Rockabilly Queen Wanda Jackson was in San Diego recently, serving as the opening act on a makeup date that red-hot pop songstress Adele canceled earlier in the season.
On Saturday, Jackson will return to co-headline (with Junior Brown) the So. Cal. Hellbilly Fest Car and Bike Show at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. The wide discrepancy between those two gigs is indicative of Jackson’s career -- one that started in close proximity to the birth of rock & roll and has continued through substantial forays into rockabilly, country, gospel, and even songs in different languages. The 73-year-old singer was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009 and has been making headlines again in the last three years through her partnership with ex-White Stripes bandleader Jack White. Much like he did with Loretta Lynn a few years before, White brought Jackson back to her roots, produced an album with her and helped introduce the pioneering star to an entirely new audience. When I spoke with the indomitable and legendary songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from her home in Oklahoma City recently, she assured me that this current revival of her storied career is merely an extension of one that started quite a few years ago.
Wanda Jackson: I’m so busy. I’ve having a revolving door installed in my house because I’m going in and out so fast [laughs]. I’m meeting myself coming and going.
WJ: Life is good, but I’m a bit overwhelmed by it all. It’s been going so well and my turn back into rockabilly has been going strong for awhile now. In Europe, it started in ’85, but it wasn’t until ’95 that the revival really started in America, and that’s when I was really introduced to this new generation of rockabilly fans.
SM: And then you got a call from Jack White.
WJ: These last three years working with Jack -- and being able to record an album with him -- has really been sensational. And I never could have expected it. I was thrilled in 2009 to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and I thought that was probably the icing on the cake. I thought that would be it, but then we turned right around and had the opportunity to record with a young man like Jack. Just like that, we had a whole new audience, we had new songs, we had a new, fresh sound, and it’s all really been quite exciting.
SM: Did it surprise you Jack was so passionate about what you do?
WJ: I already knew of some of the bigger artists who had told me that I had influenced them or encouraged them to hang onto their dreams -- people like Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Tanya Tucker and Cyndi Lauper. I was used to that, but with Jack being so young, it just kind of threw me. I mean, he’s in his 30s -- he’s younger than my kids. And he’s been a fan of mine all this time? I was quite flattered. But it’s a mutual admiration society. We have fun working together.
SM: I guess that’s why they call you the Queen.
WJ: Well, I don’t know many women who don’t dream of being a queen of some sort, and there’s nothing bad about that. But I really like the title of First Lady of Rock & Roll because that’s rock & roll. That’s the beginning of it all, and that’s what I did. But I like all of the things they call me.
WJ: Honestly, I really don’t feel like I’ve had to fight. Back at the start, I guess I did realize that I wasn’t getting the record play like the guys were, but that was just the way it was. I grew up in that world, and I didn’t think a thing about being the only woman out there doing it. It just didn’t cross my mind. I wasn’t thinking about breaking down any barriers or doing any trailblazing. I was just trying to make a living doing what I wanted to do. It was harder for a gal, but I didn’t let that bother me or slow me down.
WJ: Well, I’ve always felt that I’ve got plenty to learn, even yet. And most entertainers, if they become popular, there’s a reason for it. It’s their voice, their music, their mannerisms -- something has the eye and the ear of the public. I’m always trying to figure out what that is and try to use it. And I’m not talking about stealing -- just using it to encourage myself that I’m still relevant and still in the game. Take Elvis -- he always reminded me to never take myself, or anything, so seriously and never be afraid to step out and try something new. That’s what he encouraged me to do, and after all of these years, I’m finally reaping the benefits of that.
WJ: It’s been a wild ride. But I guess if you live long enough, and stay in the business the whole time, you may see a lot of changes, but you get the opportunity to do a lot of different things as well. And I tell you, I’ve enjoyed it all thoroughly.