Jessi Colter Discusses Waylon Jennings Tribute Project

"He Never Gave Up on Music," She Says

Nine years after Waylon Jennings‘ death, his wife and fellow performer, Jessi Colter, still speaks of him with immediacy and awe.

“It was not easy for me to go into a work on Waylon,” she says, alluding to the newly-released first volume of a planned three-CD set, The Music Inside: A Collaboration Dedicated to Waylon Jennings.

“There were days I couldn’t listen to the current thing they were working on,” Colter continues. “But I was present at a lot of the [recording] sessions. And I was like, ‘Waylon isn’t here, and I’m still a little mad.’”

She is happy, though, with how the sessions turned out. The acts performing on the 11-song collection include Colter, Shooter Jennings (Waylon and Jessi’s son), Alabama, Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, Sunny Sweeney, James Otto, John Hiatt, Kris Kristofferson, Patty Griffin, Trace Adkins and newcomer Chanel Campbell. The late Jennings’ voice appears on two cuts. The recordings were done over a two-year period.

“It has a lot of love in it,” Colter says of the album, “and a lot of respect.”

Producer and entrepreneur Witt Stewart proposed the project to Colter, explaining he had grown up in Jennings’ old stomping ground of Lubbock, Texas, back when Jennings was a member of Buddy Holly’s band.

Besides agreeing to organize, produce and finance the undertaking, Stewart also set up his own label, Scatter Records, to carry it.

Colter was ceded the right of final approval of the project.

Once the groundwork was laid, she and Stewart were faced with deciding which songs and artists to involve.

“I know really in the beginning all Witt had in mind was me, Kris [Kristofferson] and Shooter,” Colter recalls. “Then he started digging around in Nashville. … A number of people asked [to be on it], and Witt would either try to work with them or their record labels.”

One of the early volunteers was Hank Williams Jr., but there were complications.

“We wanted him,” says Colter, “but it took — oh, I don’t know — maybe nine months before he could get off Curb [Records] because Curb wouldn’t let him cut something outside the label. So we had to catch him between Curb and his next deal.

“We looked at the songs we were thinking about that hadn’t been done. So Hank went in [the studio] to do ‘Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.’ Well, it was 9:15 in the morning, and it kind of didn’t come together like he liked it. So he said, ‘Has anybody done “Waymore’s Blues”?’ I said ‘No.’ Well, he did a cut of ‘Waymore’s Blues’ you will not believe.”

Ultimately, the three founding members of the group Alabama — Randy Owen, Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry — reunited to record “Are Your Sure Hank Done It This Way.” In fact, their cut became the first single released from the album. Hank Jr.’s “Waymore Blues” will be featured in Volume II or III.

Another performer Colter has high praise for is Jewel, whose contribution is also slated to appear on a later album. She covers “Dreaming My Dreams With You,” and Colter calls it “probably the most soulful cut of any song I’ve heard of hers.”

Apart from Stewart and Colter, the key figure in creating the tribute was guitarist Reggie Young, who had played on many of Jennings’ live shows and albums.

Colter says that when Stewart suggested using Young and his wife, cellist Jennifer Lynn Young, as the nucleus of the studio band, she knew his musical sensibilities were in order.

“He had no way to know that I was the only one Waylon told that if anything happened to him, Reggie was the one he’d like to work with his music,” she said. Not surprisingly, Young plays on every cut in the first volume.

Colter joins voices with Sweeney on “Good Hearted Woman,” the iconic Waylon and Willie Nelson duet from 1975. She says Stewart had long contemplated having two women sing the song but was still casting about for the right ones.

Scott Borchetta, whose Big Machine Records is distributing the album, suggested he use Sweeney, one of his own artists.

Stewart agreed, Colter says, and then asked her to come aboard “to kind of validate” the pairing.

Colter subsequently learned that “Good Hearted Woman” was the first vocal demo Sweeney ever recorded and that she routinely includes the songs in her shows.

Oddly enough, Nelson is not on the project. “We tried to work with Willie,” Colter says, “but things just didn’t come together.”

The continuing interest in Jennings and his music poses the question of whether there will be a movie about his life.

“We’ve been close to two deals,” says Colter. “I’m now talking to somebody else. There will be a life story done, but it won’t be like any of the others. It will be much more from an artistic angle.”

Jennings continued to write songs up to the time of his death from diabetes, Colter reports, and had hopes of eventually returning to the road.

“He never gave up on music,” she says.