“You wanna run away?” a charismatic Waylon Jennings once whispered to his future wife, Jessi Colter. Though he had been divorced from his third wife for some time, Colter was currently in the process of going through a divorce herself and told him to ask again in six months.
“Would it do any good if I told you I studied for the ministry?” he pressed on.
Though their first date took place more than 40 years ago, listening to Colter recount stories of an enigmatic and “cute” Jennings, it’s as though she’s recalling yesterday’s memories. What’s also apparent is her undying love and admiration she feels for her husband and musical partner who passed away 10 years ago at age 64.
“Sometimes it’s just harder, a reminder that he’s not here,” she said of listening to his music. “But, at the same time, I just get into it. This has been fun.”
She’s referring to the newly released album Goin’ Down Rockin’, a collection of her husband’s final recordings. During her recent visit to Nashville in support of the project, Colter spoke with CMT.com to shed light on the country music icon whose musical philosophy helped create the signature Outlaw sound. The new album boasts 12 tracks of many unreleased songs including original Jennings-penned and co-written tunes.
In the years before his passing, Jennings had begun recording music with longtime friend and musician Robby Turner with the promise he would someday finish the project. Enlisting handpicked musicians following the Country Music Hall of Fame member’s death, Turner meshed their sounds to Jennings’ guitar and vocals to conclude the final chapter of the icon’s music.
What transpired is an assorted collection of songs Jennings felt needed to be heard.
Reaching for her purse, Colter pulled out the CD featuring her husband on the cover, black-clad and confidently posed with a guitar leaning on his hip. She began to carefully inspect the track listings.
“It brought back pieces of our lives,” she said scanning the songs.
“What I loved about his writing in the early days was his relationship knowledge between a man and a woman,” she said, commenting on his knack for capturing universality within his songwriting, specifically in the song, “The Ways of the World.”
Continuing on to the visionary gem, “Belle of the Ball,” a sharp-witted tune that once accompanied the flip side to his iconic 1977 hit, “Luckenbach, Texas,” Colter continued to praise her husband’s remarkable insight.
“To me, that song is just like prophecy, if you listen to it carefully,” she said, explaining how the tune’s hidden message is a poetic prod at the music industry.
There will always be someone
I guess that’s the way it should be
I guess I should know that someone used to be me
They’ll gather around her
Soon they’ll all look the same
At the feet of the lady are lovers without any names
“It’s something he foresaw happening, and it’s just a beautiful piece,” she went on.
Colter also expounded upon his poignant ballad, “I Do Believe,” an ode to his faith and beliefs, something Jennings grappled with for much of his life. Raised Church of Christ and according to her, “by the letter,” Jennings did, in fact, study for the ministry but didn’t agree with many of the organization’s principles. For one, music was not sanctioned by the church during this time.
“He was more Christian in more ways than many Christians,” Colter recalled. “He really was. He was fair and honest and courageous and true to his word.”
Nevertheless, the collection’s weightier topics effectively balance his characteristically rambunctious style. Evident in the lighthearted songs like “Wrong Road to Nashville,” “If My Harley Was Runnin’” and “Never Say Die,” Jennings’ booming baritone captured his ever-present, driving energy.
What’s more, Colter first recalled hearing the buoyant “Friends in California,” the collaborative brainchild of Jennings and songwriter Bill LaBounty early on in their relationship. With the song’s message of yearning to escape to the sunny state, she remembered feeling apprehensive and vulnerable.
“He had a way about him that he was very independent,” she said. “And he was gonna do whatever he thought he should do. I thought, ‘Is he upset about something? Does he want to go and hang out in California? Does he want to leave?’”
But it’s the album’s opener, “Goin’ Down Rockin’,” that she believes truly personifies the country music icon.
“It’s fitting,” she said smiling. “It’s exactly him. He was a party! He was celebrative. He loved life. He put himself into what he did. He just put himself into it, so it made it great to be around him. Of course, when he wasn’t so happy, you were a part of that, too. But, that’s OK because you knew where his center was to be — right with life.”
For fans yearning for even more insight into the country music icon, the album’s accompanying booklet contains compelling stories and numerous photographs of Jennings. On the first page, adjacent from a 1965 black-and-white photo of the singer holding a cigarette and talking into a microphone, is the bold quote, “I started out for Nashville with a yellow Cadillac and a yellow-haired woman” — lifted from his 1996 autobiography.
However, the opening paragraph later tells the story of him leaving Nashville for Phoenix with a “dark-haired woman and a black Cadillac” — this “dark-haired woman” being Colter.
“Yeah,” she confirmed with a chuckle. “I just thought it was sweet because we drove from Nashville to Phoenix, and it was a very sweet trip. He just loved Arizona,” she said. “That’s where he romanced his music.”
Though she admits it’s still a daily effort to work past his death, she’s moved forward with her life, developing positive friendships, relationships and has even dated.
Acknowledging her husband’s music was once a source of painful and bittersweet remembrance, Colter is now able to take comfort in his voice and hear him as an echo of support.
“And now it strengthens me to listen to this project,” she detailed. “It’s a resurrection of sorts, and yet he’s not there. So you have to deal with the emotional up and down of it. But at the same time, how great it is to have been involved with him and on this ride with him, to have him still very much a part of my life.”