Every morning, Jessi Colter rises in time to see the Arizona sun come up over her Rockin’ J.C. Ranch northeast of Scottsdale. “It’s so awesome,” she says. “I just go out and breathe it.”
Four years to the month after the diabetes-related death of her husband, Waylon Jennings, Colter is ready to welcome the warmth of the new. On Feb. 28, she’ll release her first studio album in two decades (not counting a children’s record), the stunning Out of the Ashes. But the way Colter explains it, her return to the music business has been just as organic and unplanned as her departure.
“I have never left my craft,” she says. “Me and my piano have always been very close. I continued to write.” But Colter says she could never get record labels very excited about what she was doing—and that she could never find the right producer. “I guess the elements didn’t come together before,” she says. “I hate to compare it, but it’s kind of like sex. If the right chemistry isn’t there….”
During her protracted absence from recording, Colter happily allowed her career to become subsumed by Jennings’. “Waylon was more than just a husband,” she says. “He was employer, father, husband and also this raucous cowboy.”
Longtime friend Don Was, who worked with Jennings and produced Out of the Ashes, saw the dynamic firsthand. “She just got kinda covered up by Waylon’s shadow,” he says. “He was an incredibly charismatic, huge personality, and when he walked into the room, that’s who you noticed. And I think what she did got lost.
“But she’s meant to do this. It’s what she’s done most of her life.”
Colter was born Mirriam Johnson in Phoenix, Ariz., which is where, after a failed first marriage to Duane Eddy, she met Jennings. They wed in 1969 and began recording hit duets, but Colter came into her own with 1975’s chart-topping “I’m Not Lisa.” As one of the four artists featured on 1976’s Wanted! The Outlaws compilation, she was part of country music’s first million-selling album. Hits followed into the early 1980s, including “Storms Never Last” (a duet with Waylon written by Colter) and “What’s Happened to Blue Eyes.” But after 1984’s Rock and Roll Lullaby,nothing.
That is, until she brought Was one of the songs (“The Phoenix Rises”) that she’d begun writing six months after Jennings’ passing. “It was mind-blowing,” says Was. “That’s a hell of a song, you know? And she had a whole lot of songs that were great. She just had this deluge of songwriting activity, and I think when that happens to you, you don’t know quite what to make of it. The songs burst out of her.”
Kicking off with the benediction of the gospel standard “His Eyes Are on the Sparrow” (a favorite of Waylon’s, as well as of Colter’s mother), Out of the Ashes proceeds through Colter’s new originals and blows the dust off Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & #35.” The album’s most startling moment comes on “Out of the Rain,” recorded several years before the rest of the album—and featuring, along with family friend Tony Joe White, the voice of Waylon Jennings. “I love hearing it,” says Colter. “Waylon sounds like velvet. He’s one of the most incredible voices of our time, and it’s a warm and wonderful sound. He just let his gentleness be so open.”
Throughout the recording process, Colter was encouraged by her son Shooter Jennings, who in the last year has launched a successful recording career. “He’s been my guru,” she says. “I’m just so glad to have a running buddy like Shooter. He’s such a cool guy.”
When his mother was looking around for inspiration, Shooter led her to classic rock from the Rolling Stones and AC/DC, as well as to modern acts like Ben Harper, The White Stripes, Queens of the Stone Age and Audioslave. “I’m keeping my eye on country,” she adds. “I love Miranda Lambert. I’m so proud of Gretchen Wilson. But that isn’t what inspires me.”
Now that she’s back in the groove, Colter is determined to keep recording. “I’ve got a number of songs I’ve written about various and sundry cowboys that nobody’s even heard yet,” she chuckles. Mother and son are planning to record an album together in late spring, for which Shooter has encouraged Colter to attempt AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ’n’ Roll).” “Every line in that song, I know what it means,” she promises. She also plans to collaborate with guitarist Lenny Kaye on an album based on the Psalms. She’s even considering a tour.
But for Colter, resuming a solo career means taking a place in the spotlight that she hasn’t held alone in decades, and retracing the steps she used to take with Waylon by her side. “I do better as part of a team,” she admits. “I kinda like to hide, but there’s no hiding now.”
The vulnerability is particularly acute in Nashville, which she and Jennings left in 2000 for Chandler, Ariz. The town is filled with memories—in the places, in the people, in the questions she inevitably is asked—and she has no interest in living in the past. “I love coming to Nashville, I miss all the people,” she says, “but I can’t take the nostalgia here too long.”
Looking far younger than her 62 years, with an easy grace and a welcoming demeanor, Colter seems to have found a degree of peace in the red-and-gold dawns of the Southwest. “I’ve gotten healed,” she says. “I’m harmonizing my past and present. I’m hanging out with some great, genuine people, cowboys and Indians. These people know how to live.
“And I’ve kinda learned to live. It’s taken a while, but I’m better. I’m increasingly better.”