Jessi Colter on Chickstock, the Arizona Desert, Riding Metaphorical Side Saddle, and More

Jessi Colter is a woman full of surprises. She's most famous for her work on albums like Wanted! The Outlaws featuring her late husband Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Tompall Glaser. But she's also maintained a highly successful solo career, and at the time that legendary record was made, she was the only one who already had a gold record under her belt.

Though the Arizona woman is a country icon, her span of influences include gospel and jazz, and she finds unique ways to combine them into something that is distinctly her own.

Not only is she currently working on an album with her son Shooter Jennings, and another one with Patti Smith's guitarist Lenny Kaye (that Shooter describes as "psychedelic Christian,") but she's also one of the headliners at this year's Chickstock: an annual festival that showcases women in music.

Local acts have to compete in a series of talent competitions to get a spot, and here Colter reflects on how that hearkens back to her own humble beginnings. She also talks about local music, her artistic collaborations with Arizona, and getting noticed as woman in the industry while married to another industry legend.

Up On The Sun: Why did you decide to get involved with Chickstock?

Jessi Colter: From the beginning it interested me because it was just fun as a young girl, to be in the talent contests. And there were a lot of them here. All the restaurants supported them, and then of course The Lew King Show [a local radio and then TV that ran from the '40s to the '70s and showcased different local acts every week] was terrific for that. I just thought it was a really, really good thinking was...I just wish there was a way that the talent here could come together. And so I appreciate what the girls have done.

UOTS: I didn't realize that you had started out playing at talent shows.

JC: That was the only way that you could feel like you were going outside. You know, I played with the school assembly. Of course I was a pianist in mother's church and all that, but it kind of made you feel like you were taking a step toward your future. Cause I knew I would always be in music, and then The Lew King Show was so cool because you could go and do your shtick, and it was awesome. Being too young to do anything else, I then later played some of the Western dances that were not at all -- I wasn't allowed into clubs or anything like that.

When I was a spectator [at the early Chicksotck competitions]...I heard some incredible music. Then when I saw what they had eliminated and what they had chose, I thought, man this sounds like a full fledged concert that you would pay a lot of money to go to. I just think it's well worth going and taking a look at what Arizona has to offer.

UOTS: Who are some of your favorite Arizona bands right now?

JC: Ray Herndon...this boy was raised up here in the talent contests and the TV shows. The thing I love about Arizona is that you go into so many places and there's live entertainment. Ronnie Glover is one of the great all-time Southwestern song men. And Marion Meadows -- he's a Grammy award winning jazz saxophone player. You can go and see good music here. And that doesn't happen everywhere.

It's a breeding place. And this is where Waylon romanced his music. He loved Arizona, and there's something it that just brought it out in him. He felt like this is where he really romanced his music. So all in all, it's a very creative, conducive place. I don't know why, exactly.

UOTS:In your interview with NPR a few years ago, you talked about being overcome with the beauty of the Arizona desert, and how it's an inspiring place for you, and how it was actually a part of the healing and grieving process after Waylon passed. Do you still feel inspired by it?

JC: Now I've become almost like a running mate with it. I just love coming home to it. (Pauses.) I'm thinking because when I create a project, I'm having to go out. I have to go to New York, or Nashville, a lot. So now it's become more of a resting place for me...It requires a lot of traveling in and out, rather than my very first collaboration with Arizona. But it still just thrills me.

UOTS: Was it ever difficult for you, particularly at the beginning, since you were married to two famous men [Duane Eddy and then Waylon Jennings] in the same field? Was it difficult for you to establish yourself and your music separately from them?

JC: I really didn't have the kind of impetus that I necessarily wanted to take the full limelight. I don't really want to do all the organization and collecting of staff that it takes to spread yourself worldwide. It just wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to write and express myself...When we recorded the Outlaws album I looked like the token girl, but in fact -- and I tell people now and laugh about it -- I was the only one with a gold record. As things went, it didn't bother me at all. I was very happy with Waylon doing all that work. And I could come out and sing and write my songs. I just didn't have that thing like Dolly Parton and Barbara Streisand had. I do better riding side saddle anyway.

I just keep doing what I do. If it does affect the man in my life in an adverse way, then he shouldn't be there. Waylon was very supportive and Duane was too. Duane actually encouraged me to pitch my songs to Chet Atkins -- the first songs I ever wrote. Waylon was right there and he and Chet Atkins had to produce me. And he said, "We gotta get someone else," and he let Ken Mansfield [a well known country producer] come in there. I just think the right good man -- if you just be who you are as a woman, often will make it much easier than if you were out there trying to fight it yourself. It's good with me.

Jessi Colter is scheduled to perform at Checkstock along with Jamie O'Neal, Sarah Darling, and others are scheduled on Saturday April 23 at Harold's Corral in Cave Creek.

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Sarah Ventre