that. He’s gotten the tracks, and he’s going to put his band with them. … It’s something that’s not going to appeal to just rock people. It’s going to appeal to country people. There’s something in there. There’s Waylon’s voice singing “White Room.” You wait until you hear it. And then, he’s going to cut one of my next albums, and the song he wants me to start with is [AC/DC’s] “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ’n’ Roll).” Of course, it’s not going to be like AC/DC, but he says, “Mom, you know what every line in that song means.” And so, it’s just so fun.
My cowboy friends say, “You’re never going to have your own identity. You’re Waylon’s wife and then you’re Shooter’s mother.” That’s just how I like it. I can handle it. It’s fun. I’m having a good time watching Shooter. … He’s a good kid. He’s been a good son to me. He has never failed. In the beginning [following Waylon’s death], I never leaned on him when I was down. I kept that to myself the best I could. But this one time, I could not pull out of this. … So this time I was just down, he’s on the phone to me, “Mom, don’t be down.” And the next thing I know, he says, “Jessi!” He snapped me out of it, and I just broke out in laughter.