Country music luminary Jessi Colter has only released one album since the 2002 passing of her husband, Waylon Jennings, the Don Was-produced Out of the Ashes, which came out in 2006. Now a second one is due. The Psalms is a labor of love for Colter's current main collaborator, Lenny Kaye, the guitarist and cultural polymath who's best known for his lifelong musical partnership with Patti Smith. It's coming out March 24 on Legacy Recordings.
Colter grew up singing holy songs in a Christian Pentecostal home where the sacred defined daily life in the presence of the secular; her mother was a preacher, but her dad built and drove race cars. Kaye grew up loving the minor key of Jewish cantorial music, but also had an uncle who wrote the lyrics to the love theme from The Godfather. Kaye met Colter in the mid-1990s, while co-writing the memoir of her late husband, Waylon Jennings. Walking into the couple's living room, he found her devising piano melodies for psalms she'd randomly select from her Bible. He was seized by her spirit immediately.
"It was one of the most beautiful expressions of belief I've ever witnessed," Kaye writes in the liner notes for The Psalms. Kaye couldn't forget Colter's pure improvisations, which were grounded in a lifetime of taking King David's verses to heart. In 2007, he recorded Colter's versions of some of those psalms, sometimes playing guitar as she sat at the keyboard. Kay and Colter didn't rehearse, instead letting themselves be guided by fate and their own feelings in the moment. Kaye spent the next decade augmenting those spare sessions with contributions from a stellar ensemble, including unmatchable talents like the drummer Bobby Previte and the keyboardist Al Kooper. The resulting album is unique: as personal as a mother's morning song, as hauntingly resonant as an ancient invocation.
One of the saddest aspects of the tensions surrounding religion in America today is the way dogmatism dims the power of sacred texts. When hostility reigns, one person's Good News becomes another's sentence of imprisonment; holy recitations sound, to some, like angry tirades. How can we reclaim what's universal within language that so many perceive as exclusionary? It's a conundrum. If prayer is translation, as the holy humanist Leonard Cohen once wrote, a profound connection is lost when people stop being able to hear each other's ways of praying.
The Psalms offers listeners the sound of one woman's praise and supplications — and not just any woman, but one of country's most distinctive vocalists. "Psalm 136: Mercy and Loving Kindness," with its lilting lullaby of a melody, is a beautiful refrain that welcomes this work into the world. We're honored to premiere it here. There won't be another album like The Psalms in 2017: Today, religious music is rarely this unadorned, or this powerfully designed to open a space that welcomes even those who don't know the codes and commandments behind it. "With music, we traverse the gap between language and the miracle that is existence," Kaye writes in his liner notes. Perhaps this modest, powerfully intentional project will help heal other divides as well.