CD Review: Jessi Colter, Out of the Ashes

Jessi Colter released her first solo album in 1970, shortly after her marriage to Waylon Jennings, but except for a couple of children’s releases, she hasn’t been heard from in over two decades. Yet her new Don Was-produced CD is every bit as vital as her early self-penned successes, like “Storms Never Last” and the 1975 hit “I’m Not Lisa.”

As the first release after the death of an iconic loved one – Jennings died in 2002 – Out of the Ashes bears comparison to Roseanne Cash’s powerful and elegiac Black Cadillac, but Colter’s voice, though supple, bears the honorable stamp of age and weather. In the hypnotic title track, which alone is worth the price of the CD, Colter’s voice fades in and out among fussy piano arpeggios – typical of the casual, slightly messy production. She does the same thing in the Patsy Cline-like “You Took Me By Surprise,” keeping her voice low, J.J. Cale style, among the rocking piano chords, forcing the listener to lean in to hear. The song’s mix of old-style Country & Western with turn-of-the-21st-century alt-country (cf. the Be Good Tanyas) shows us two things: there’s nothing new under the sun, and the sun should shine brightly on Jessi Colter’s comeback.

The elder Jennings’s voice (son Shooter also appears on the CD) emerges from the past on a duet of the Tony Joe White classic “Out of the Rain.” This slightly off-kilter but moving treatment can stand proudly with those by Joe Cocker and Etta James. The gentle, artsy “So Many Things” is a small glowing treasure. Colter gets down and bluesy in “You Can Pick ‘Em” and “Velvet & Steel,” devotional in the opening and closing hymns, playful in her cover of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” and back to country music basics with “Never Got Over You,” a duet co-written with Ray Herndon. The CD is a consistently sparkling constellation of American roots music.

With Rosanne Cash’s latest, knowing the backstory is an aid to appreciating the music. But Jessi Colter’s new CD, though it has a melancholy tone that suggests loss, demands no knowledge of specific lives. Its pure, raw, deeply human music is full of sweetness but entirely saccharine-free.