In 1994, when Wanda Jackson turned 57, the creative phase of her career was apparently over. Though she continued to sing gospel in American churches and rockabilly at European oldies conventions, she hadn’t made a studio album in five years and hadn’t had a hit in 21. Much to her surprise, however, she was soon embraced by a younger generation of rock ‘n’ roll fans who helped her make a series of impressive albums.
The latest is the brand new Unfinished Business, produced by the 30-year-old Justin Townes Earle. Before that was last year’s The Party Ain’t Over, produced by Jack White, now 37. Before that was 2003’s Heart Trouble, featuring contributions from Elvis Costello, Dave Alvin and the Cramps. But the turnaround started with Rosie Flores’ 1995 album, Rockabilly Filly. For a long time Flores had looked up to Jackson as a role model for how to rock and roll as a woman, and when they finally met, Flores immediately asked Jackson to sing on two songs for that album.
“It was through those songs that people wanted us to perform together,” says Jackson, who turns 75 this month. “I was shocked. I had no idea rockabilly was getting popular in America again, because I’d been out of the scene. I was hoping it wouldn’t seem silly for me at my age to sing about such kid stuff. You can’t keep your teenage figure after you’ve had a few kids. But these young people wanted to hear my voice live singing my songs, and it came back to me like riding a bicycle. The kids were bringing my old albums to sign and requesting my old rockabilly songs. I found it was really fun. The agent kept booking more shows all over the country; he said, ‘This is going nuts.’”
Jackson has toured as a rockabilly singer ever since. But what’s remarkable about the new album is that it doesn’t focus solely on that aspect of Jackson’s history but also on her country persona. After all Jackson never had a top-25 rockabilly single, while she had a dozen top-25 country singles. Most folks have forgotten that she was a gifted, mainstream-country star in the 1960s, but Earle remembers, and he sings a lovely duet with her on Greg Garing’s hillbilly ballad, “Am I Even a Memory?” Earle even wrote her a lively honky-tonk two-step, “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome.”
Earle pulled a bluesy bluegrass number by his famous dad Steve, “The Graveyard Shift,” for Jackson to belt, and got her to sing Townes Van Zandt’s unusual gospel number “Two Hands” and Wilco’s adaptation of Woody Guthrie’s lyrics, “California Stars.” It’s a much more varied album than the Jack White project and more understated too, which allows Jackson’s age-diminished voice to relax and apply its smart, mischievous phrasing to the tunes.
“It was an easy album,” Jackson says over the phone from her home in Oklahoma City. “We didn’t use big arrangements; we got back to my roots—not just rockabilly but also country and blues. Justin is very laid-back, not real talkative, but when he talks it seems like everyone listens. That tells you something about his character. He didn’t interrupt me; he’d just ask, ‘Do you like the intro? Do you like the ending?’ I wound up liking them.
I butted heads with Jack White on the Amy Winehouse song, ‘You Know I’m No Good,’ I just thought it was entirely too sexually explicit; it didn’t seem age appropriate. But when we got into it, I saw he was taking it more in my direction, so it was different from the way Amy did it, so it was more about the heart than the sex. I said, ‘OK, I’ll sing it, but I’m not singing the second verse.’ He said, ‘I think I can take care of that.’ He whipped out a pen and changed it so I was comfortable singing it. Now I love the song and I’ve done it at every show I’ve done since the album came out.”
These are peculiar pairings, these collaborations between a devoutly Christian, septuagenarian grandmother and 21st-century rock-’n’-rollers such as Earle and White. But strangely enough it works. The youngsters don’t allow Jackson to go through the motions in imitation of the past, because they recreate the energy and unpredictability of her earliest recordings. But Earle and White get something out of it too, a reminder that they’re part of a tradition older than Guns N’ Roses and deeper than the latest viral video.
“Justin and Jack are both younger than my son,” Jackson admits. “The young people are the ones who create the noise; they have the fresh ideas. I don’t always agree with them, but this is their generation, so we have to listen to them and how to fit in. They show me some of the photos they want to use and I want to throw up. Why would they pick that? But I go along with them, because it’s their world. Once it was my world. Sometimes they’ll do something, and I’ll say, ‘That’s like something I would have done when I was their age.’”
Jackson was already a professional country singer with a top-10 hit while she was still in high school in Oklahoma. She was booked on a tour with a young Memphis singer she had never heard of, and she expected him to be a lot like her hometown mentor Hank Thompson, a master of honky-tonk and Western swing. But Elvis Presley was something else entirely.
“The first night I worked with him,” she recalls, “I was pretty shocked. I had been expecting a country performer, but everything was different about him—the way he dressed, which was kind of showy; the size of his band, which was just two other guys; and the sound of his band, which was kind of wild. I loved his voice and I liked to watch him, but I couldn’t believe what he was doing to the crowd. The girls were running down the aisle to him crying. I said, ‘What on earth?’ It was like he had a spell on him.”
Presley and Jackson started dating while on tour, albeit always with Jackson’s father as chaperone. There were a lot of movie matinees and soda shops, but the most memorable date was when Presley took her to his parents’ home in Memphis, the small one before he built Graceland.
“Elvis was the one who said I should sing this kind of music,” she remembers. “He said it was looking like it was going to be pretty big. He didn’t talk seriously very often, but I could tell he was serious about this. He played some records for me and picked up his guitar to show how he could turn those songs into rock ‘n’ roll. I said, ‘Oh, I can’t do that,’ and he said, ‘Oh, yes, you can.’ I started wanting to do it, watching the fun he was having. The music just made you want to get involved in it. I found a home in rockabilly, and I could sing it, like he said. But I wasn’t successful at it.”
The problem, it seemed, was gender. The teenagers buying the records in those days could accept a wild man like Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis, but they couldn’t accept a wild woman like Jackson or Janis Martin. If you go back and listen to Jackson’s rockabilly sides (collected in a terrific 30-song, single-disc compilation, Queen of Rockabilly, by Ace Records in 2000), it’s astonishing to hear just how wild and majestic those performances were. The Earle, White and Flores albums are real good but nothing like those whirlwind ‘50s cuts. Yet the rockabilly women made folks nervous in a way the rockabilly men didn’t.
“It was really a man’s world in those days,” Jackson concedes. “Women weren’t looked down on; it was just assumed that women needed to stay home with the kids and get dinner on the table. That’s why women had trouble getting careers in a lot of areas. I proved it was easier for a woman to break through in country music than rock ‘n’ roll. I had hits in country music and couldn’t get any airplay for my rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe it was because Kitty Wells and Jean Shepard had opened the door for women in country music by that point. I came along about third after Kitty and Jean.”
Flores has been on a lifelong crusade to give those rockabilly women the recognition they were denied then and deserve today. She also met Martin in 1994 and invited her to also contribute two duet vocals to the Rockabilly Filly album. Flores produced Martin’s final album, The Blanco Sessions, shortly before the older singer died in 2007. Without a live performer to promote the project, no record company was willing to release it, and only this year was Flores able to raise enough money to release it on her own. Like Jackson’s comeback records, The Blanco Sessions is a persuasive argument for an overlooked artist.
“Rosie and I just love each other,” Jackson says. “Some people you really click with; others you can take them or leave them. She’s younger than me, but we speak the same language. Thanks to her, they now tag me as a pathfinder. I was that, but they make me out as a little tougher than I really was.” It’s more than half a century since she dated Presley and toured with him, but she’s still nervous about how she’s perceived as a female rock ‘n’ roller. “I never did the sexy movements with my body; I wore fringe because only I wanted to look glamorous. I was always a lady. The songs get wild sometimes, but I don’t get wild.”