Jessi Colter, the Reluctant ‘Outlaw Queen,’ on Life After Waylon and Working With Margo Price on New Album

There are quite a few things Jessi Colter, of “I’m Not Lisa” fame, is not — besides Lisa.

The country music veteran laughs at the idea that she is an “outlaw queen,” even though one of her claims to fame is being one of the four participants included on the trending-setting 1976 album “Wanted! The Outlaws,” along with her husband Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser. Of course she has embraced the affection for that era, to the point that she has spent years producing an upcoming mini-series titled “They Called Us Outlaws.”

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But she doesn’t even consider herself “country,” believing that term belongs more to the South… and pointing out that her origins were really in pop. “Country accepted me,” she says. “But I’m from Arizona, more tending toward a cowboy/cowgirl feel — I’m that. But real country, I’m not.”

Argue that with her, if you will, after hearing her new Margo Price-produced album, “Edge of Forever,” which — not surprisingly — is awfully darned country, any hair-splitting aside. It’s the first time the 80-year-old performer has done an album that puts her squarely back in that genre (as opposed to spiritual or kids’ projects) since 2006 — and only her second such project since 1984. It’s taken a few years since the album’s pre-pandemic recording for “Edge of Forever” to come out. But fans of Colter — and certainly those of Price, too, who co-wrote and/or sings on a few of the tracks — are pleased the wait didn’t last forever.

When Variety caught up with Colter over the phone, she was in Wyoming and close to 9,000 feet above sea level, where her husband has a cabin that he takes their horses in the summer, before bringing them back to their full-time home in her native Arizona in the fall. She discusses the gradual process of friendship through which Price came to produce the new album; why she doesn’t feel compelled to keep pursuing her career full-time; how the process of grieving and moving on after Waylon Jennings’ death in 2002 is captured in the new material; and how listening to Ben Harper helped turn her overcome a personal roadblock.

It’s a rare occasion for you to record a new album. You had the “Psalms” album produced by Lenny Kaye about seven years ago. Before that, your last album of country songs was “Out of the Ashes,” produced by Don Was in 2006, and going back before that, it was 1984. You’ve been quoted as saying you thought you were done doing new albums, before this project.

Well, you know, I’ll probably never be done. I’ve been working for about eight years on this documentary (“They Called Us Outlaws”) that will come out next year for about eight years. Good things come, and I say yes when they come, so it’s not like I have to go looking or scratching for them. But like Carl Smith (the late country singer) said — even though he was a generation ahead of me, Waylon got to know him — he’d just always say he was “on vacation.” And that’s kind of how I am.

It sounds like you really hit it off with Margo Price. Did she have to talk you into doing a new album?  

It actually began with Jeremy (Ivey, Price’s husband), when I went out to a concert in Phoenix that Margo was playing. That was before she had the string of recordings and hits she’s had. I just wanted to take a look at her. Jeremy, in the back room, said to me, “It’d be so great to hear you do another album.” Then, in 2017, Harper had me do a big book signing on Facebook [for her memoir, “An Outlaw and a Lady”]. She had just come in from the road and I called her and said, “You want to come by and just help me on this?” She did, and then we started a friendship.

Then when she was playing Phoenix again, she came to my house. I’m out a little. I’m geographically undesirable, where I live, out with the horses and the ranches. She came and had me play some songs, and ShooterJennings (her son, the artist and producer)happened to be there visiting with his children. The boys (Ivey and Jennings) wanted me to play, so I got up and played piano with them. I gave Margo a beautiful, long, turquoise chain that I had, and it just started a friendship, where we talked on the phone and visited several times.

Then she called me — it was when she was still carrying Ramona; I think she was about seven or eight months along [in 2019] — and asked me to come to Nashville and cut some songs. It’s taken quite a path to get here (in releasing the album) — several years. Various things happened with the engineer, and I said, “I really want Shooter to mix this,” because he’s an expert at that, so that tied it up in a bundle.

Then we looked for the right company. There were three other offers, and interesting offers, but, we decided on Loney (Hutchins) at Appalachia Records. Margo had worked with him somewhat before, and he’s a very, very nice fella. I had not really worked with such a small label before and how that operates today, which is a little different, so both of our legal teams drug their foot. This is the long story to a short answer — but anyway, we got her done.

A song that I’m guessing could be particularly personal to you is “Fine Wine,” which was co-written by Margo with your daughter, Jenni Eddy Jennings. It at least sounds like it could be your story — the story of a widow coming to terms as much as she can in being ready to move on.

Right. It’s definitely a young either widow or widower. After that first punch, you just have to decide if you’re going to stand still or move forward. And, with God’s help, I was able to move forward. I mean, we worked together; it was a 24/7 relationship. Because I remember looking at the screen that was blank. Blank! And thought, “I can either fill it with all kind of things, or I can face it.” So, I did.

I remember one day I was in the pool and hearing Ben Harper, who I love, and he would drop songs in that made me know he had lost somebody — made me know he had a God relationship — and it really moved me. And I thought, “Well, maybe music does matter to people. Because this (Ben Harper song) matters to me. You know? Sometimes, whatever you do, you feel like it’s important enough to pursue, but you don’t really have a sense of yourself to other people unless they communicate it.

Margo said, “I think that your fans need to hear a current statement, Jessi.” And I couldn’t really write it, because I wasn’t ever one to grieve in public. That wasn’t where I could go. But this song describes the loss of a loved one, and Jennifer, of course, knew all the details and put them in there, in “Fine Wine.” Margo added to it and it turned out to be a beautiful song.

You have to go on. When you lose people you love dearly, if you don’t move on, you die with them. So I knew that was important.

Did you lose interest in working as much after Waylon died [in 2002]?

The band wanted to work. I worked for seven years, and then continued to write, continued to appear. But you know, it’s not like I’ve ever had to tour again. And I’m glad, because it was great fun with Waylon, and it’ll never be equal or quite the same. And so I just do special appearances that have meaning to me.

Let’s talk about where some of the other material came from, because I know it’s from a variety of eras or sources, and there’s at least one or two songs you’ve cut before, and some newly written ones. One of these songs is something from a tape that you got from Waylon that had been kicking around in a suitcase, or something like that, right?

Yes. I’d love to find the writer, but it was actually on a tape in Waylon’s briefcase. I’m not sure why he handed it to me, and we never discussed it further. I kept that and learned the song and I love it. I named it “Lost Love Song.” I don’t know who wrote it, and I don’t know what proof he or she could give me that they wrote it. I just think it’s a fantastic summation of a deep love. When you fall in love, you’re a little, like, in a prison — you’re stuck. And it’s such a beautiful description. I’d sit down at the piano and play it for no reason. Most artists that I came to know well carry around with them a song that touches their heart and they just want to sing it. Rodney Crowell, who’s a great writer, does that with a song called “I live on a great blue ball” (“Defying Gravity,” a Jesse Winchester song he recorded with Emmylou Harris). Songs like that just become a haunting thing, I guess, and this song, “Lost Love Song,” is a haunt to me.

I wasn’t sure Margo would agree (to record it), but she did. And she upped the tempo. She’s a drummer! She plays guitar, but she loves percussion. She upped the speed. And frankly, it needs to be more like a Vern Gosdin song —that’s how I sing it. It’s a sad, longing song. I’ve always been fascinated with unrequited love. Anyway, it just means a lot to me, and I don’t know if the fellow or the girl is living. It was sung by a man (on the demo), but there was no writing on it. It’s a mystery.

Maybe somebody will step up to finally claim authorship of this song… and you can hope they’ll be telling the truth?

Yeah. We’ll take a lie detector out.

“I Wanna Be With You” is one of the songs that Margo sings on with you, It’s interesting that you first recorded that in ‘84, and that you wanted to revisit that now. Why was that?

I’ll tell you the truth: “I Wanna Be With You” was written by Basil McDavid, who we called Mack. He was a comedian that had worked with Waylon in the early years, who came to live with us. We sent him to rehab, he came back and stayed for about eight years, and served as security for Shooter when he was just young and we were traveling. You may or may not know Chips Moman, one of the great producers of our era [who produced the 1984 album “Rock and Roll Lullaby”].  Chips went crazy over that song; he loved that, whereas I just thought it was a little kind of ditty, you know? And Margo liked it so much too. It’s a fun little innocent song to sing.

Of course, my early recordings and successes were in pop. And so Mack would say, when I’d sing that song, “Jessi don’t sound so country!” And I’m not country. You know, country accepted me. But I’m from Arizona, more tending toward a cowboy/cowgirl feel — I’m that. But real country, I’m not. You have to be born and raised in that to really understand it. But I loved it and loved the people in it. I think Ken Burns did a great job of showing the early country roots and so forth.

Anyway, so that song, “I Wanna Be With You” — it was always somebody else’s idea to do it… Chips and then Margo. Isn’t that funny?

Any other songs that have special meaning for you on the album?

“With or Without You” is really a fun song. Because I was watching a friend of mine — I won’t give you her name — whose fiance stood her up at the altar, and then I kind of was there to catch her when she fell and it was hard. So I wrote this song “With or Without You” and took from Bob Dylan’s quote, “if it’s not right, it must be wrong.” One of my big fans on that song was Stevie Van Zandt. His label (Wicked Cool Records) is punk and so forth, and we talked and he was interested (in a deal). Anyway, Stevie Van Zant, he says, “That’s my pick.”

And then on “Edge of Forever,” I actually borrowed from another one of my own songs. Part of that melody was on the first album that Chet Atkins and Waylon cut on me in Nashville (1970’s “A Country Star Is Born”). I would just die to have those earrings I was wearing on the cover; I don’t know what happened to them — they were like Spanish with onyx and gorgeous. Anyway! One of the songs on there was… you know, I won’t give you the title, because it doesn’t matter, but it was my song. So I’m within my copyright rights to rewrite a melody or use it (for the new track).

Lenny Kaye, who produced my last album — great guy, do you know Lenny? He is so funny. I was showing him this song that I had just about completed, and I said, “Standing on the edge of forever,” and he said, “You need to say ‘it’s now or never.’ Because I don’t necessarily rhyme. I write more in prose. But “now or never”? Ah, OK, that means I gotta give him an ultimatum. So, we did that. It was just great fun. And it’s a push/pull song… and kick butt. I like that song, and Margo really liked it, and wanted to name the album after it.

“Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus,” that song is a killer. I heard it in the Black congregation that I worshipped in for years in Nashville. James Cleveland originally wrote this song and I rewrote it, but didn’t take any credit because there’s no need to. It’s just an incredible, great spiritual. Shooter and Misty (Brooke Swain, his wife, are on it)… There’s certain songs like “Everybody Should Get Stoned,” or “You’ve Been Gone So Long” that need a gang sound, not just one, two, three voice but as many voices as you can stack. I loved how it turned out.

I hope it brings joy and fun to other people’s lives. Because these are all things that a lot of people walk through. In a way we’re all “standing on the edge of forever,” to be in life and have all that we have and enjoy it. We’re standing on the edge of the next life.

Some of the rhythms of the album unmistakably sound like Waylon rhythms, or songs from the “Outlaws” era. Was that Margo’s influence, wanting that in there, or just what feels familiar to you?

I love that rhythm. I found out it’s what they call the cotton-picking rhythm from the South, somewhere in Mississippi or something. I didn’t even know what it was or why it was, but it communicated with me.

There’s a young audience that has an interest in you, even though you don’t tour. It will probably increase when the documentary about the outlaw era comes out next year.

I’m glad the young people are looking for what happened, where, when, and so forth. The 28-year-olds have no knowledge, but I find and I hang out with them, because Shooter has been such a great son to me. He was coming up in L.A. and hanging out with different, really important people in the music business, and I got to be out there, trying to teach some of these young bands about Roger Miller and “Invitation to the Blues” and so forth. I didn’t always know what they thought, but they thought I was the outlaw queen. I come from that era, yes. But with my gospel roots and the sound of a ballad and the spiritual, there’s two sides probably of where I come from.

I told Appalachia Records, “You know, It’s going to be hard to do press on me.” And by the way, I appreciate you and your position, because we need you to give people a bump. You need to bump them and kind of wake them up to some things the younger generations don’t have, although they’re looking. And the phases (of life) are so surprising… what comes and what you draw. If your attitude is good, you draw good things… So I appreciate the call. I wish I had been reading Variety more; I haven’t seen it in a while. But it’s because I’ve been on vacation.

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