A Review of Jessi Colter’s “An Outlaw and a Lady”
God and Music
My knowledge of the country music of Jessi Colter is limited to the White Mansions album she made with her husband, Waylon Jennings, and a host of others in the late ’70s. My dad bought it when it came out and bequeathed it to me later in life as an adult, but it is, alas, a bit unplayable as it skips. (However, the cover art of Civil War-era artifacts is amazing and lavish.) Similarly, I know next to nothing about Jennings’ work. That all said, I’m game for a good memoir, always, especially if it expands upon what I know about music. But, as added bonus points, Colter’s memoir is just as much about faith in God as it is about music.
You see, Colter was one who didn’t totally relish the spotlight. Even though reporters in later years would ask her what happened to her career, which really flourished only around the mid-‘70s as one of the few female faces in Outlaw country music, a subgenre that was branded for bad boys (and the odd girl) who were nonconformists of the era, she would often respond that her role was just as much to support her husband and children. So Colter didn’t have as much of a music career as she could have, but it turns out her life was just as adventurous on the sidelines as it was in fame’s glare.
The reason, of course, is that she was married to Jennings. Despite the fact that he had problems with substance abuse and a wandering eye, and Colter had pretty much rediscovered God during her music career heyday after a period where she had abandoned the faith for the objectivism of Ayn Rand (shocker!), this book shows that her commitment to her husband was perhaps the very thing that saved his life in the long run. Without her, it’s unlikely that Jennings would have found the willpower to get off drugs and otherwise turn his life around, and, in his final days, find God himself.
An Outlaw and a Lady is kind of like a love letter: a love letter from Colter to Jennings, but also one of her to music, and her to God. That it works on all three counts is a testament to Colter and her fellow writer, David Ritz, who have fashioned a linear, mostly chronological and impassioned story of life well lived. Part of the reason why it works so well is not so much the writing, but the message. Colter isn’t a preacher. She is a Christian, after all, and this book was published by a Christian publisher, but at no point does Colter force the issue upon the reader. She doesn’t say that her brand of Christianity is right and correct, and she doesn’t coerce the reader to conform to it like many books of this nature are wont to do.
Instead, Colter talks about her passion for God and Jesus as though she were talking about some casual, like the weather. It just simply exists in her life, and is part of her, but she doesn’t talk down to the reader or try to convince them that Christianity is the way to go. It’s more woven into the narrative in terms of how it impacted her music and relationships. For that, this book will be easy to digest for a secular audience, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything here for those looking for something more spiritual. That Colter and her writing partner were able to pull this tightrope act off is remarkable, and easily turns An Outlaw and a Lady into a five-star read.
What’s particularly amazing is that Colter has a pretty clear memory (and is first to admit where her memories are fuzzy) as she remembers specific things she and Jennings said to each other during their courtship and 33-year-old marriage. And I don’t think any stones are left unturned — even Jennings’ 1978 drug bust is brought up. That brings life and vitality to this memoir. What’s also appealing is that, while there are embarrassing stories to be told, Colter has an appealing, relaxed style of storytelling that is respectful. She doesn’t put down her first husband, Duane Eddy, though that’s probably because he’s still alive (and he can sue for libel), despite not being necessarily in love with him. With this memoir, there’s a bit of a “tell all” feel to it, but never do you get the sense that Colter is burning any bridges. That, too, is a very hard thing to pull off. (Though, come to think of it, perhaps her most scathing and honest stories are reserved for those who are dead — and again, thus, cannot sue for libel.)
It’s interesting that, at the end of the book, Colter talks about being a widow for some 15 years now (Jennings died in 2002) and the fact that she’s ready for love again. It’s strange because Jennings casts such a wide shadow over her life that it’s tough to imagine that she would find a love as consuming as that was. (It’s pretty much the same deal with Johnny and June Carter Cash; once June was gone, Johnny pretty much lost the will to live.) That’s another key strength of this book. You really do get a sense that while Colter didn’t approve of Jennings transgressions, she loved him enough to be patient and wait while he eventually came around and changed his ways. You can sense, even though the pair briefly separated in the mid-‘70s, that this was a love meant for the ages, and how that love and all of its troubles manifested themselves in song.
This book is not only a fascinating look into the creative process, along with some tasty tabloid-y style gossip that’ll keep your eyes glued to the page, but also how faith kept Colter grounded. All three aspects are worthy of the price of admission, and I loved the fly-on-the-wall feel of the book and some of its attendant humor. For instance, there’s a great bit about how, on the day she gave birth to her son with Jennings, nicknamed Shooter (which is now his professional stage name as a musician himself), she was in the delivery room when a nurse walked in and was all excited by the fact that Johnny Cash was in the waiting room. Eventually, Colter had to tell people in the room to give this nurse a dime to call someone who cared about the fact that Cash was there, just to get on with the process of giving birth!
In the end, An Outlaw and a Lady is a fantastic book. I read it in a couple of sittings over the course of about three hours. It is unputdownable. It doesn’t talk down to you, or it doesn’t condescend. It just shows how having faith in God can be the bedrock you need to getting through troubled relationships. Colter’s story is joyous and inspiring, and all audiences — fans, converts to Christianity or even just casual readers — should get something out of this. Colter may be out to please everyone, but, in a sense, she’s just being herself, which is what makes this story of faith lost and found and love lost and found so powerful and dramatic. Really give this one a read. It is a must, whether you’re a fan of Colter’s music (or country music) or not.
Jessi Colter’s An Outlaw and a Lady: A Memoir of Music, Life with Waylon, and the Faith that Brought Me Home was published by Thomas Nelson on April 11, 2017.
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