Rockabilly Renaissance

Wanda Jackson shows everyone 'The Party Ain't Over'

Chris Parker | Boulder Weekly

She’s the Queen of Rockabilly and she’s not ready to put down her crown.

A musical icon from the late ’50s to mid ’70s, Wanda Jackson experienced a late-career renaissance since word leaked that she’d be working with Jack White in 2009. After building anticipation with a couple of singles last year (including a cover of Amy Winehouse’s salacious “You Know I’m No Good”), Jackson released The Party Ain’t Over in January. The title’s more than a nod to the 73-year-old Okie’s age. It’s a reference to her first Top 40 hit, “Let’s Have a Party.” A classic old-school rockabilly rave-up with reverb guitar and a brassy spirit, the song is emblematic of Jackson’s nature.

From the way she carried herself to the way she dressed, Jackson has always expressed a self-determination that was a little ahead of its time. Even now, she’s as spunky as ever. Ask her about the recent string accolades — 2009’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the 2010 Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Performing, and now, recording history’s highest charting rock album by a septuagenarian woman — and she dryly observes, “I guess I can say better late than never. That oughta work.” Then she laughs.

Jackson’s fresh from several whirlwind months since her album’s release. She’s gone from late-night TV (Letterman, Conan) to playing several sold-out shows with Jack White to performing at South By Southwest. There she played before a few thousand at the Sands Hotel, performed for Rachel Ray’s annual SXSW party and discovered a huge fan in Ted Danson. She just got in today, and leaves for more shows in another day.

“I’m having the time of my life,” she tells Boulder Weekly. “And one name has done it, Jack White. He made all this happen for me. I’m very grateful.”

If true, that’s high praise, because Jackson’s career began pretty well. Her father was a musician who began teaching her guitar when she was 6. By the time Jackson was a teen she’d won some talent contests and had her own daily 15-minute radio show in Oklahoma City. Country legend Hank Thompson had recently moved there. Everyone asked him if he’d heard Wanda Jackson, so he tuned in. Impressed, he invited her to come out and sing with his band.

Thompson would become a mentor to her. He helped her sign her first two record deals, and his bandleader, Billy Gray, performed a duet with Jackson on one of her first hits, “You Can’t Have My Love.” But her biggest influence may have been Elvis Presley. In the mid ’50s she booked a series of tours with Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. She struck up a particularly close friendship with the young King. She wore his ring. They had malts and saw movies together during the tour. But it was his music that would impact her most.

“He’s the one that encouraged me to sing this new kind of music and explained to my dad and I both, ‘You can see the audience. They’re mostly young kids, really young, and you’re gonna need to record songs they like. They’re starting to buy the records, not just the adults,’” she says.

But while Presley proved prescient as far as his career was concerned, it didn’t pan out so well for Jackson. Given the resistance to Elvis’ hips, can you imagine what they thought of Jackson?

“They had a hard time accepting the guys, and then along came a teenage girl putting records out and singing this style of music like the guys with the growl and the enthusiasm and energy on the records. They just wouldn’t play it very well. I finally had a No. 1 rock song and it wasn’t in America,” says Jackson, referring to her rockabilly rave-up, “Fujiyama Mama.”

It’s a typically lively Jackson tune filled with energy: “I drank a quart of sake, smoked on a pipe! I chased it with tobbacy and then shoot out the lights!” By the mid ’60s the British Invasion had pushed rockabilly aside. Jackson took this as a cue and returned to country, though still delivered with her signature pluck.

Rather than cry over her leaving man, she tells him that “Bright lights and taverns is where you’ll spend your time” on “Tears Will Be The Chaser For Your Wine,” asks “Pass Me By (If You’re Just Passing Through)” and offers the quintessential ode to adultery deterrence, “My Big Iron Skillet.” In 1972 Jackson and her now-husband/manager of 50 years, Wendell Goodman, were born again, and began making gospel music.

When alt-country began to gather steam around the millennium, interest began to percolate. In 2003 Jackson put together one of those star-studded comeback records, called Heart Trouble, with guests Rosie Flores, Dave Alvin, The Cramps and Elvis Costello. It showcases Jackson’s still estimable chops with a crackling version of the Louvin Brothers’ “Cash on the Barrelhead,” and a psychedelic take on her signature, “Funnel of Love.”

“I don’t care a lot about those kind of albums, but they seem to be popular right now, and I have a lot of wonderful singers and performers who are fans,” Jackson says.

She approached Jack White at the time, but he declined. “He was very explicit: ‘No, I wouldn’t be interested in that.’” Though uninterested in the comeback album, what White really wanted to do was record her. Jackson was tickled by the prospect, if a bit worried about what White would want her to record. After a little correspondence she realized her fears were misplaced. Not that White was exactly a teddy bear, but he sought to do for Jackson what he did for Loretta Lynn (producing 2004’s Grammy-winning Van Lear Rose), and what Rick Rubin did for Johnny Cash before that.

“He’s so sweet,” Jackson says. “He’s like a velvet-covered brick. He won’t let you off until you give him what he wants, but he does it so sweetly, and he’s so patient, before long you’re wanting to please him.

“He stretched me and pushed me real hard, though I don’t mind that. I realized that he had an end result in mind in his head and he wasn’t going to let me off the hook until I got that. Little rascal … He was so much fun, and once I got a hang of it — he was trying to pull out that 18-year-old feisty girl from the ’50s — I did the best I could.”

It’s apparently like riding a bike — just call Jack White her new hips. Jackson gives them a grimy garage-y workout on “Shakin’ All Over,” kicks up horn-laden, Jerry Lee Lewis-style rockabilly on “Rip It Up,” and gets smoky and seductive on the torch-style “Like A Baby.”

White’s busy arrangements have a crackling, breaking-the-red, live feel to match Jackson’s throaty sass. He even pulled the wonderful “You Know That I’m No Good” out of her. In the original, Winehouse is sleeping with an ex but can’t climax until she thinks of the man she’s cheating on.

“Even as I was singing it I wasn’t sure.

I have my reputation, you know,” she laughs. “Jack was so sweet. ‘I didn’t expect you to sing it like that, I’ve rewritten it. Softened up the second verse.’ It did take some convincing. … [Now] I really love to sing it. It’s such a good song.”

It goes to prove that a song is but an outfit, while the moxie that animates it is bone-deep.

On the Bill:

Wanda Jackson plays the Boulder Theater on Friday, April 1. Doors at 7:30 p.m. The Dusty 45’s and Halden Wofford and The Hi Beams open. Tickets are $25.75 in advance, $28.25 day of show, plus a $2 fee for those under 21. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.