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Jessi Colter Moves On
By Rick Kelly   2006 CMA Close Up News Service / Country Music Association, Inc.

Jessi Colter was born Miriam Johnson in Phoenix, Ariz., into a devout Pentecostal family. Her mother took it as "a God-given fact" that her baby would be a musician, and Mrs. Johnson was absolutely correct. Young Miriam started taking piano lessons at age 5, and by 11, she had begun to write songs. When the church pianist left, she was forced to "learn to sit still through the service, and play hymns with many, many verses." 

Throughout her high school years, she continued to write songs and play talent shows, dances and local television shows in her native Arizona. She soon came to the attention of guitar legend Duane Eddy who produced an album for the young singer. After graduating high school, she adopted the name Jessi Colter, and went on tour with Eddy. The pair soon married and settled in Los Angeles. Colter began to write seriously and was soon signed to Chet Atkins' publishing company.

Meanwhile, Eddy befriended a young Country singer named Waylon Jennings and brought him to the attention of Atkins, who signed him to RCA Records. One evening shortly after, Eddy introduced Jennings to Colter in a local recording studio. Colter had a new song she needed to get on tape, and Jennings interrupted his session (recording The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood") to help Colter with her demo.

The couple would cross paths again a few years later. By this time Colter and Eddy had divorced, and Jennings was also newly single. Colter accompanied a friend to J.D.'s, a Phoenix nightclub where Jennings was consistently packing the house. He remembered Colter from their earlier demo session and invited her onstage.

"I don't even remember what we sang," Colter said, "but he was flirting with me on stage. I told him to call me in six months . and he did." The two singers dated for a year before marrying in 1969.

With Jennings' help, Colter landed a deal with RCA and released her debut album A Country Star is Born, which he co-produced. The couple teamed to record two hit duets; a cover of Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds" and "Under Your Spell Again."  By 1975 Colter had moved to Capitol Records where she recorded her breakthrough album, I'm Jessi Colter. The album went Gold and yielded her signature song, "I'm Not Lisa," a major hit in every English speaking country.

By 1976, Jennings' brand of "progressive Country" had begun to take hold among Country fans and rock fans alike. For years he, Willie Nelson and other like-minded artists had been going against the grain of Country's established look, sound and artistic sensibility. They were open to the influences of the great singers and songwriters of the day, and they willfully blurred the lines between Country and rock 'n' roll. 

The watershed moment was the release of Wanted: The Outlaws, a compilation of songs by Jennings, Colter, Nelson and Tompall Glaser that became Country Music's first certified Platinum-selling album. The success of the album caused their style of music to be labeled "Outlaw Country," and it propelled their careers into the stratosphere. 

Nelson and Jennings went on to sell millions of albums over the next two decades and both were eventually inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.  Colter continued to record as a solo artist with Capitol, releasing six albums between 1975 and 1981.

"I guess I seemed like the token girl, hanging out with all those crazy cowboys, but at the time, I was the only one who'd had a Gold album," Colter mused.

A few years after the explosion of the Outlaw movement, Colter gave birth to her only child with Jennings, a baby boy called Shooter, and the center of the couple's world. 

"He went everywhere with us at first," Colter said. "We had his bassinette in the back of the bus and everything went on just as rowdy as always." 

Eventually Shooter started school, and his parents began to curb their rigorous touring schedule to accommodate a more domestic life. Colter's recording career took a back seat to raising her son. In the late '90s, Colter released a pair of children's albums on the Peter Pan record label, and in February 2006, she released Out of the Ashes, her first solo Country album in more than 20 years.

In search of creative feedback, she took the first song she wrote for the album to producer Don Was, who had produced albums for her late husband.

"Bring me 10 of those and we'll go into the studio," said Was, who was knocked out by what he heard. He assembled musicians from among friends she had worked with throughout the years and began the recording process.

Working with engineer Ray Kennedy, Was and Colter crafted an album that documents her journey through grief and loss to acceptance and renewal. 

"I feel it's my responsibility to work to my full capacity, no matter what it takes," she said. "But it's been a rocky four years.  Waylon is woven into my heart, and I have to make very deliberate strides to function independently of him, but it's been absolutely life preserving to write the experience."

The album's recording of Tony Joe White's "Out of the Rain," features background vocals from both White and Jennings (Waylon). Shooter and Colter wrote and performed "Please Carry Me Home," originally recorded for Songs Inspired by the Passion of the Christ. And she co-wrote "You Can Pick 'Em" with Lyle Lovett and band member Ray Herndon.

Colter's eighth solo album entered the Billboard Top Country Albums chart a week after the newly released compilation of Waylon's 16 Greatest Hits. At the same time, Shooter's sophomore effort was climbing the same chart. It was the only time a mother, father and son have had albums on the chart at the same time.

Colter has enjoyed a life and a career that is unique in Country Music. From her early writing career, to having hits of her own, to being part of the first Platinum Country album and being the first lady of "Outlaw Country," Colter has handled her successes and her tragedies with singular grace. Asked what she's learned, and what advice she would pass on, Colter said, "Develop your craft, dedicate your ambition to the greater purpose that God has for you, and spend time with your art."

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