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Episode 7: Jessi Colter

About Jessi Colter 

The most beguiling of “outlaws,” Jessi Colter wrote and performed hit songs including “I’m Not Lisa,” and “What’s Happened to Blue Eyes.” She was a part of the multi-million-selling album Wanted! The Outlaws, which won the CMA’s album of the year award in 1976. Her partners on that album included Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser, and Colter’s husband, Country Music Hall of Fame member Waylon Jennings. Colter talks here about a remarkable life in music, and about a remarkable life with Waylon.

Peter on Episode 7: Jessi Colter

Four headshots adorn the cover of Wanted! The Outlaws.

Three of them clearly are scamps and varmints. They are dressed as old western outlaws, but neither Tompall Glaser, Waylon Jennings, nor Willie Nelson needed to do much in the way of character acting to fit their images. These were men who received adamant prescription as slight suggestion, and who nearly always ignored that suggestion.

By the album’s 1976 release,they had bucked the Nashville music industry’s time-honored systems, won creative freedom, and sparked interest in country music among audiences who were deaf to the clean and pristine, producer-driven “Nashville Sound” that had dominated the 1960s. Wanted! The Outlaws was RCA Records’s admission that Glaser, Jennings, and Nelson had triumphed over convention, and that their triumphs were not only to be acknowledged, they were to be marketed, in this case with a compilation album that played up the “outlaw” tag.

Ah, but there are four headshots on that album cover. Three varmints and . . . a fresh-faced beauty named Jessi Colter, who possessed, as comedian Jerry Seinfeld once quipped, many of the attributes “prized by superficial man.”

Colter’s beauty was evident upon sight. Her artistry was evident the moment a listener placed a phonograph needle on a vinyl record that contained her music. Neither her appearance nor her sound would seem to place her in the company of Glaser, Jennings (by then her husband), or Nelson, but the key connection shared by country’s outlaws of the 1970s was a refusal to acquiesce to anything that stilted individuality. These were people who dug their own creeks on the way to the mainstream.

Colter’s life and career are irrevocably informed by her leathery leading man, but that marriage — sometimes difficult but always as strong as Jessi and Waylon’s close friend Muhammad Ali — isn’t what makes her admirable or important. For decades, she has been able to spin words and melody into creations rife with emotion and empathy.

She and son Shooter Jennings were of great help in providing ideas and artifacts for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s exhibition Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ‘70s, and her onstage performances of “I’m Not Lisa” and “Why You Been Gone So Long” were rousing highlights of that exhibit’s opening concert.

In this Voices in the Hall conversation, Colter relays her journeys with affable wisdom.