Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson about lessons she learned from Elvis Presley, her collaboration with Jack White and why she needs someone around to push her.
CP: I read that you started hosting a daily radio show in high school back in 1952. That means this year marks your 60th as a performer. Does that milestone mean much to you? Has it been on your mind?
WJ: It was my own show, just a little 15-minute singing, me and my guitar and some commercials. Somebody put the pencil to it and figured it up, and I was shocked - six decades is a long time. I'm still going - so far anyway. [Laughs.[
CP: Is that surprising?
WJ: It's been amazing to me and wonderful to experience. I wish every artist could see this, to see a younger generation excited about the songs they recorded 50 years ago. They know them and sing them along with me. After this album last year with Jack White, that really pushed me to the forefront working with him. It was a wonderful experience. My crowds are even larger. We're filling up larger venues. I get a taste of being a star.
CP: Well, a star again.
WJ: Yeah ... sort of. I enjoy the extra attention artists get these days. There weren't very many women [in the early country music industry], let's face it, and I was the third one to come along who recorded. I had been recording since I was a junior in high school and had had a couple of hits on the Billboard Charts. That was on Decca Records. I changed to Capitol, and there were girls who recorded in other fields, but not in country. I was doing strictly country in the beginning.
I was introduced to rock'n'roll in 1955 when I got out of school and got ready to go on tour. My first tour was with Elvis Presley. I had never seen music like that. I didn't know who he was at the time or anything about this singing. That was a shock, too, but after I got over the shock, I could see why he was so popular. He was the one who encouraged me to try this music and gave me a lot of pointers.
CP: You said that Jack White pushed you, too, after you met him. It seems like that's a recurring role someone has played in your career.
WJ: Yeah, they're always pushing me. I guess I'm a little too laid back but people have to nudge me along and make me do things. [Laughs.] With a lack of self-confidence, you need someone confident to tell you what to do. That's what I've experienced really throughout my life. There's always been someone saying, "You can do this." Once I tried it [rockabilly], I realized "This is so much fun." It was my generation's music. It was my generation that got into rock'n'roll pretty well.
CP: What do you think is behind this music continued popularity?
WJ: I'm asked a lot of times why this music continues to live on and have revivals throughout the years. No one knows for sure. It's something to do with the simplicity of the music, and they were just really good songs. Some of them, rock songs, don't always have a whole lot of story or make a whole lot of sense, but they were fun - fun to sing and fun to dance to. They were simple enough that everyone could sing along. They had simple chords.
I've always preferred songs like that. I like other people to sing the more involved type of music, but it's never been anchoring that I aspired to do. I like to see people have fun with the music. I think I've been able to do that throughout the years. Daddy always told me that if I had fun on stage myself, the audience would have fun. Once I saw Elvis perform, I saw the truth of that statement. He seemed to have fun and didn't take himself too seriously or the girls swooning for him.
CP: Has any of those pointers Elvis gave you stuck with you through all the years?
WJ: To keep having fun and not take yourself too seriously. Nowadays, we say, "It's not all about you." In the beginning, he explained how the business was changing in 1955 and along in there. We always sang songs and aimed everything at an adult audience; they were the ones who bought the records back then.
Bill Haley's song "Rock Around the Clock" started it, but Elvis got the ball moving, and the young people moved with him. They were going to have a voice in who they heard on the record and whose records they wanted to buy. It was a whole new ballgame. Everyone was scurrying around trying to figure out what they wanted.
He set the music industry in a turmoil and turned it upside down. Others have done it since, but he was one of the first to do it in a big way. The disc jockeys were rebelling to play it, and most parents - mine weren't - were against it. They thought it was straight out of Hell, that it was devil's music, and we couldn't figure out why. It was just simple lyrics. That was the mindset in America at the time. Now, I can better understand it. Elvis was just breaking all the rules, and the kids loved it, and the parents didn't want that happening.
CP: Given how much the industry has changed in the last 20 years, it seems like you would have to be very flexible to continue touring and performing. Is flexibility something you think artists really need to survive and remain relevant as long as you have?
WJ: Yeah, I'm sure we do have to be flexible. I've always jumped at the opportunity to perform various styles of songs, whether they be it rock or a sad country ballad or an out-and-out "Fujiyama Mama" rip-roaring song or a folk song. All the different genres that came along, I kind of dabbled in them. I wasn't successful in all of them, but at least I got in there and tried.
I had been singing classic rock'n'roll songs, "Fujiyama Mama" and "Let's Have a Party," ever since, but especially in the last 25 years, there's been a real revival in America, but it started in Europe. It started happening for me there first in 1985. From that point on, my audiences have been somewhat younger and have been requesting these songs. It wasn't that it was such a big shock, but it didn't seem like it was happening in America until 1995 when I did a tour with Rosie Flores, who is a new rock'n'roll girl.
She introduced me to the new American market and took me across the country. I saw all the rock venues I knew nothing about. I didn't know the fans of this music. That's when it became a real shock for me, in 1985.
It started in Scandinavia and Europe. For probably 10 years, the majority of my work was in Europe, in Scandinavia. They had never forgotten my name or my songs or any of the others - Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and all of them - they're still big stars.
CP: Obviously, neither did Jack White. How did you first meet him?
WJ: I didn't meet him until I went to the studio - to his office complex anyway. We had been talking on the phone and going over sending material back and forth to each other and had settled on most of the album's songs. We changed some as we went along, too.
I was very flattered that this young, very big rock star guy was interested in recording me. He told me that he had been a fan of mine since he was 15. I felt a little more comfortable with me that he knew my songs.
I was worried about what type of songs he was going to want me to record. It could have been anything, but as he began sending me songs, I realized they were all songs I knew, but he put his style on them and revved them up a notch or two. [Laughs.] He told me, "I don't want to change you or your voice or your style. I want to give you fresh material to sing." That's what he's done.
CP: After working with Jack, did you find that you shared a lot in common, in terms of your views on music?
WJ: I don't know how much we talked about things like that. We were pretty busy getting the record made. When we did some touring together, we weren't together a whole lot to visit. We had some conversations, just casual. I don't know if we talked about that even. We're just so far apart in the generations.
I don't understand all he does, even though he seems to understand everything I've done. [Laughs.] He has a real love of roots music, especially of the rock era. He's very talented and creative. I found him a challenge, but in a good way, to work with.
He knew exactly what he wanted from my performances on each song, and he didn't let me stop until I got that performance. That's what I meant by him pushing me pretty hard. But I liked it. I like the people to know what they want. That makes it easier for me ... if I agree with them. [Laughs.] In his case, I did.
CP: Jack White also gave Loretta Lynn's career a boost when he worked with her on "Van Lear Rose." When he suggested working with you, did you anticipate a similar surge in popularity?
WJ: I was aware of her album, yeah, before I knew Jack's name. I guess I read about it in the weekly country magazine or something. I thought she was really going out on a limb being produced by a rock star, but it was such an interesting and well-done album. No wonder it won the awards that it did. It wasn't necessarily all different stuff. It was still Loretta Lynn, so he did the same with her as he did with me. He kind of embellished her style and gave her a different platform.
CP: Who is in your band on this tour?
WJ: I use a band when I'm east of the Mississippi River. I use Heath Haynes & The Hi-Dollars. They live here in Nashville and work different clubs and places here. They're not always together as The Hi-Dollars, but they're great musicians, and I love working with them.
CP: Any chance, however slight, that we might see Jack White with you?
WJ: No, I'm in town [Nashville] this time just to record, and I go back out for a couple more dates before it's over. He came out the last time I appeared in Nashville a few months ago - maybe in January, actually.
He didn't come on stage, but he was there. Another group he records called The Black Belles, I think, were opening for me that night, so he came out to wish us well. He stood out there in the audience like everybody else and watched. That was cool. He's a sweet guy.
CP: What have you been playing on this tour?
WJ: I begin by doing the classic songs from the past that are still popular. Then, I throw in a country yodel song. Then, I do a little short tribute to Elvis, doing a couple of songs from my tribute album to him. In the middle of the show is when I sing several selections from the new album, "The Party Ain't Over." Then, I close out with some of the even bigger songs, more popular ones like "Right or Wrong" and "Fujiyama Mama" and "Let's Have a party." You're getting all the styles of Wanda Jackson pretty well. [Laughs.]