Renowned songwriter, singer, and wife of Waylon Jennings writes an intimate, enormously entertaining memoir of American music, of life with Waylon and the Outlaws, and of faith lost and found.
The daughter of a Pentecostal evangelist and a race-car driver, Jessi Colter played piano and sang in church before leaving Arizona to tour with rock-n-roll pioneer Duane Eddy, whom she married. Colter became a successful recording artist, appearing on American Bandstand and befriending stars such as the Everly Brothers and Chet Atkins, while her songs were recorded by Nancy Sinatra, Dottie West, and others. Her marriage to Eddy didn’t last, however, and in 1969 she married the electrifying Waylon Jennings. Together, they made their home in Nashville which, in the 1970s, was ground zero for roots music, drawing Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Shel Silverstein, and others to the Nashville Sound. And Jessi was at the center of it all, the only woman on the landmark Wanted: The Outlaws album, therecord that launched the Outlaw Country genre and was the first country album to go platinum. She also tasted personal commercial success with the #1-single “I’m Not Lisa.”
But offstage, life was a challenge, as Waylon pursued his addictions and battled his demons. Having drifted from the church as a young woman, Jessi returned to her faith and found in it a source of strength in the turmoil of living with Waylon. In the 1980s, Waylon helped launch the super group The Highwaymen with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, and the hits kept rolling, as did Waylon’s reckless living. Amid it all, Jessi faithfully prayed for her husband until finally, at Thanksgiving 2001, Waylon found Jesus, just months before he died.
An Outlaw and a Lady is a powerful story of American music, of love in the midst of heartache, and of faith that sustains.
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About the Author
Jessi Colter is one of America’s most beloved singer-songwriters. Her storied career began in the sixties when, encouraged by her first husband, guitar legend Duane Eddy, she composed hit songs for Dottie West, Nancy Sinatra, and Hank Locklin. Best known for her collaboration with her husband, Waylon Jennings, and for her 1975 country-pop crossover hit “I’m Not Lisa,” she was the only woman featured on the landmark album Wanted: The Outlaws that forever changed American music. She has fifteen major-label albums to her credit, and her songs and records have sold in the tens of millions. She lives near Scottsdale, Arizona.
David Ritz, called the “first call celebrity collaborator” by the New York Times, recently wrote Willie Nelson’s bestselling It’s A Long Story. He has collaborated on memoirs with, among others, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and B. B. King. His books include Scott Stapp’s Sinner’s Creed; Nik Wallenda’s Balance: A Story of Faith, Family, and Life on the Line; and Messengers: Portraits of African American Ministers, Evangelists, Gospel Singers, and Other Messengers of the Word. He lives in Los Angeles, California.
Read an Excerpt
An Outlaw and a Lady
A Memoir of Music, Life with Waylon, and The Faith that Brought Me Home
By Jessi Colter, David Ritz
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2017 Mirriam Jennings
All rights reserved.
ARIZONA AT NIGHT
Sara Teasdale, an American poet, wrote some lines of haunting verse in 1915, a generation before my parents left Indiana at the beginning of the Great Depression and headed west, thus marking the start of the bold adventure that has led to this history of my heart.
The moon is a charring ember
Dying into the dark;
Off in the crouching mountains
The stars are heavy in heaven,
Too great for the sky to hold — What
if they fell and shattered
The earth with gold?
No lights are over the mesa,
The wind is hard and wild,
I stand at the darkened window
And cry like a child.
I invoke the poet's heart because she sets the stage so beautifully. The stark and breathtaking landscape of Arizona is the essential backdrop to this story. It is where I was born Mirriam Rebecca Joan Johnson on May 25, 1943. It is where I reside today. It is where all the essential discoveries of my life have taken place — the discovery of my faith, the discovery of my ability to make music, and the discovery of both my husbands.
For me, Arizona is a magical land whose mysteries are as ancient as they are beautiful. The deserts. The mountains. The rocks. The sky. The myths. The stories of the Native Americans, the cowboys, the explorers, the miners, the pioneers. The spirit driving these stories is the same spirit that drove my father, Arnold Hobson Johnson, and my mother, Helen D. Perkins Johnson, to this untamed and primitive land.
Drive is the right word because Daddy, a man of many mechanical talents, was a professional race-car driver. Born in 1898 and raised in Linton, Indiana, just outside Indianapolis, as a young man he competed against Louis Chevrolet and the Dodge Brothers, winning prize money all over the Midwest. More than a driver, he was also a designer who could build cars by himself from the ground up. He possessed scientific genius and an active mind that sought to solve geological and metallurgical puzzles of the highest order. His lifelong passion was mining.
Before marrying Arnold Johnson and heading west, Helen Perkins had established a boardinghouse and worked as a cosmetologist in Indiana. She had been born in Green County, Kentucky, where her father, a coal miner, had raised his six daughters as a single dad. His wife — my maternal grandmother — died when Mother was three years old. Four years younger than Arnold, Helen was a professional woman at a time when, especially in the Midwest, that was a rarity. She married Arnold and willingly went with him to Arizona, not only because she had fallen in love with his romantic spirit, but because two of her sisters were already living there.
They first came to Tempe where Dad opened a garage. Car repair was as good a Depression-proof job as any — and Dad was a whiz at it. He and Mother fell in love with the land. There were outdoor parties down by the river in a brush arbor on Saturday evenings where Mother loved to dance the night away. The world was simple and pleasant. The future held promise. But then tragedy stuck. My mother contracted tuberculosis. And then, without warning, my father, who loved his cigars, was diagnosed with throat cancer.
Panic set in. Doctors were consulted, but doctors in that rural community were in short supply. Remedies were prescribed, yet the predictions were dire. The family was told that both diseases would eventually prove fatal. Even at its very beginning, their new life seemed over.
Then came a knock on the door. It was late at night. I imagine a night like the one described in Sara Teasdale's poem. "No lights are over the mesa, the wind is hard and wild, I stand at the darkened window and cry like a child."
I imagine my mother crying, questioning the cruelty of fate that would allow her to embark on this great western adventure, only to see it turn deadly.
I imagine her wiping away her tears and answering the door. Two men appeared.
"We have been sent," they said simply.
"By whom?" she asked.
"By God," they answered.
"For what reason?"
"To pray. We have come to pray for healing."
Until this moment, my parents had never been overtly religious. Dad was an engineer, designer, and scientist. Mother was a businesswoman. But something prompted them to invite these strangers into their home. They allowed these two men to lay hands on them. They held hands and prayed. They prayed out loud and they prayed in silence. I can't tell you what went on in the minds of my mother and father as the two men covered them in prayer. I don't know the degree of their skepticism or doubt. All I know is that they were willing. They submitted. They allowed. They were slain in the Spirit. And then they saw the results.
Over a period of weeks, Mother saw that all the signs of tuberculosis had dissipated. When my father returned to the hospital in Phoenix, his doctor was in disbelief.
"The cancer is gone," he said. "It is in total remission. I can't explain it."
"I can," said Mother, who was by Daddy's side. "I can explain it in a word."
"Please do," urged the physician.
"God. The wonders and miracles of God."
From that day forward, Mother was a changed woman. She devoted her life not only to the study of God's Word but to its application in the lives of others. She became an apostle, a pentecostal preacher whose passion for Christ and his healing ministry never waned. She didn't simply read the New Testament; she lived it. Her fervor for God was matched only by her compassion. And her energy, fueled by her faith, was inexhaustible.
Father's energy matched Mother's. While he never tried to subdue her spiritual exuberance — that would have been impossible — his own passion moved in an entirely different direction. He arrived in the Wild West at precisely that moment when mining fever was sweeping the land. Dad caught that fever. He met an old-time prospector by the name of Lloyd Serick, who took him to a spot in the Arizona wilderness that Dad purchased: the Rare Metals Mine. The mine's primary metal was molybdenum. And in 1942, as part of the war effort, my father obtained a loan from the US government to mine molybdenum, an alloy in the hardening of steel. Dad never got rich mining, but mining was never about money for him. It was about the indefatigable pursuit of discovery. As a committed miner, he couldn't be stopped.
Born during World War II, I was my parent's sixth child after Mary Delores, Helen Lucille, David, Paul, and Sharon, who was only two years my senior. John, the baby, was born two years after me. Because Mary, Helen, and David were much older and had moved out of the house, my closest siblings were Paul, Sharon, and John.
The central setting of my childhood was Mesa, a Mormon city some twenty miles east of Phoenix. And within that setting the central image was a large, white neon sign in the shape of a lighthouse that towered over our residence, a converted army barracks. The sign, lit day and night, said "Lighthouse Mission." The official name of Mother's church was First Lighthouse Evangelical Center.
Mesa was a small city where real estate was inexpensive. As industrious as they were practical, my parents were able to buy this abandoned barracks for very little. A sanctuary accommodating some sixty worshippers stood on one side; our living quarters were on the other. The result was an organic feeling of natural unity: we lived where we worshipped and worshipped where we lived.
Two seminal passions informed my upbringing: my mother's passion for Jesus and my dad's passion for mining. The two were never in conflict. In fact, they complemented each other. My mother encouraged my father's mining efforts just as my father supported my mother's ministry. These two adults, whose influence on me is incalculable, were all about adventure — Mother adventurously sought God's eternal truths; Daddy adventurously sought minerals hidden deep beneath the soil.
My folks were unique individuals preoccupied with what some might consider esoteric matters, yet they were down-to-earth, here-and-now parents constitutionally incapable of ignoring their children. I never wanted for attention. I saw Daddy as a quiet man, a studious soul who, after spending hours absorbing a complex chemistry text, could get up, go out and build fences, repair tractors, and then put on a coat and tie to sell bankers shares in his Century Molybdenum Copper Corporation — all in a day's work.
Mother's energy took a different turn. She was more intense. Because God had given her all the gifts of the Spirit, including healing, she felt compelled to use those gifts — and use them extravagantly. She also felt compelled to make me understand that before I was born she had heard God speak my name — Mirriam — and a prophecy was given that I would serve him in a special way.
Mother's absolute conviction was that we stood in the heritage of the saints and in the bloodline of Christ Jesus. From infancy on, I watched and heard her preach with piercing eloquence about the grandeur of God's healing love. Miracles and wonders surrounded my childhood. I bore witness to a dead baby brought back to life. I saw palsied men cured before my very eyes. As a child, I experienced dramatic firsthand evidence of God's goodness, mercy, and grace.
And then I experienced something else: music. There was an upright piano in the sanctuary that drew me like a magnet. I was fascinated by the sounds made by those white and black keys. At an early age I could pick out little melodies. When Mother saw my interest, she made certain that I had piano lessons. I also learned accordion.
All this music, of course, was linked to the love I was feeling in Mother's church. She could preach, but I soon learned that I could sing. All this came about without effort. The process of channeling music through my heart was — and remains — a natural one. It was clearly a gift. I cannot remember an instance when music ever perplexed or frustrated me. If I heard it in my head, I could play it or sing it.
I understand that for some making music can be a struggle, but for me, beginning in childhood, music flowed like a clear mountain stream whose source, I learned from Mother, was God on high. Music would prove to be the great instrument of change in my life, the ethereal spirit that would, in one form or another, punctuate my story with one surprise after another.CHAPTER 2
WHEN TIME AND ETERNITY MEET
As an adult, I discovered the following beautiful words by C. S. Lewis: "For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which God has of reality as a whole." Yet the moment of which he speaks — the moment of experiencing eternal time — happened when I was a child. I didn't understand the underpinning theology, and I didn't have to. I processed the phenomenon as pure joy. It was a moment when, in the midst of Sunday services at Mother's church, I sang a very old hymn whose title echoes the same sentiment as C. S. Lewis's words:
When Time and Eternity Meet
I sat on the banks of a river
I stood on the crest of a hill
I gazed at the great modern cities
The valleys serene and so still.
I heard the loud roar of the ocean,
I felt the great desert's heat.
Then I thought of the fate of this whole wide world
Where time and eternity meet.
Though music is rooted in time, music took me out of time. It suspended time. Playing and singing music gave me a feeling of freedom. Music made sense to me. Its meters made mathematical sense. I didn't have to count out the bars and the beats. I felt them. They fell together in a rhythm as natural as the beats of my heart. And the most beautiful thing about my first music — this beatific music of my childhood — was its message. The purpose was praise. And the praise was other-directed and otherworldly. The praise was for God and God alone.
When my musical ability was praised by Mother and her congregants, that felt good — but not nearly as good as worshipping the goodness of God in song. As a performer, I never felt especially gifted. I was grateful to be able to play and sing, but I took it in stride. I realized I had talent, although that talent never went to my head. If there was a gift that impressed me, it was not my own. It was Mother's. Her gift — to reflect the sweet compassion of Christ in word and deed — overwhelmed my world. I followed her every thought, watched her every move, mirrored her every prayer.
Confidence — inexorable confidence — was the hallmark of my parents.
Mother's preaching was a study in sincerity. In the rising and falling cadences of her hypnotic sermons, there wasn't a shred of doubt or duplicity. She wore her heart on her sleeve. The hungry ate at our table. The homeless slept in our sanctuary. Father's confidence was reflected in his focus. If the chore at hand was to repair or even build a tractor, he did so with laser-like concentration.
Whether it took him a day or a month, he worked until the task was complete. His obsession to understand the underlying mysteries of minerals had him exploring uncharted territory.
Venturing deep into these two territories — the spiritual and the material — defined the excitement of my childhood. As my mother's reputation grew, she accepted invitations to faraway churches and tent revivals. I was thrilled to travel with her. And as my father's molybdenum fixation intensified, I trekked with him to our mine in the middle of nowhere.
Seen through the eyes of a child, these were exotic excursions. Among the first trips I took with Mother was one to Fort Worth, where on the outskirts of the city I watched a tent go up. Workers hammered poles into the earth. A great tarp was anchored and spread. Wooden folding chairs were set in a semicircle. Naked lightbulbs were strung from one side to the other. A makeshift wooden pulpit was placed in the center. A small upright piano was wheeled in. Anticipation was in the air.
I watched the setting sun turn orange, then pink, then violet, then blue-black. People began pouring in — women with children, men who looked lost, the young, the old, the sturdy, the feeble. Black folks came as well.
"Everyone Welcome!" said the sign outside the tent. "Revival meeting tonight! Helen D. Johnson, Evangelist."
I walked to the piano and, with all the force at my command, I struck the opening notes of stirring hymns like "Showers of Blessings," "Oh, How I Love Jesus," and "Just Over in the Glory Land." Because I was a one-girl band, I needed to project. Big chords and big beats were required. I had to get things rolling. Fortunately some folks brought their own tambourines and helped me ride the rhythm. Others began singing along with me. It didn't take long for the Spirit to arrive. Of course it was Mother who encompassed that Spirit and gave it voice.
It was Mother who spoke of the Holy Ghost as a living, breathing force who had swept into the tent, ready to invade our hearts and heads. It was Mother who spoke thrillingly of the glory of God, not a God who punished, but a God who replenished and renewed, a God of hope, a God of salvation, a God whose incomprehensible parental sacrifice proved his love for all his children, a God who could and would and will give our lives new purpose, new meaning, new energy, new joy — a God who, above all, healed both the spirit and the body. Through her love of God, my mother healed with her hands. People came to her in faith — the young, the elderly, the crippled, the blind.
My favorite part of the service, aside from Mother's stirring message, was the altar call. Here I was called upon to sing "Just as I Am." I felt that, in my own small way, I might be able to touch the hearts of those who were hesitant. I saw that the sweeter I sang, the more immediate the response: worshippers rising from their chairs and walking toward Mother to accept the salvation of their Savior.
When the service was over, I felt a great burden had been lifted from the shoulders of people who had entered as strangers but now stood beside my mother as sisters and brothers in Christ. As they exited, I could feel their gratitude. Sometimes, just because my spirit was overflowing, I'd pick up my accordion and play "The Love of God" until the tent was empty and it was just Mother and me standing there. I'd put down my instrument and she'd open her arms. She'd embrace me and say, "Thank you, Mirriam. God has been served."
These were heady days of the great revivalists of the fifties. Traveling the road, from California to Arkansas, from Texas to Tennessee, we would encounter legendary preachers like William Branham. The beloved Brother Branham was a leading light in the post–World War II evangelical movement. There was also Kathryn Kuhlman, another renowned faith healer; and, of course, the incandescent Billy Graham, who removed the ropes segregating whites from blacks at his meetings and, more than anyone in this sacred movement, found universal favor.
Excerpted from An Outlaw and a Lady by Jessi Colter, David Ritz. Copyright © 2017 Mirriam Jennings. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part One: The Cloud,
1. Arizona at Night, 3,
2. When Time and Eternity Meet, 11,
3. Beyond the Mountains of the Moon, 19,
4. Young and Innocent, 29,
5. The End of Innocence, 37,
6. Meet Mirriam Eddy, 43,
7. The Canyons, 51,
8. Cry Softly, 59,
Part Two: The Lightning,
9. Waylon at JD's, 71,
10. Love of the Common People, 79,
11. Rhythms, 89,
12. "You Wanna Get Married, Don't You?", 99,
13. The Birth of Jessi Colter, 107,
Part Three: The Return,
14. Oh Well, There's Always God, 117,
15. Storms Never Last, 125,
16. Outlaw, 133,
17. Of Man and God, 143,
18. Joy and Grief, 153,
19. Mirriam, 163,
20. What Goes Around Comes Around, 175,
21. A Cowboy Rocks and Rolls, 185,
Part Four: The Reconciliation,
22. Flying High, Falling Low, 197,
23. Patience, 207,
24. Time to Party, 217,
25. Unexpected Birth, 227,
26. Hoss, 237,
Part Five: The Road Back Home,
27. Nourishment, 249,
28. Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, 259,
29. This Mortal Coil, 267,
30. Out of the Ashes, 277,
About the Authors, 293,