As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday this Thursday, I’m sure many of us will sit around the table with friends or family, sharing food, laughs and stories while indulging in a meal full of turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing and all of that good stuff.
And I’m sure many of us will also take time to reflect on everything we’re thankful for, despite the ups and downs of life, as the title of the holiday suggests and encourages.
In addition to being grateful for the people currently in our lives, many of us also know what it’s like to experience a holiday like this without an important loved one there to make new memories with.
One country star who understands that as well as anyone is Jessi Colter, who lost her husband Waylon Jennings in February of 2002 after he passed from complications with diabetes.
In a lengthy feature in the November edition of Guideposts Magazine back in 2017, Jessi shared an incredibly personal story, in her own words, about Waylon’s last Thanksgiving and how it ultimately changed his life.
Jessi’s Early Years And Meeting Waylon
Jessi grew up the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher, as her mom had her own church near Phoenix, Arizona. At age 11, Colter became the pianist at the church, a skill that would ultimately shape her music career and life.
She recalls meeting Waylon in the 60’s in Arizona at JD’s nightclub, at a time when Jessi says she had already “abandoned the faith of my childhood.”
On their first date, she remembered Waylon taking her on a long drive through the Painted Desert, an opportunity he said would give them a chance to really talk and get to know each other.
It was the first time they talked about religion, and Waylon recalled the “fire and brimstone” sermons he heard weekly as a child, which ultimately steered him away from the church as an adult.
He no longer went to church, and figured Jessi had a similar experience growing up a preacher’s kid, though Jessi actually enjoyed the experience, telling him about the beauty of her mother’s church and:
“How love—not fear—was the message.”
She also admitted to him:
“I’d left that faith behind. ‘I guess I’ve been busy exploring other ways of looking at the world.'”
Waylon And Jessi Get Married And Move To Nashville
In October of 1969, Waylon and Jessi got married and moved to Nashville.
While she wondered why her parents never discouraged her from marrying the wild outlaw that was Waylon Jennings, and wondered what she would’ve done if they had, Jessi says her parents “adored” him.
And while Jessi’s mom of course wanted to preach the gospel to her new son-in-law, Jessi explained that she “instinctively understood that sermonizing would only estrange him. Just the way she never tried to change me.”
Their marriage was far from perfect, though.
Waylon’s Drug Habits And Ultimately Finding Sobriety
Waylon famously struggled with drugs for many years of his life, and ultimately kicked the habit by quitting cold turkey, so to speak.
Jessi wrote that she loved “everything” about Waylon, except for that…
“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’).”
His friend Johnny Cash had a similar addiction, and in the 80’s, Cash entered the Betty Ford Center after his family staged an intervention.
Jessi thought about doing the same thing for her husband, because it had worked for Cash, but in her heart she felt it wasn’t the right thing for him. She knew Johnny was already a Christian, and he probably had an easier time accepting that he needed help because he knew he was truly broken and needed God’s help to overcome his struggle.
She says she prayed about it, waited, and prayed more.
Eventually, in March of 1984, Waylon decided that he wanted to stop doing drugs on his own. They rented a house out in the Arizona desert, canceled everything on the calendar, and camped out there while Waylon came off of all of the drugs:
“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.”
Jessi also importantly noted of the ordeal:
“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.”
In the early 2,000’s, the couple packed up and moved to Arizona (Jessi’s home state) from Nashville, where Waylon would live until he passed away.
Waylon And Jessi Move Back To Arizona
Even after finding sobriety, the substances Waylon had abused for so many years had taken their toll on his body. Jessi also mentioned how he didn’t always eat very healthy, either, which compounded over time:
“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.”
Because of the pain in his legs due to diabetes, Waylon could no longer drive, and Jessi would ride him around their favorite spots in the desert.
Jessi says that Waylon “was haunted by regrets [and] shortcomings,” telling her once:
“I did foolish things. I wound up hurting myself, but mainly I hurt other people.”
She encouraged him:
“‘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.”
Flash forward to Thanksgiving day in 2001, Jessi felt in her heart the time had come for a very real and honest conversation she’d wanted to have with him for many years.
Waylon Finds Salvation On Thanksgiving in 2001
Being that they were married for over 30 years, Waylon always knew when Jessi had something on her mind:
“‘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.'”
Right then and there, he did, and Jessi shared the beautiful moment they shared together in that hospital room:
“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.”
Waylon’s Last Months And Turning A New Leaf
Jessi said that while her husband’s overall health didn’t improve over the next several months, that following Christmas, with all of their kids and family there, Waylon asked her to play piano and sing the church hymns she used to growing up.
Jessi noted his “new confidence,” and how he was a different man after accepting the grace and love of God into his heart… with a bit of a different swagger than the outlaw country superstar the world had come to know and love:
“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.'”
Waylon sadly passed away on February 13th, 2002, and Jessi found him unresponsive in their living room after she had come home from a morning appointment. Paramedics came to do CPR, but it was too late, and he was gone.
While Jessi admits very honestly that she had considered leaving him at his worst during the thick of his drug addiction, she couldn’t bear to see the man she loved more than anything destroy himself, and that kept her going.
She always felt like the Lord was working to bring peace to her husband one day, adding poignantly that:
“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…
In the desert, Waylon kicked drugs. On the operating table, he survived surgery. That Thanksgiving,Waylon at last understood that he loved the Lord as the Lord loved him.”
Behind every good man is an even better woman, as the old saying goes, and these two were a power couple that not only left a trailblazing legacy of incredible outlaw country music, but true and unconditional love.
If that’s not a heartwarming story to appreciate this Thanksgiving, I don’t know what is.
Here’s to the late, great Waylon Jennings and the woman who helped save him, Mrs. Jessi Colter.