The Queen talks the King

Wanda Jackson, with and without Jack White

It might be a bit embarrassing for anyone to listen back to the recording of my conversation with Wanda Jackson from last week. Each pause in the legend's stories about touring with Johnny Cash, dating Elvis and recording some of the very first rock songs ever is punctuated by a breathy sigh. (That's me.) I almost couldn't take it; Jackson's just too cool.

And she's been that cool for almost 60 years. After moving from country to rock music in the '50s (Elvis convinced her), Jackson made a right turn back to country, before venturing into gospel. But she's mostly returned to that rockabilly sound that made her so beloved with new albums produced by modern rockstars Jack White and Justin Townes Earle. She released her collaboration with White, The Party Ain't Over, in 2011; Earle produced her 31st studio album, Unfinished Business, in 2012. Her tour, which stops in Indy this week, features a set that winds its way through the last half-century in American music (even including a yodel "if she feels brave").

UPDATE: This show has been cancelled. Jackson's publicist commented, "Due to circumstances out of anybody's control, Wanda's concert in Indianapolis will have to be canceled. We are all disappointed but want to let you know that Wanda will be seeing you again real soon."

NUVO: What's your playlist look like for this tour?

Wanda Jackson: It seems like my audience wants to hear the rock and roll songs I recorded in the '50s, and, well, into the '60s. So it's mostly that. But since I started in country music, I have to put in some country. I also put in some songs from current albums.

NUVO: Do you get any gospel in there?

Jackson: Yes, I do. I think I'm only doing one song this time. I've got two from The Party Ain't Over, and then the rest of them are singles from the '50s: "Fujiyama Mama," "Rock Your Baby." That's basically what it will look like. I even throw in a yodel if I feel real brave.

NUVO: To what do you attribute the renewed interest in rockabilly?

Jackson: Well, the only thing I can think of is the simplicity of the songs. If you can play a guitar at all, if you know three chords, you can sing probably your favorite rockabilly song. I think the innocence of the music, it takes everyone back immediately in your thoughts to the '50s, when things were slower paced. When teenagers could be teenagers. They didn't have to worry so much about walking home from the theater, walking to a restaurant or something. I wish it could still be that way for our young people, but it seems like they have to grow up a little faster these days.

The songs are about simple things. Teenage dances, convertibles, things like that.

NUVO: Since you bring up lyrical innocence, I was reading an interview with you in the Chicago Tribune that mentions that Jack White wanted you to record an Amy Winehouse song, but initially you objected to the lyrics.

Jackson: .... I prefer to leave some things to the imagination. I don't think that we have to gyrate around on stage. Elvis was cute, the things he did. His was dancing, it wasn't vulgar. Well, at least in my teenage mind it wasn't. Shoot, I had a crush on him just like all the other young girls.

NUVO: And you dated him, right?

Jackson: Yeah, I worked with him quite a bit. We became good friends. My dad traveled with me in the beginning to help me and act as my manager and my driver. He was very instrumental in my career and he helped me so much, and my mother also. So Daddy liked Elvis. They got along good. He'd let me go out with him after a show and go get a burger. Sometimes he would go with us, and Scotty and Bill. But [Elvis and I] tried to just get off by ourselves, go to a drive in and have a burger and talk. We would catch matinees a lot of times in the afternoon if we got into town at the same time.

There was always several people on the tour. It wasn't like today where you have a superstar and an opening act. We had package shows; there would be four or five, sometimes six artists on the bill. There was always quite a few of us around. But that's what our dating amounted to, since I lived in Oklahoma and he lived in Tennessee. He called me just about every day when we weren't working. We got along great. And of course it was Elvis that talked to me quite a bit about doing this new kind of music like he was doing, and like the kids liked so much. He explained to me that the young people were now the ones buying the records, and the ones coming out to the concerts to see the acts. It made sense, because I was seeing that every night. My dad and I talked about it, and he talked to Daddy about it also. We thought if I wanted to sell a lot of records, I needed to record this. I remember him saying, "You don't have to give up country music," because by the time I graduated high school, I'd already had two or three, a couple of songs in the Billboard Country Music charts. I had one that went up as high as #5.

So, because I'd signed with Decca Records as a junior in high school, and I was ready to go on the road and take advantage of the popularity of those two songs, he just explained that I didn't have to give up country music and lose the fans that I had gained, just add this to my repertoire. So I graduated in 1955, so by '56, I changed record labels – I went from Decca to Capitol – and I thought, well, if I'm going to try this new music, this would be a good time to do it. So that's what I did. In my first session with Capitol, I recorded "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad." And they let me. My producers said, "That's fine. It seems to be the music that people want. I don't understand it, but I'll let you record it."

Mine were songs that adults could appreciate, too. But Elvis had the hard time with the adults because of that dancing, and maybe some of the lyrics of the songs. They weren't like today's, but that was something so new, that it frightened the adults. They just couldn't understand why we liked it. And of course the more they rebelled against it, the more we rebelled against them. That was kind of the tone of things. Kids for the first time were having money, so they were able to buy records. And they were the ones that called radio stations asking for Elvis and asking for maybe my song, and Carl Smith and Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash. And of course I worked with all those, they were on those package shows.

NUVO: You've transitioned through so many different genres. Was there one that felt like the most natural fit?

Jackson: I think the transition to rock and roll – it's hard for me to call it rockabilly, that was such a small window of time – that was quite natural. I didn't think it would be. I was more shocked that anybody. As far as songs, there's been a lot of those. You know, I've recorded for 55 years, 56 years, I think. Do the math! '54 I did my first recording. How many years has it been, dear?

NUVO: 60 years. Congratulations on your 60th year!

Jackson: Wow. Well, thank you very much! I'll accept that compliment. That's quite a feat. So you can imagine, some of the blues songs, I did a whole album of blues. I just loved blues, and rockabilly kind of stems from that.

I did have a song specially written for me, during the transition from country to rock. It was called "I Gotta Know," and it had some country in it. The first lines were country, and then it went directly into the real rock and roll sound of the '50s. "If our love's the real thing, where's my wedding ring?" My audience sings right along with me on that line.

NUVO: These two contemporary artists that you've recorded with, Justin [Townes Earle] and Jack [White] – what were some of the differences in their working styles?

Jackson: Actually, they were the difference of black and white. With Justin, we were kind of rushed. I don't know what difference that made, but we had to work out the songs for that album actually by telephone. Of course, we were together in the studio. He had ideas for the songs, the structures of the songs; whether to have an intro, to take a break before the first chorus; we worked very comfortably together. I left a lot of it up to him, because that's why I chose him. ... Justin and I were so comfortable with each other that he didn't have to do much directing in terms of how I sang a song.

Jack allowed me to do the same thing, but Jack pushed me harder. That's what it took, because his arrangements were big arrangements. I had to come on strong and hold my own against it. He kept reminding me of that 18-year-old girl that was still there in me – I just had to pull her out. Jack of course is such a big name, and he has such a huge audience that I'm sure a lot of the direction came from that. I loved him to death. We got along great, but he was about the first producer in ages that helped me by pushing me. You know, we're like anybody else in their job; we can get pretty laid back and pretty comfortable just doing what we always do. It goes over fine, there's nothing wrong with that.

But when I hit the studio with Jack, I could see that [it] was different. So I was so glad that he did take the liberty to tell me, "Now, do this line like this. Push a little harder. Give me more of that Wanda Jackson." We got along great, but I kidded him about being a slavedriver. On one of the tracks, he left it on there and didn't ask me about it first, but if you listen closely on the song, "You Know I'm No Good," you hear Jack say, "We're rolling," and I say, "And I always have to push." Have you heard that? A lot of people have heard it and asked me about it.