Jessi Colter: How Waylon Jennings Became 'God's Man'

She knew her hard-living husband had to change his ways, but she sensed God was at work in his life.

by
- Posted on Oct 16, 2017

Jessi Colter’s faith was inspired by her mom, who was a preacher.

It was Waylon’s last Thanksgiving. He was in the hospital for more procedures, none of which helped stem the downward spiral. Diabetes, heart troubles, neuropathy—they’d all taken their toll. I kept thinking, Now is the moment I need to talk to him. To have the conversation I’d been wanting to have for years.

By the time he and I’d met in the sixties—at the outsize two-story Arizona nightclub JD’s—I had abandoned the faith of my childhood. I gravitated toward the materialist philosophy of Ayn Rand. Her books had no mention of God, a higher power or any mystical or spiritual force. Just the preeminence of human will. Such a contrast to the tent meetings my mother used to lead, where I’d played the piano and sung hymns.

Waylon had grown up in West Texas, the oldest of four boys in a dirt-poor family. Music was his escape. And music brought us together. At JD’s, he sang with an unrelenting force. The high-voltage energy of the crowd made me feel as if I were floating on air. I’d heard about his reputation, the long list of women he had supposedly seduced, the pills he popped, the failed marriages. But he was polite and gentlemanly with me.

On our first date, we drove through the Painted Desert, the unearthly scenery rolling past us. “A long drive like this will give us some time to chat,” he said. It was the first time we talked about religion.

“The gospel I heard preached was all fire and brimstone,” he said. “The certainty of going to hell if you didn’t walk the straight and narrow. It was the gospel of fear stuffed down my throat.” Not surprisingly, he didn’t go to church anymore.

“What about you?” he asked. “You said your mom was a preacher. Wouldn’t imagine being a preacher’s kid was much fun…”

“You’re wrong. I liked it.” I told him about the beauty of Mother’s church, how love—not fear—was the message. But I admitted I’d left that faith behind. “I guess I’ve been busy exploring other ways of looking at the world.”

“I’m not sure the exploring stops until the day we die,” he said.

Years earlier, he’d had a narrow escape from death. He was in Buddy Holly’s band that fateful day when Buddy chartered a small plane to get to his next gig. Waylon was supposed to get on too, but he gave up his seat for another band member and took the bus. He didn’t learn about the plane crash until the next morning. “I still have nightmares about it,” he told me.

I loved everything about this man...well, almost everything. I loved watching him sing, how he led his band, how he interacted with fans. I loved his sincerity. But the one thing I couldn’t abide was his addiction to amphetamines. Diet pills, pep pills, Speckled Birds or L.A. Turnarounds (so-called because, as he said, “You could take one and drive to Los Angeles, turn around and come straight back”).

I wonder how I would have reacted if my parents had discouraged me from staying with Waylon. After all, he was an untamed, hard-living outlaw country star. Not the kind of guy they would want their beloved daughter to date. Yet both Mother and Daddy adored Waylon. And Mother instinctively understood that sermonizing would only estrange him. Just the way she never tried to change me.

Waylon and I got married and moved to Nashville. His career as a musician took off, and so did mine. I was writing and singing, a wife and a mom. Yet the more successful we became, the more I sensed something was missing. Then one day, alone in our house, I was walking down the stairs to the basement. A thought came to me, a cryptic phrase: Oh well, there’s always God.

It wasn’t God’s voice I’d heard. It sounded like a line from a poem or the answer to a riddle. They were easy words, reassuring words, words of optimism and hope that welcomed me back to a language I had lost. Oh well, there’s always God.

Later, during a show Waylon and I were doing, I walked out to the piano at center stage. I took a deep breath, another, a third. Then—to my surprise—I found myself kneeling in front of the piano, praying for strength. All at once, I felt as light as air, focused, without fear. As though my heart and God’s heart were one.

I wanted Waylon to know how I felt. I wanted him to share that intimacy. “I like that you’ve found your way back to the Lord,” he said. “It’s good to be a believer. And I do believe in something greater than myself. I’d be a fool not to. But I’m not ready to call that something by any name. Maybe I never will be.”

I found it a struggle to accept that. I wanted to tell him everything I knew, chapter and verse. But I drew on the model my mother had set for me, trusting in the power of God’s love. Waylon continued to pop his pills. He started using cocaine.

I was powerless to change him. I remained convinced that one day—and soon—the man I loved would face and defeat his demons. He cultivated an image as a country music outlaw. He even released an album entitled Ladies Love Outlaws. I was proof of that.

In the early ’80s, Waylon’s buddy Johnny Cash, whose drug dependence was just as out of control, entered the Betty Ford Center. His family had done an intervention. I wondered if we could do the same for Waylon. But as much as my mind said yes, my spirit said no.

I could see how Johnny, a believing Christian, might accept himself as a broken man needing help. But Waylon was different. No outside influence could persuade him to do what he himself had not yet decided to do on his own.

I waited. And prayed. And waited some more.

In March of 1984, Waylon was ready. But he wanted to stop on his own. We rented a house in the Arizona desert, canceled our gigs and drove out in the tour bus. The ordeal was painful, physically and emotionally. Every bone in Waylon’s body screamed out in anguish. Later he wrote how my presence, my prayers, made a difference. Somehow he quit on his own and managed to stay sober the rest of his life.

Let me be clear: I do not consider Waylon’s way to sobriety a template for others. I would never encourage anyone to rely, as he did, on sheer willpower. It can be a recipe for disaster. I thank God that Waylon made it work. And that I knew enough to stay out of the way.

But the drugs and the hard living had already taken their toll. Waylon was only 51 when he had his first heart operation, a quadruple bypass. He quit a six-pack-a-day cigarette habit. We tried to get him on a low-fat diet, a challenge for a man who’d refry a dozen doughnuts in butter for a midnight snack. Those years of abusing his body had caught up with him.

In the new millennium, we moved back to Arizona. Waylon longed for a warm climate. With the pain in his legs, he couldn’t drive, and this time I drove him around our favorite spots in the desert. He was haunted by regrets, shortcomings. “I did foolish things,” he said. “I wound up hurting myself, but mainly I hurt other people.”

“God is forgiving,” I said.

“God may be, but I’m not,” he said. There were more stints in hospitals, more physical complications and specialists of every sort. Then came that Thanksgiving Day when I knew I had to speak. The time had come.

“Looks like you want to say something to me, darlin’,” he said from his hospital bed. “If you’ve got something to say, go ahead and say it.” Waylon sensed what was happening. He always did.

Finally I said it. “Are you ready to accept the Lord?”

He grinned. “I knew you were going to ask that.”

“It’s a simple question. It all comes down to one thing. Are you ready to be God’s man?”

He nodded and kept repeating, “God’s man.” Then he said, “To become God’s man, what do I need to say?”

“That you accept Jesus, that you love him as he loves you, that you turn your life over to him.”

Waylon said those words. I wept. He took my hand and said, “I love you so much.” He had declared his love for me a million times before, but this time his tone was so vulnerable, so soft, so sweet. His sincerity thrilled my heart.

That Christmas, his children came to visit and his friends rallied around. Waylon asked me to play the piano and sing the hymns I’d learned as a girl. Despite the oxygen masks and tanks and medical apparatuses, his confidence remained intact. It was a new confidence—not the swagger of an outlaw country superstar, running onstage to the cheers of a hundred thousand fans, but the quiet assurance of someone who knew he was “God’s man.”

On February 13, 2002, Waylon was all set to watch the Winter Olympics. I had an appointment that morning but came home to make him his daily treat, a big protein shake. When I arrived, he was asleep—or appeared to be. I went to kiss his forehead. It was cold. I detected no breath. The paramedics came to give him CPR. It was too late. Waylon, God’s man, was gone.

But no one is ever totally gone. We leave our mark on the world, especially an artist like Waylon. And we leave our mark on the hearts of others. At the worst of his drug addiction, I almost left him. I didn’t think I could bear to see the man I loved destroy himself. Something told me, though, that the Lord was working behind the scenes.

And he was. In the desert, when Waylon kicked drugs. On the operating table, as he survived surgery. That Thanksgiving, when Waylon at last understood that he loved the Lord as the Lord loved him.

For more inspiring stories, subscribe to Guideposts magazine.

View Comments