A Conversation With Music Legend Wanda Jackson
For her latest album, the queen of rockabilly returns to her country roots.
Photography: Courtesy Wanda Jackson Enterprises
Cowboys & Indians: Jack White, from The White Stripes, produced your last album, which was very rock ’n’ roll. For Unfinished Business you joined forces with Americana artist Justin Townes Earle, who helped you get back in touch with the country music style you were raised on. Can you tell us about how you switched from country to rock in the first place?
Wanda Jackson: Well, country music, I’ve never tried to divorce myself from it. I signed with Decca Records as a junior in high school. I had only ever sung locally, but the very first song they put out became a fair-size hit on the country Billboard charts, and then the next one did good, too. So by the time I graduated I was ready to hit the road and start touring. And then my dad decided he’d better go with me to help me. For the very first tour he got ahold of Bob Neal, who had a booking agency. So Bob said, “I’d love to have a girl on the show. I’m working with a young man who is really going places fast, setting the world on fire, and I could use a girl on his show.” So the first tour I did was with Elvis, and that was pretty lucky for me. We became good friends and, you know, we dated, liked each other a lot. And my daddy liked him so he’d let me go have dinner or get a Coke with Elvis.
C&I: Your daddy was one of the few.
Jackson: Yes, and so it was during those times that he’d begin talking to me, and then me and daddy, about my getting into this kind of music. And I said, “Well, I love the music.” You know, I was 17, it was my generation. I said, “But I’m just country, Elvis. I don’t think I can do it.” He said, “Yes, you can. I know you can.” So he took me out to his house when we appeared in Memphis [Tennessee] and played some country songs on the little record player [whispers] in his bedroom. But his mom was home, so ... [laughs].
But then he’d get a guitar and show me what he did with “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” And I’d forgotten about those songs. So I began to think about it a little more seriously, and by the next year I changed record companies and I thought, This could be a good time to try out this new music that we didn’t even have a name for — just “Elvis’ music” or the “new kind of music.” And so a friend of mine wrote a special song for me as a transition song from country into whatever this new music was at the time, and that song was “I Gotta Know” and it was a perfect transition. It’s still No. 3 on my playlist every show. The kids all know it and love it, so that’s exciting.
C&I: Country and rock ’n’ roll really aren’t that different, now, are they?
Jackson: No, I say they’re kissing cousins, anyway. One’s on steroids.
C&I: Now, let’s talk about your signature fashion. You were the first girl to bring glamour to country.
Jackson: I take it back to about ’54. I was 16 and beginning to wear heels and developing as a young lady. I decided I didn’t wear those kind of clothes on the street — cowboy boots and hat. I thought, This just isn’t me. And my mother had always sewn just about all my clothes all my life — she’s just a fine seamstress. So we put our heads together and came up with the slim skirt, solid fringe. I said, “I want to put some glamour into it, get out of those boots and get high heels. And it wasn’t big hair by today’s standards, but it was back then. And long, dangly earrings. I wanted to dress more like Marilyn Monroe, so that’s the way mother dressed me. And it turned out to be a big success, actually.
C&I: And I can’t help but notice that you’re still rocking the fringe today.
Jackson: Yeah, it’s my trademark. I say the sand has shifted so the fringe has to be in different places, but I still wear it. Country Music Television had a show, CMT 40 Greatest Women of Country Music, and I had No. 35. But when they did a show on the greatest firsts, like the first one to do something, then they called me country music’s first sex symbol — said that I opened the door for Dolly [Parton] and all those.
C&I: Before you were approached by Jack White and he helped revitalize your career, were you considering retirement?
Jackson: No, no, no, no. I’m opening all kinds of doors. I’m enjoying more celebrity right now than I ever had in my whole career, so it’s pretty exciting. When you’re 75 you need something to keep you
excited. But no, I wasn’t thinking of retiring. They keep asking me and I say, “I’ve got nothing to retire from.” You retire to do what you love, and my husband, Wendell [Goodman], and I are doing what we love. We’re traveling and I get to perform. That’s about the only way he can keep me really happy is to let me travel and sing for people.
Find a list of Wanda Jackson tour dates here.