The holy seasons of Easter and Passover have just passed, with Ramadan to follow, but for outlaw country legend Jessi Colter and producer/guitarist Lenny Kaye, the poetry of the sacred is now, always and everlasting.
That's the case with Colter’s gorgeous, just-released album, The Psalms -- sparely arranged, impromptu renderings of Scripture, complete with her dulcet, plain-spoken tones -- as well as part of her newly published An Outlaw and a Lady: A Memoir of Music, Life with Waylon, and the Faith that Brought Me Home, which touches on her famed rough-and-tumble husband, the late Waylon Jennings.
“When I met them [Colter and Jennings], I realized that one thing that tied us together was that we all fought to make our own music pure,” says Kaye, the New Jersey native who got to know Colter from 1993 to 1995 while hanging in Nashville and cowriting Waylon: An Autobiography. “I stayed in a house behind their home, and clearly recall seeing Jessi at her piano singing the psalms. I felt so privileged to be part of those moments, to be treated as family by Jessi, Waylon, and Shooter [Jennings' son and avant-country phantom]. Talk to Jessi. I bet she leads with my long legs coming down the bunk of their tour bus.”
Colter does indeed recall the lanky Kaye, and how she and her husband took to the East Coast writer and “New York hippie type,” she says with a laugh from her home in Nashville. “Waylon knew integrity and felt respect when he came face to face with it, and he liked Lenny. I did, too.”
Jennings died in 2002, and Colter (with whom Waylon and Willie Nelson recorded 1976’s Wanted! The Outlaws, the first platinum country music album) recorded her last album in 2006, Out of the Ashes. “There was country in my background, but I was considered pop, really,” the singer says of the chart-topping 1975 classic “I’m Not Lisa.” She might not have been an outlaw to start, but Colter quickly became that genre’s queen.
Kaye, curator of the classic indigenous garage-rock series Nuggets, knows from queens who speak in poetic tongues, and he never forgot Colter’s sumptuous renditions of biblical psalms and the inner light that came from her improvisational way with sacred song. So, the daughter of a Pentecostal minister and her Jewish/Buddhist producer went at it, with Kaye turning pages of the Bible and finding psalm passages that moved them, and Colter allowing whatever music and vocals that came through to fly free.
Colter, who admits to coming back to her faith around the time of her last album, doesn’t see The Psalms as a singularly religious experience, but as a relational one, “person to person, me to my heavenly father. I come from a time where my minister mother was a faithful witness, and I spent time playing hymns while my mother was on altar call. Our hymns were closer to Baptist hymns than Catholic hymns.”
On The Psalms, it is as though she’s setting God’s poetic instructions to music, that Kaye was there simply to put them on tape and to position himself and his guitar in her path. Quoting from Psalm 119:54 in a quiet singsong fashion, she says, “I set your instructions to music and sing them as I walk this pilgrim way.” She stops. “These are God’s words. These are absolutes. This is what I believe firmly.”
Why wouldn’t those words and the automatic piano fills that came from her nimble fingers (“it wasn’t even like she was choosing notes as much as God was placing her there,” says Kaye) just flow through her like water? Kaye believes he was there to catch the drops, add his own religious remembrances (“Lenny brought up the lambs belonging to God,” Colter says of Psalm 95:7 and “for He is our God and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep in his care”), and patiently allow additional musicians over nine years to enter their world.
“No wine before its time,” says Kaye, who recorded Colter quickly during a long, two-day stretch in 2007 and waited for divine spirit and the dedicated collaborators to add their own delicate touches, mentioning the contributions of organist Al Kooper and drummer Bobby Previte.
Colter, who has since played The Psalms with Kaye at NYC’s Joe’s Pub as well as on an Outlaw Country cruise with son Shooter, sees her new album as a balm in troubled times.
“The psalms were always meant to perpetuate peace. They are loved by all religions -- Muslims, Christians, Evangelicals, Catholics, Jews. They are for everybody. And, yes, it would be nice if some healing came your way because of it, but, really, Lenny and I did it because we did it. Him playing off me and me just doing -- it is the sound of a very beautiful friendship. Several, I guess. It just … happened.”