Jessi Colter Talks Faith, New Memoir and The Psalms

Recalls Early Nashville Days With Late Husband Waylon Jennings

Jessi Colter admits there have been times in her Christian life when she had lost her faith. But looking back, she believes God has always been there for her and will continue to be.

“There are prophecies over me that have yet to be fulfilled,” Colter said during our CMT.com interview. “And that’s always been my quest to find.”

Her new memoir, An Outlaw and a Lady, traces God’s accomplishments in her life and it goes hand in hand with her new album The Psalms with Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye.

In An Outlaw and a Lady, she takes readers through her life in music beginning with her childhood growing up with a Pentecostal preaching mother. Her first marriage with guitarist Duane Eddy is described as a time when she had lost her faith before she rediscovered it again during her second marriage with Waylon Jennings.

The passage recalling her and Jennings’ first recording session together at Audio Recorders in Phoenix is especially riveting. When Colter and Eddy arrived at the studio that day, Jennings was there recording a cover of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” which would later appear on his 1966 album Nashville Rebel.

Colter’s biggest secret at the time was her dissatisfaction in her marriage with Eddy, which she explains in her book never grew into anything more than a meaningful friendship. Although, she would never admit back then, the abandonment of her faith was a major contribution to her personal unhappiness.

Jennings was also unhappy in his marriage at the time, but there was no lengthy personal talk during their first encounter together — only singing. The song they tracked that day was a duet of the Colter original, “Living Proof,” a song ironically about a marriage gone bad.

In her memoir, Colter recalls their vocal harmony coming together naturally and that during playback, Jennings was grinning from ear to ear.

“Have any other songs?” he asked.

“A bunch,” she said, “but not ready to play for you tonight. You’ve got your album to record.”

“Well, don’t forget me when you start shopping those songs around.”

“I won’t,” she promised.

As she left the studio that day, she turned around to see if Waylon was looking at her. “He was,” she writes in her book. “Our eyes met and if eyes could talk, Lord only knows what they would have said at that moment.”

Colter and Jennings had been dating less than a year before he popped the question. Although she was scared of the kind of life they would share, she put all her faith in him. They exchanged vows on Oct. 26, 1969 at the Las Vegas City Hall with no bridal party, no parents and no family at all. His bass player was their best man. Looking back, she believes beginning a new life with Jennings was both a blessing and form of spiritual test. She remembers laughing throughout the day because she didn’t know what else to do.

“I knew I loved him,” she said during our Q&A. “Bottom line is you have a strong love, and it’s amazing what it will drive you to do. And in marriage, there’s threats. There’s challenges. It’s a building process, but I had to take the chance.”

In her book, she describes the period following their marriage as hectic, exciting, creative and disturbing.

They had moved to Nashville to be closer to Jennings’ label home RCA, and their transition into Music City life wasn’t without its challenges. They were moving every nine months, blending two families (Colter had a daughter, while Jennings had three children under 13 from his previous marriage) and encountering problems with management, which led to eventual financial disorder, all while Colter was in the studio with Jennings’ producer and RCA label head Chet Atkins recording her debut A Country Star Is Born.

Jennings’ first RCA records were released more than half a century ago — in May 1965 — and although their business relationship was often a stormy one, both entities prospered greatly working together. Atkins first groomed Jennings to be a “folk-country” performer, but while he could perform any kind of song, Jennings resisted all efforts that pushed him into any type of mold. His struggle for artistic independence contributed to his reputation for rebellion.

“My faith at that time was in Waylon,” she said. “It was a while after I began returning to my faith, but I still saw the need for him to have some creative freedom. Of course, with the success of Wanted! The Outlaws, it happened. But they didn’t even tell us how great that was doing until the very end. That was their way.

“Waylon loved Chet,” she added. “He loved RCA, but there were things about it that were disappointing. And he was feeling this passion of writing, searching for what the music should be, and I can’t explain it. Roger Miller had set things on fire. Hank Cochran was writing these great songs. Harlan Howard talked as if the atmosphere was music. Here was Waylon, who I always felt was artistically head and shoulders above everyone.

“Mickey Newbury compared that time in country music to Paris in the 1920s. Paris was ignorant to the greats who were trying to grow there, and they couldn’t, because nobody knew what they were doing. It was new.”

When asked what she misses most about her late husband and creative partner for 33 years, she said, “Everything.”

“I’m walking a very new ground,” she said, “Him being next to me was like this Great Wall of courage, talent and brains. So in this field as I step out more, it is more difficult at first and then I realize this is God’s will, and I must follow.

“But I miss his humor. Coming from Texas, he would lay down these one-liners that would be just great. And then his creativity — he was very driven. His way of romance was charming. All those things, they’re part of me. After you lose somebody, part of their spirit really does become yours.”

For The Psalms, Colter picked 12 from the Bible to sing over Kaye’s free-flowing original arrangements that blend Colter’s piano with primitive folk melodies, exotic Middle Eastern phrasing and stark instrumentals. For those who need a little refresher course in Biblical history, traditionally many of the 150 Psalms are attributed to King David.

“I constantly read the Psalms and it’s a daily direction for me,” Colter said. “There are many I love. So it’s a love affair with this beautiful poetry, and Lenny had this very airy way about him. When he walks in a room, he has this vibe. It just came together all so easily.”

But whether its with an original song or with a psalm, it always delights Colter to see others impacted by the work she continues to create.

“That’s pretty much the language of music,” she said. “I loved it when little girls would send me tapes of ‘I’m Not Lisa.’ I thought, ‘I’ve communicated.’ After losing Waylon, I was just figuring out how to live, and I had heard Ben Harper. He had lost somebody and dropped these great songs on this album, and I thought, ‘I need somebody else to say what I can’t express.’

“Ben Harper did that for me, and that was therapy. So it’s a long answer to a short question. But, yes, it’s a thrill to think that you communicated something that somebody else needed or may be experiencing in their own way.”

Lauren Tingle is a Tennessean and storyteller who eats music for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When she’s not writing or rocking out, she enjoys yoga and getting lost in the great outdoors.