In the realm of left-field rebirths, especially in country music, little at the moment matches Jessi Colter's The Psalms. In 1995, Colter's husband, Waylon Jennings, was working at home on his memoir with Lenny Kaye, the Patti Smith guitarist and author. After dinner one night, Colter drifted into their living room.
"We were feeding Lenny because he loved our food, and I just went to the piano one evening," Colter recalls. "It wasn't something I did all the time."
At the keyboard, with a Bible nearby, Colter began singing words to the Psalms of the Old Testament, improvising chords to accompany them. "I was transfixed," Kaye recalls. "I'd never seen anything so pure or immediate. She was placing her fingers on the piano and singing the chords that came out. It was just true belief."
That somewhat chance encounter ultimately led to The Psalms, the 73-year-old Colter's first album in over a decade. True to its title and inspiration, each of the 12 tracks is an Old Testament poem set to Colter's piano and still-vibrant voice, with minimal but just-right instrumentation emerging and receding. Kaye, who produced the album, adds rangy atmospheric electric guitar. In one of many examples of the way the album captures the turbulence at the heart of Biblical tales, "Psalm 114: And the Mountains Skip Like Rams" builds from a muted intro to a rolling storm. Although there's nothing quite like it in modern country or Colter's discography, The Psalms does recall Rick Rubin's work with Johnny Cash, but with melodies wedded to some of the oldest verses known to man rather than modern rock tunes.
The Psalms, released March 24th, isn't quite the country version of Guns N' Roses' tortured Chinese Democracy, but its drawn-out creation comes close. After that living room moment, Kaye kept the idea of recording Colter singing those words in the back of his mind. More than 10 years later, in 2007, Colter was visiting New York, where Kaye is based, and he convinced her to put those renditions on tape. Colter says she was familiar with Kaye's work with Smith and Suzanne Vega, but says her friendship with Kaye was more important than his résumé. "Lenny was a fellow traveler, and I trusted him," she says. "I saw Waylon open up to him about the Buddy Holly [plane crash], when he couldn't really open up. He had to answer the same questions over and over and over. And it hurt him every time. But with Lenny, he really enjoyed talking."
Over the course of two days – and two later sessions the following year – Colter sang various Psalms, initially using the Bible that Kaye had received during his bar mitzvah. (At the last minute, they hunted down a King James version more familiar to Colter.) Colter wrote most of the melodies, with Kaye collaborating on two and writing the music for another two by himself. "We all knew the 23rd Psalm, 'The Lord Is My Shepherd,'" Kaye says. "I always think of it as the 'hit song.' But I didn't look through the Bible and say, 'This would be a good one.' Jessi's more versed in the Bible than myself, so she had some favorites. We tried to choose songs that weren't about warring peoples but more about comfort and reconciliation."
Then the work truly began. When he wasn't touring, recording or working on a new book about pivotal cities in rock history, Kaye would revisit the recordings and recruit musicians, like keyboardist Al Kooper and drummer Bobby Previte, to overdub parts onto the bare-boned takes. "I wanted to figure how out to enhance the songs' inner personalities without changing the spontaneity and keeping with the improvisatory way it began," Kaye says. "Jessi would say, 'How we doin'?' We got all our lines from Orson Welles: 'No wine before its time.' We waited until it fulfilled itself."
That wait stretched out to 10 years. "I would say, 'Lenny, do you think anything's ever going to come of this?'" Colter says. "He just kept working and I'd cut the check."
Colter is accustomed to waiting. Long before she met and married Jennings in 1968, the vocalist, who started playing piano at age 11 in her church in Arizona, cut a few unsuccessful singles and played with her first husband, early rock-guitar god Duane Eddy. Even after she and Jennings hooked up, Colter's first real album, 1970's A Country Star Is Born, fizzled.
Finally, in 1975, the single "I'm Not Lisa" indeed made Colter a star and crossed over to pop. The following year, she was part of the landmark Wanted! The Outlaws compilation with Jennings, Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser, a hodgepodge of old and new tracks that, to everyone’s surprise, became one of country's blockbuster albums. "Waylon wouldn't like it that I tell this story," she says. "But I was the only one that had a gold record at that point. And I look like the token girl [on the cover]. But that's okay. That was just fine with me. In those days they could not field enough men to press the records. They were in no way prepared to make that many."
Jennings died in 2002, and Colter, who is back living in Arizona, digs into their often tempestuous relationship (and her late husband's drug problems) in her new memoir, An Outlaw and a Lady (out April 11th).
"He impressed you with his music," she says. "I loved that about him. And he stayed with it. He really got after me, even. Like with 'I'm Not Lisa.' What happens after you get a hit record and you're doing it a lot, you're tempted to play with it, to make it fresh or something. He said, 'Don’t ever play with your things that the people really love.'"
Colter's recording career ground to a half in the mid Eighties; after Jennings died, she only cut one more album, 2006's Out of the Ashes. The Psalms was finally competed on the eve of the 10th anniversary of its first sessions.
"It's really cool that Lenny hung onto the idea as long as he did," says Steve Earle, who joined Colter and her son Shooter Jennings on the Outlaw Country Cruise last month. Colter herself was pleased with the results, especially "Psalm 45: My Song to a King," where Kooper's keyboards and guitar add a majestic beauty.
"'Psalm 45' is beautiful," Colter says. "You can just almost hear the King walking up the stairs. It's just magic. Shooter said, 'Well, that's a psychedelic Christian album. Don't give that to the Christians. It’s too cool.'"
"You know, I could never do this again," Colter adds. "Unless … I don't know … if it's the divine will, and something like this to be done."
For Kaye, who's open to working with Colter again, The Psalms is also something of a vindication for her. "People forget how great a singer Jessi is," he says. "Since she was part of some of the country icons of our time, her own contribution has been overlooked sometimes, and her own sense of modesty has not allowed her to be recognized as one of the queens of country music. I was just happy to see her sing."