Colter, Jessi

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Jessi Colter

Singer, songwriter

Jessi Colter had a string of hits in the 1970s beginning with "I'm Not Lisa," which went to number one on the country singles chart in 1975 and became a surprise crossover hit on pop radio. She was also the only female member of the Outlaws, a country rock supergroup founded by her husband Waylon Jennings. Their 1976 LP, Wanted! The Outlaws, became the first country music album ever to sell a million copies. In 2006 Colter released her first solo LP in 25 years, Out of the Ashes, which won critical accolades.

Colter was born Mirriam Johnson on May 25, 1943, in Phoenix, Arizona. Her father was a race car driver, and her mother, Helen, was a Pentecostal preacher. She began writing songs at the age of five, took piano lessons, and sang in her church choir. In her teens, she competed in local talent contests and occasionally appeared on Phoenix television programs. In the early 1960s, she met musician Duane Eddy, whose twangy guitar style influenced a generation of rock 'n' roll legends to come. He helped Colter cut her first studio recordings, and she began touring with him as a featured performer and backup singer. Her first efforts were released under the name "Miriam Eddy" after she and the guitarist married in 1962, but she had more success as a songwriter for others. She penned "No Sign of Living," which became a hit for Dottie West in 1965.

Teamed with Waylon Jennings

After her marriage to Eddy ended in 1968, Colter met Waylon Jennings, who was one of a younger, rebellious generation of singer-songwriters in Nashville. Along with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, Jennings was beginning to forge a new path in the country music industry after becoming "frustrated with the Nashville system of making country records, in which producers choose songs and singers are backed by interchangeable studio bands," explained New York Times music writer Jon Pareles. "He started producing his own recordings in 1972. At one point he supposedly threatened to shoot the fingers off any musician who looked at sheet music instead of playing by feeling. Soon afterward, he began recording with his road band instead of studio musicians."

Colter and Jennings were married in the fall of 1969, and Colter was signed to RCA Records, which was Jennings's label as well. She decided to use a new stage name, taking inspiration from an ancestor, Jess Colter, who had allegedly ridden with the outlaw band led by brothers Frank and Jesse James. A Country Star is Born was her first release as Jessi Colter in 1970, and it featured two duets with Jennings, both of which made appearances on the country singles chart. At the time, RCA attempted to market her as the next Bobbie Gentry, the female singer whose "Ode to Billie Joe" was one of the music industry's top-selling singles of 1967, but the label then seemed to lose interest.

"I'm Not Lisa"

Capitol Records signed Colter in 1974, and I'm Jessi Colter was released a year later. Its first single, "I'm Not Lisa," reached number one on the Billboard country singles chart on May 24, and went on to chart on the Pop singles rankings that summer. Its plaintive piano and Colter's first-person lyrics, in which she attempts to soothe a lover haunted by a previous relationship, made it one of the most enduring country songs of the decade, and also made Colter a household name. The LP itself even cracked the Top 50 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart, which rarely occurred with a country music release. Colter was nominated for several Country Music Association awards, including Single of the Year, Song of the Year, and Female Artist of the Year, but failed to win; her hit song was also nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Female Country Vocal Performance category, but lost to Anne Murray's "Love Song."

Colter's post-"Lisa" single, "Whatever Happened to Blue Eyes," was only a minor crossover hit, but her U.S. tour was sold out in several cities in the summer of 1975. She returned to Nashville, where she had settled with Jennings, and went to work on her second LP. Jessi, released in 1976, broke new ground in country music, and critics have deemed it the best example of Colter's talents as a songwriter. Its first single, "It's Morning (And I Still Love You)," peaked on Billboard's country singles chart at number eleven, and the album itself reached number four on the country album chart.

In 1976 Colter also recorded an album with Jennings and his friends Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser. Wanted! The Outlaws shot to number one on the Billboard country chart; it also made it into the Top Ten on the Pop Albums chart. It was the first country music release to reach platinum certification by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), selling more than a million copies. It featured Colter and Jennings's duet "Suspicious Minds," a cover of a 1968 Elvis Presley song, and their version peaked at number two on the Billboard country singles chart. Wanted! The Outlaws also won the Country Music Association's Album of the Year honors.

Appeared on The Dukes of Hazzard

Colter managed to release a third album in 1976, Diamond in the Rough, which sold nearly 500,000 copies and made it to number four on the country albums chart. Its first single, "I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name," peaked at number 29 on the country singles chart, however, marking the beginning of a career decline for Colter that was aided by label executives unsure of how to market her to fans. When she failed to have any more crossover successes after "I'm Not Lisa," a decision was made to position her as a classic country balladeer. Her 1978 album, That's the Way a Cowboy Rocks and Rolls, did not feature any of her own songs, and seemed calculated to appeal to the widest possible audience of country music fans. While on tour in support of it, Colter also participated in one of the first movie-music cross-promotional tie-ins in country music with an appearance on the first season of the hit television series The Dukes of Hazzard.

Colter had a son with Jennings in 1979, whom they named Waylon Albright Jennings, Jr., but soon dubbed "Shooter." She returned to the studio with her husband for a 1981 release on RCA, Leather and Lace. Its title song, however, did not appear on the record; written by Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, Nicks decided to record it herself with Don Henley of the Eagles, whom she was dating at the time. The Colter-Jennings LP did produce a pair of hits, "Wild Side of Life" and "Storms Never Last."

For the Record …

Born Mirriam Johnson on May 25, 1943, in Phoenix, AZ; daughter of a race-car driver and Helen (a Pentecostal preacher) Johnson; married Duane Eddy (a guitarist), 1962 (divorced, 1968); married Waylon Jennings (a singer, songwriter, and guitarist), October 26, 1969 (died 2002); children: Waylon Albright "Shooter" Jennings.

Recorded as "Miriam Eddy," 1960s, and toured with Duane Eddy as featured performer and back-up singer; worked as country music songwriter in Nashville, late 1960s; signed to RCA Records and released A Country Star is Born as "Jessi Colter," 1970; signed to Capitol Records, 1974; recorded and toured with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Tompall Glaser as "The Outlaws" after 1976; Released Out of the Ashes, 2006.

Awards: Album of the Year Award, Country Music Association, for Wanted! The Outlaws, 1976.

Addresses: Record company—Shout!Factory, 2042 Armacost Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90025.

As the 1980s began, country music was experiencing immense changes, and Nashville executives sought to replicate the success of the 1980 hit movie Urban Cowboy and its slicker sound. When Colter's next album for Capitol, Ridin' Shotgun, failed to make any chart appearance at all in 1981, the label declined to renew her contract. Colter spent the first few years of the decade taking care of Jennings, who barely ate and reportedly was spending as much as $1,500 a day on his drug habit. Finally, in 1984 the family moved to a remote ranch in Arizona so that Jennings could quit cocaine and amphetamines cold-turkey. He later gave immense credit to Colter for staying with him during the rough years. "She never gave up," he told People magazine years later. "I have black-white, yes-no, right-wrong. But she can see both sides. If she thought the same way I did, she'd have run me off a long time ago."

Comeback Album Won Kudos

Colter and Jennings stayed in Arizona and raised their son there. When the reporter from People magazine came to visit them in 1994, a 15-year-old Shooter declared "I hate most country music. I mean, I despise it." By the end of the decade, Shooter was performing in a Los Angeles-based southern rock outfit called Stargunn, and went on to release three solo records. Colter, meanwhile, still toured and performed live with Jennings over the years, and released two albums of children's music. Jennings died in 2002 of complications from diabetes, and her grief became the starting point for a new batch of material. "Waylon was so much a part of me," she told Chuck Yarborough, a writer with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "He was employer, inspirer, producer---all those things—plus husband and father. So much of my life was gone, so I went back to what was familiar to me: me and my piano every day."

Those songs of loss and grief she wrote became the basis for her first solo record since 1981, Out of the Ashes. Released in 2006, it was produced by legendary studio engineer Don Was, and even featured vocals from Jennings in the duet "Out of the Rain," which had been recorded before he died. "There's enough emotion and heart here to send shivers up the spine," wrote Shane Harrison in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the record. He singled out the duet as "a stirring, gospel-influenced tune about the transformative power of love." Afterward, Colter began working on new songs for another album, this one to be produced by her son. Almost 65 years old, she was enjoying her comeback immensely. "My life has been a great ride," she told Billboard's Phyllis Stark, "and I'm not about done."

Selected discography

A Country Star is Born, RCA, 1970.

I'm Jessi Colter, Capitol, 1975.

Jessi, Capitol, 1976.

(With Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser) Wanted! The Outlaws, RCA, 1976.

That's the Way a Cowboy Rocks and Rolls, Capitol, 1978.

(With Jennings) Leather and Lace, RCA, 1981.

Ridin' Shotgun, Capitol, 1981.

Rock and Roll Lullabye, Triad, 1984.

Just for Kids, Peter Pan Records, 1994.

Out of the Ashes, Shout! Factory, 2006.

Sources

Periodicals

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 28, 2006, p. E1.

Billboard, March 4, 2006, p. 40.

New York Times, September 14, 1975, p. 112; February 14, 2002.

People, October 22, 1984, p. 102; Fall 1994 (Special Issue), p. 40.

Philadelphia Inquirer, March 7, 2006.

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), February 23, 2006, p. F4.

—Carol Brennan