Jessi Colter: Out of the Ashes

[27 February 2006]

By Mark Desrosiers

It was probably true love, that day in 1969 when Miriam Eddy (recently divorced from Duane) married Waylon Jennings, the world’s luckiest man (having given up his plane seat to the Big Bopper on February 3, 1959). Certainly, it wasn’t for money or fame: Jennings was then a hepatitic has-been, thousands of dollars in debt, experiencing a career drought that no doubt springloaded his transformation from sideman to outlaw pioneer (along with Miriam’s transformation into a honky tonk heroine named Jessi Colter). Well anyway, to make a very very long story short, Jessi Colter spent three decades as Waylon Jennings’s wife, recorded some records along the way, and now she’s alone (Waylon having had the gall to peg out just before Valentine’s Day 2002).  Out of the Ashes is her first adult record in 20 years, and as far as I can determine, the first ever concept album by a widowed former outlaw. As such, it’s a mix of tomfoolery and the sublime, with a little gunplay and squeaky bedsprings in there too.

Critics have never taken Jessi Colter seriously, and I’m guessing most outlaw fans did more fantasizing than theorizing about her recorded work. From “Suspicious Minds” through “I’m Not Lisa” and even up to the children’s records she put out in the 1990s, Colter really did seem like a shapely, beautiful, safe ‘n’ sane “outlaw”, more a raven-haired response to Olivia Newton-John than Patsy Montana reincarnated among us. So this record is a surprise: a handful of great songs, sparingly produced by Don Was, and Colter’s voice has never sounded more powerful and broad. I should point out that, whatever her motives, this is not a record cynically aimed at the alt-indie crowd, Loretta-Lynn style. In fact, Out of the Ashes more often seems a pious attempt to honor her late husband (and his maker), while confronting the reality of her own widowhood. The fact that this reality clearly includes vigorous sack time with god-knows-who (definitely not her memories) just makes the record that much more engaging.

Something’s been freed up inside Colter: I hear no more producers or spouses pulling strings and fogging lenses. She’ll listen hard to Jesus, sure, but now’s her chance to write and sing without fear or favor. That eager grappling at decades of pent-up wisdom (let’s not forget being something of a dutiful sex symbol) gushes forth in places like “You Took Me By Surprise” (wherein the sexagenarian widow growls “rock me gently” as if the sheets were still damp), and “You Can Pick ‘Em” (one whore after another). But the centerpiece of the record, the bit that takes your breath away even as someone’s watch alarm beeps Moldy-Peaches-style into the microphone at one point, is “So Many Things”. The piano drips down like a thawed stalagtite, a cello buzzes like a solemn bee, and Colter herself seems bewitched by the one thing the song is really about: memories of lovemaking. I think the cavernous rawness of this tune is what led Shooter Jennings to remark that the whole record is “dirty and messy like an early Rolling Stones record.” Well, a son’s love can exaggerate mom’s achievements, but this is certainly starker (and sexier) than anything she’s ever recorded. Even “I’m Not Lisa” (the smash hit with a co-respondent’s name in the title) seems cheery and baroque in comparison.

There are some bizarre moments, though. The exuberant cover of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” makes me wonder if her physician has prescribed some kind bud for her glaucoma or something. “Starman”—about getting laid by stars—seems a tad late coming from a woman who launched her career by marrying Duane Eddy in 1966, yet its earnestness seems to suggest a song that’s been kept inside her for forty years. And the star-studded “Out of the Rain” (featuring Tony Joe White and a ghost named Waylon) is much too soggy for a desert record like this.

On the whole, though, these are great, simple tunes that haunt us with their lust, sadness, and freedom (for that can be a joy of widowhood). That’s the concept this widow’s putting across, and I dig it. Just pray that your own momma can turn over enough glowing coals to sing a line like this when she hits retirement age: “When that canyon’s getting narrow, seems there’s room for one, that’s all”.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/jessi_colter_out_of_the_ashes/