Captivating the Hearts of Country Music Lovers: The Story of Jessi Colter
Jessi Colter, born Mirriam Johnson on May 25, 1943, is a remarkable American country singer who has left an indelible mark on the music industry. Her unforgettable collaborations with her husband, the renowned country musician Waylon Jennings, have made her a household name. However, it was her 1975 crossover hit, “I’m Not Lisa,” that catapulted her to superstardom.
During the mid-1970s, Colter emerged as one of the few female artists in the “outlaw country” movement. Inspired by her encounter with Jennings, Colter embarked on a journey to pursue a career in country music. In 1970, she released her first studio album, “A Country Star Is Born,” which showcased her incredible talent. Five years later, Colter signed with Capitol Records and released the sensational track “I’m Not Lisa.” This remarkable song soared to the top of the country charts and reached the prestigious top five on the pop charts. In the same year, she contributed to the collaboration album “Wanted: The Outlaws,” which achieved Platinum status certified by the RIAA.
Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Colter grew up in a devout Pentecostal household. Her mother, a Pentecostal preacher, and her father, a racecar driver, shaped her upbringing. Remarkably, at the age of eleven, Colter became the pianist at her local church, showcasing her musical talent from a young age. After graduating from Mesa High School in 1961, she began performing in local clubs in Phoenix.
In 1961, Colter married guitarist Duane Eddy and released two singles under her birth name, Mirriam Johnson. The first single, “Lonesome Road,” gained some airplay in various US markets but did not achieve national recognition. After an unsuccessful second single, Colter took a break from recording for nearly a decade. She continued to tour with Eddy until their divorce in 1968.
The following year, Colter crossed paths with country artist Waylon Jennings, who played a pivotal role in helping her secure a recording contract with RCA Victor. In 1970, she reemerged under the stage name “Jessi Colter” and restarted her recording career. Collaborating with Jennings, she achieved success with two top 40 country hits. Colter’s debut album, “A Country Star is Born,” co-produced by Jennings and Chet Atkins, unfortunately did not make a significant impact on the country music scene. Despite this setback, her face graced several of Jennings’ album covers during this period.
However, everything changed in 1975 when Colter signed with Capitol Records. Her debut single with the label, “I’m Not Lisa,” marked a turning point in her career. The song became a sensational hit, reaching number one on the Billboard Country Chart and peaking at number four on the Billboard Pop Chart. Colter’s second album, “I’m Jessi Colter,” released the same year, achieved remarkable success, topping the Cashbox Top Country Albums chart and reaching number four on the Billboard Country Albums Chart. The album even secured the fiftieth spot on the Billboard 200 Top 100 Pop Albums chart. The follow-up single, “What’s Happened to Blue Eyes,” also made waves, reaching number five on the Billboard Country Chart and leaving a lasting impact on the pop charts. The B-side of the single, “You Ain’t Never Been Loved (Like I’m Gonna Love You),” also made it onto the Top Pop 100 chart in 1975.
With a dual release strategy for the Pop and Country markets, Capitol faced some marketing challenges, leading to confusion among programmers about which single to play. Despite the confusion, “What’s Happened to Blue Eyes” soared into the Country Top 5. However, Capitol’s belated decision to declare it as the official single could not replicate the success of “I’m Not Lisa” in the Pop Top 40.
Nevertheless, Colter’s second single achieved tremendous success in the country and pop genres. That same year, she embarked on a nationwide tour as part of Waylon Jennings‘ program at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. In 1976, Colter released her second and third studio albums with Capitol, titled “Jessi” and “Diamond in the Rough.” Both albums followed in the footsteps of her 1975 success, debuting at number four on the Top Country Albums chart. The lead single from “Jessi,” titled “It’s Morning (And I Still Love You),” became a Top 15 country hit in 1976. Although her second album of the year, “Diamond in the Rough,” produced only one charting single, “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name,” Colter had firmly established herself as an albums artist, known for her soulful rock-infused sound.
For the rest of the 1970s, Colter continued to tour alongside Waylon Jennings while releasing studio albums such as “Mirriam” in 1977 and “That’s the Way a Cowboy Rocks and Rolls” in 1978. However, her success began to decline, and her final two albums of the decade failed to produce any Top 40 country hits.
In 1981, Colter experienced a resurgence in her career when she collaborated with Waylon Jennings on a duet album titled “Leather and Lace.” The album’s first single, “Storms Never Last,” written by Colter herself, became a major hit, reaching number ten on the Billboard Country Chart. The album received Gold certification from the RIAA in the same year, marking Colter’s second certified album. Interestingly, Stevie Nicks wrote the title track of the album, but she released her own version as a duet with Don Henley after hearing rumors of Colter and Jennings’ potential divorce. Nicks’ version also achieved success, peaking at number six on the Pop chart in 1981. Colter released her final studio album on Capitol Records in the same year, titled “Ridin’ Shotgun,” which featured her last charting single on the country charts, “Holdin’ On.”
As the 1980s progressed, Colter’s success gradually waned. She released an album in 1984 titled “Rock and Roll Lullaby” on the Triad label, produced by Chips Moman. However, she decided to prioritize caring for her husband during his struggle with drug abuse and health issues, which led to a decline in her recording career. Despite this, Colter remained active and focused on live performances. In the early 1990s, she released a children’s music album titled “Jessi Colter Sings Just for Kids: Songs from Around the World.” The album featured a special guest appearance by Jennings, who recited some of his poetry for the accompanying video. Colter also contributed to Jennings’ live album, “Never Say Die,” released in 2000, two years before his passing at the age of 64.
In 2006, after a hiatus of over 20 years, Colter made a triumphant return to the recording scene with her studio album “Out of the Ashes.” Produced by Don Was, the album poignantly reflected on Jennings’ death and received critical acclaim. “Out of the Ashes” became Colter’s first album since 1981 to chart on the Top Country Albums, reaching number 61. In 2007, she collaborated with Deana Carter on a duet version of her 1975 hit “I’m Not Lisa” for Carter’s album, “The Chain.”
Colter’s musical journey continued in 2017 when she contributed guest vocals, along with Jan Howard, on a track from Jeannie Seely’s album, “Written in Song.” The song, titled “We’re Still Hangin’ In There Ain’t We Jessi,” acknowledged Colter and Seely as two of the few women in country music who had successful marriages.
Additionally, Colter released her first album in eleven years, “The Psalms,” in 2017. This Legacy Recordings release featured Colter’s musical interpretations of her favorite passages from the Book of Psalms. Produced by Lenny Kaye, the album focused on themes of comfort and reconciliation. Colter’s memoir, “An Outlaw and a Lady: A Memoir of Music, Life with Waylon, and the Faith That Brought Me Home,” was published on April 11, 2017.
On a personal note, Colter’s journey began when she met guitarist Duane Eddy in Phoenix. Eddy produced her first record, and she toured with him. They married in 1961 and settled in Los Angeles, where Colter pursued songwriting under her married name, Mirriam Eddy. Her songs gained recognition and were recorded by notable artists such as Don Gibson, Nancy Sinatra, and Dottie West. Colter and Eddy had a daughter named Jennifer. However, their marriage ended in separation and divorce in 1968. Colter then met and married Waylon Jennings in 1969, adopting her stage name, Jessi Colter. The couple relocated to Nashville, Tennessee, and welcomed their son, Waylon Albright “Shooter” Jennings, in 1979.
Birth name: Mirriam Johnson
Born: May 25, 1943 . Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.
Years active: 1970–present
Labels: Black Country Rock Media,RCA,Capitol,Triad,Peter Pan,Shout! Factory
Spouses: Duane Eddy (married. 1961; div. 1968)
Waylon Jennings (married. 1969; died 2002)