Artist - Wanda Jackson
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Wanda Jackson: Doing It On Your Own Terms

By Mark Hagen

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There are not that many people who have both kissed Elvis Presley and recorded with The Cramps. It’s a reasonably safe bet, in fact, that there is only one: the redoubtable Wanda Jackson. The Queen of Rockabilly is now back in our lives and in our shops, delivering a brand-new record made with Joan Jett and featuring the cream of modern Nashville songwriters on the first all-original album of her 65-year career.

Encore is billed as the 84-year-old Jackson’s final album. If it does turn out that way, then it’s a fine way to go out; a boisterous yet reflective record that sounds right in tune with her - and our - times.

Born in Oklahoma – where she still lives today – Wanda made her first records in the early 50s, back when she was very much a straight country singer, heavily influenced by the likes of Rose Maddox and Bob Wills. Hank Thompson was the first to spot her nascent talent, proving instrumental in her signing to Decca Records in 1954.

While her first single was a top ten hit, her resulting appearance on the Grand Ole Opry did not go as well. Turning up to perform in a dress with spaghetti straps and a sweetheart neckline, Jackson was told in no uncertain terms to cover up before she was allowed to go on stage. That was enough to convince the teenage Wanda that perhaps traditional country was not for her.

Instead, she went on tour with – and dated - the up-and-coming Elvis Presley. By 1956, she had switched labels to Capital and begun recording the rockabilly songs that came to define much of her image and subsequent longevity – loud, rowdy and often sexually suggestive classics like Fujiyama Mama, Let’s Have A Party and the self-penned Mean Mean Man.

When the original wave of rock’n’roll broke and then receded, Jackson, like so many of her contemporaries, moved across into country and gospel music. That was until a resurgence of interest in the 1980s led to her rediscovery and celebration as a compelling and often pioneering performer, especially in Scandinavia and the UK.

Revered in more recent years by alternative icons like Poison Ivy Rorschach & Lux Interior of The Cramps and later by Amy Winehouse and Jack White (who made 2011’s The Party Ain’t Over album with her), Jackson was inducted into the Rock’n’roll Hall of Fame in 2009. The death of her husband Wendell Goodman in 2017 – after 56 years of marriage – caused Wanda to re-evaluate her career; influencing her to retire from touring in 2019.

Now comes what may very well be the final curtain, a record that not only features Joan Jett, but more contemporary country artists like Elle King and Angeleena Presley, proving that nobody does it quite like Wanda. Even still.

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Encore sounds very much like a record about your life, almost a memoir from your career.

That's exactly what it is. It's just an overlay of my life, things I've experienced, things I've been told about my life and the way it’s affected other people.

It kind of just happened as we were kicking ideas around. We had Joan Jett on board – she’d said she’d like to do an album with me – and I’d never had an album of original songs in my whole career. Back in the day, we always put covers of other people’s hits on our albums, so Joan said “well, let’s go that route. Let’s write an album’s worth of songs”.

One problem with that was that I hadn’t written in probably 15 years, maybe a song here and there but no more than that. My granddaughter Jordan (Breanne Simpson) - who’s also in the business in Nashville - knows all the top writers today; she set me up with all these people. So, I flew to Nashville from Oklahoma and the whole thing was a wonderful new experience.

Being younger people, they had so many questions for me about what it was like when I was first starting out, so it got me telling stories, and out of those stories somebody would always say “Hey there’s a song here!”. The songs don’t always follow my life exactly, but the basic idea or the title for each of them came out of my mouth - I’m calling this record my victory lap!

Back at the beginning of your career, it seems it was much more difficult to make an impact as a female artist?

Well I was there, if not in the beginning exactly, then very near the start for women in country music; I was the third or fourth female star, I guess. I don't know if I was dense or if I just didn’t notice, but I just got on with it. It was just a mindset of the whole country at the time that women could be nurses, mothers or teachers - but not country singers or performers. I didn’t have a choice; I had to make it because I hadn’t planned for anything else.

You started out as a country singer but moved into rock’n’roll & rockabilly quite quickly – how did that shift come about?

Mainly through the influence of working with Elvis. You could see where the music was headed, young people suddenly had a voice that they’d never had before. Elvis talked to me about recording this music and he was right. It was Elvis who helped me see that I had a place in this music because I was a teenager myself. Once I got a hold of some material that lent itself to the genre, I tried my wings - it wasn’t really a commercial success for me though, at the time. I've enjoyed success with the rockabilly songs more in the last 25 or 30 years than I did when I first started because I came up against a lot of resistance.

Was that because people were a little intimidated by a forthright woman singing quite sexually suggestive material? Were they scared of it?

Well, I don’t think they were afraid of me but of the music. There had never been anything like it before. It swept the country like a tidal wave; the record companies, agents and so forth were all up in the air – they didn’t know what to do. Artists didn’t know what to do, what to release - it was a lot of turmoil!Later on, of course, it was difficult for other reasons – I remember in the early 60s when I was trying to get records released; all the pressing plants around the country were jammed up making Beatles albums and nobody else could get records made. I was kind of mad at the Beatles at that time!

You’ve had a very diverse recording life - you’ve sung all sorts of genres, from the country and rockabilly material, right through to all the gospel records you made.

Well, my audience around the world allowed me to do all of that – I think I’m very fortunate: a lot of singers couldn’t do that. They just didn’t have the choice or the will to do it and venture out. I did and I got to enjoy the benefits of it.

Were you surprised in the 80s when the rockabilly revival hit, with bands like the Stray Cats and The Blasters, and your old songs became more popular than ever before?

It was so amazing to me. In Europe, the UK and in Scandinavia especially, they aren’t so fast to throw out the old and bring in the new, so the lasting power that I had in Europe is what saved my life in the business. For ten years, I made my living by working in Europe.

But surely that’s a testament to your worth as an artist that those records still talk to people so long after they were made?

I don’t think I can take much credit for it! I was recording songs that I liked, ones that I would play on my own record player. I was lucky all the way around. God was good to me, and my fans are wonderful.

I learnt early on that you shake the same hands coming down the ladder as you do going up. My dad taught me the importance of talking with my fans, getting out amongst them, meeting them, signing something for them. I never did shy away from my fans.

You also managed to pull off that trick of making some very mainstream records with people who are the opposite of that, like Jack White and The Cramps.

I don’t know where that came from! It was a shock to me too, but it’s been interesting. I’ve just fastened my seat belt and hung for the ride. I never know what direction I’m going to go next.

The other thing to note about Encore is that it’s very much a love letter to your late husband Wendell.

Yes, some of the stories are personal about our love and our marriage. I’m glad you picked up on that, as he’s the one that really wanted me to do another album. We had started before he died, but he didn’t get to see the finish of it. God gives us grace for the things that we have to go through, and I’ll be with him again one day.

Encore is billed as your final record – please say it isn’t so?

Well, you never can say never, but I don’t foresee recording any more. I’ve been having throat problems with allergies. It’s either that or too much rock’n’rolling!

Surely you can’t have too much can you?

Too much growling and screaming maybe!

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Wanda Jackson's latest album, Encore, is out now via Blackheart Records Group / Big Machine Label Group. Listen to 'Two Shots', with Joan Jett and Elle King below.