CHICAGO — Wanda Jackson, the pioneering rockabilly singer, says working with Jack White and Justin Townes Earle on her two latest albums was not her idea.
“I sometimes wonder myself,” Jackson says with a laugh about how she ended up in a studio recording with White for “The Party Ain’t Over,” released in 2011, and with Earle on the recent “Unfinished Business” (Sugar Hill). She credits her manager, Jon Hensley, with making it happen. “I wasn’t that familiar with (Earle and White). Now I’m very happy to say I’m back in the mainstream of the music business thanks to them. I never stopped working, but now I feel more like a viable artist of the day.”
Jackson is 75, and the feistiness she brought to rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘50s is still much in evidence on her new music, even if she needed to adapt to two very different personalities as producers.
“I was open to it because I felt like these guys have got their hands on the pulse of the buying public and those that will come out to concerts,” she says. “My husband and I talked it over, and we agreed we should give them free reign — unless I hit something I didn’t want to do. I have the last say, of course.”
White wanted Jackson to cover Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good,” but the singer “had a bit of a problem with some of the lyrics,” she says. “Jack toned it down for me, rewrote a verse of that song, then it felt OK.” Jackson also gamely took on Bob Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain,” but “it was so long — it was 10 minutes long — and I didn’t know what the song was talking about. My husband and I rewrote a verse and rearranged it, then I felt comfortable with it.”
The fit with the easygoing Earle was a bit better. “It was kind of a shock to me how different they were,” she says. “Jack’s a firecracker. He was in on it totally, completely. He would always say, ‘Give me a little more of that Wanda Jackson attitude.’ He made it very interesting for me. Justin was great, too, but he left a lot of how I sang up to me. He might have a comment or two about how to arrange a song, just little things. One time, I remember he was listening to a playback, and he had his eyes closed. I’m sure he was concentrating on the music, but I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Uh, sorry to wake you up, Justin, but do we have a take or not?’”
Of the two releases, the Earle-produced “Unfinished Business” comes across as the one more in tune with Jackson’s strengths as a singer and her ability to bridge early rock ‘n’ roll, country and gospel. It hues closer to the classic recordings she did with producer Ken Nelson in the first part of her career. Jackson was a teenager out of Oklahoma who started out as country singer when she met, toured with and eventually dated Elvis Presley in 1956.
“I was strictly country when he started working with me, and he began talking to me about singing the type of music that he was singing — they didn’t really have a name for it yet,” she says. “I said, ‘I can’t, I’m just a country singer,’ but he explained to me how the business was changing. Country music was directed to adults — I was a teen singing songs about marriage and drinking, traditional country music themes. He explained to my dad and me that instead of all adults buying records, the young people were buying records. If we wanted to sell a lot of records, we needed to do this kind of music. You had to do something the kids liked. That was my generation. I was 17. I found (and recorded) a song a friend of mine wrote, a transition song from country into this new music, ‘I Gotta Know.’ It’s been in my set list ever since.”
Touring with Presley and watching him perform also made an impact. “The main thing I learned from Elvis is don’t take yourself too seriously. Have fun up there. He never told me that, but I got that from watching his show. He was always flirting with the audience, teasing them. It was fun to see, and pretty soon I was blatantly copying him.”
Jackson didn’t need any help from Presley or anyone else in forging her musical style. Her cutting voice and fierce rhythm guitar playing had few female precedents before she cut classic rockabilly sides such as “Fujiyama Mama,” “Mean Mean Man” and “Let’s Have a Party.”
“I’m definitely a belter, even on ballads,” she says. “The crooners had a different approach. The songs to me demand the attitude that the singer gives. The song pulls it out of you.
“I didn’t have any female role models for that style. I may have learned from and been inspired by some of the male singers for rock ‘n’ roll. I was the only woman doing this material at the time. My dad managed me for my first six years in the business, and I owe a lot to him. He said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t copy someone else. We already have a Kitty Wells. Do it your way, don’t let anyone tell you different.’ He would be at my sessions, one time (producer Ken Nelson) was not satisfied with the way I was singing, he kept making me do a song over. He wanted it smoother. My dad came into the studio — he was a quiet guy, so when he spoke, it mattered — and he pulled me aside. ‘Pay no attention to Ken, just rear back and sing this song the way you feel it.’ That song was ‘Fujiyama Mama.’ Dad was right.”
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