Despite her legacy being forever tied to her late husband Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter cut fantastic country albums of her own both before and after she helped make the outlaw movement a family affair.
After a stint performing under her birth name Mirriam Johnson and being married to early rock guitar legend Duane Eddy, Colter followed Jennings’ lead and became part of Nashville’s early ’70s country music scene.
She stood tall alongside Jennings, Willie Nelson and others more interested in creative freedom than mirroring the then-stagnant Nashville Sound. That trio, along with producer and country singer Tompall Glaser and others, built a revolution from within off the solid songwriting of such talents as Kris Kristofferson, crossed with the hardened images of Johnny Cash’s prison albums and Merle Haggard’s prison stint.
During that storied period when the inmates ran the Music City asylum, Colter was more than a “good hearted woman” from Phoenix, Arizona and a rebel’s muse. As a soloist and Jennings’ duet partner on “Suspicious Minds,” she was as much a part of multi-platinum album Wanted!: The Outlaws as Willie, Waylon and the boys.
Since then, the gifted vocalist and pianist remained relevant, collaborating over the years with such fellow outlaws as Hank Williams Jr. and her son Waylon Albright “Shooter” Jennings. In 2017 alone, fans enjoyed Colter’s autobiograpy, An Outlaw and a Lady, and gospel album The Psalms, featuring longtime Patti Smith collaborator Lenny Kaye, issued by Legacy Recordings.
A stepping stone between the boldness of Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” and the women who are the true rebels of modern country, Colter deserves attention beyond her family ties or her participation in outlaw country, although both facets of her career led to several of these must-hear songs.
10. “Please Carry Me Home” (with Shooter Jennings)
Shooter celebrates a family tradition and exposes a new generation of fans to his mom’s amazing voice on this memorable duet.
9. “Why You Been Gone So Long”
A big part of the outlaw movement was a push for artists to choose what songs they recorded. Notice the quality of songwriters Colter turned to throughout her career. This particular cut was penned by the great Mickey Newbury.
8. “Healing Hands of Time”
Colter’s mighty voice and as sad a steel guitar arrangement as you’ll ever hear allow her to make a solid Willie Nelson composition sound better than ever before.
7. “Is There Any Way (You’d Stay Forever)”
Colter’s range goes beyond heartfelt ballads. She’s just as great when singing an upbeat anthem like this song or “Without You.”
6. “That’s the Way a Cowboy Rocks and Rolls”
This Tony Joe White composition becomes a beautiful and layered recording under Colter’s watch. Her lush interpretation is the next best thing to a great Emmylou Harris song.
5. “Hold Back the Tears”
Colter brought the right voice and mood to one of the better country-sounding Neil Young compositions off his 1977 album American Stars N’ Bars.
4. “I Ain’t the One” (with Waylon Jennings)
Of the numerous Waylon duets in Colter’s catalog, this catchy conversation between two tough customers stands above the rest.
3. “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name”
All this talk of outlaws doesn’t mean Colter hollered over whiskey-swilling stompers. Actually, most of her material furthered country music’s legacy of slower tempo love songs, as exemplified by her interpretation of this all-time classic.
2. “What’s Happened to Blue Eyes”
Among Colter’s great artistic statements hides this punchy, fun and pop-accessible song Dolly Parton probably wishes she’d recorded first.
1. “I’m Not Lisa”
It’s hard to miss with a hit-worthy song built around a great singer and gorgeous piano accompaniment. That’s why Colter’s first big solo hit remains her best.