"I've been circling," Jessi Colter says. "The recording had to happen at the right time and the right place." But Colter's circling is over.

"I've been circling," Jessi Colter says. "The recording had to happen at the right time and the right place." But Colter's circling is over. The queen of '70s outlaw country, who scored hits in her own right and with her late husband Waylon Jennings, returns to form Feb. 21 with the Shout Factory! release of "Out of the Ashes," her first major solo release in 20 years.

Colter -- who scored a No. 1 country hit in 1975 with "I'm Not Lisa" and became one of the faces of Music City rebellion with her inclusion on the cornerstone 1976 compilation "Wanted! The Outlaws" -- withdrew from country during the past two decades to focus on writing and performing children's music.

Things changed in February 2002, when Jennings died after a long bout with diabetes. "As time passed, after Waylon's death, I really needed to process," she says. She took inspiration from the music of Ben Harper, and from the country-rock fusion of her son Shooter Jennings, who released his debut album "Put the 'O' Back in Country" last year.

"I so realized the importance of music," she says. "Not that I could leave music -- I'm a desperate writer ... I needed expression. I began to live life one step at a time. I realized I had to keep living."

With producer Don Was at the helm and noted producer/engineer Ray Kennedy behind the board, Colter cut "Out of the Ashes" with a top-flight band that included Waylon's longtime drummer Richie Albright, Ray Herndon on guitar and vocals, session guitarist supreme Reggie Young and Young's wife Jenny Lynn on cello.

The album runs the gamut from the sinuous funk of "You Can Pick 'Em" and a cover of Bob Dylan's raucous "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" to the traditional spiritual "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" ("That's something I sing a couple of times a week," Colter says) and "Please Carry Me Home," a duet with her son that first appeared on an album inspired by Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ."

One long-in-gestation track is the Tony Joe White composition "Out of the Rain." White is featured on the performance; so is Waylon Jennings, who demoed the song years ago. "That was one of our masters," Colter says. "I'm not sure when it was recorded."

Looking ahead, Colter says she will make an album with musician-producer Lenny Kaye (who co-authored Waylon's 1996 autobiography) as well as a collection of musical interpretations of the Psalms. She also wants to record with Shooter, who will preface the April release of his sophomore album with a single Feb. 13, the fourth anniversary of Waylon's death.

Colter, whose live appearances have largely been limited to low-profile performances with Shooter in recent years, plans to get on the road in 2006. "I'll do it for fun," she says. "Gotta be fun, or I won't do it anymore."

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