Bobby Moore is Kinda Fonda Wanda. Wanda Jackson, That Is.
Wanda Jackson unquestionably ranks among the true pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll. The “sweet lady with the nasty voice” stood tall alongside Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, ex-boyfriend Elvis Presley, and numerous others in a male-dominated field, energizing and radicalizing the soundtrack to perhaps the most enduring post-war creation: teenage culture.
Like many of her peers from the early rockabilly era, Jackson’s music, image, and appeal is also indebted to country music and the cowboys that were the silver screen super heroes of their time. Toss in the influence of African-American popular music, and you have a simple three-chord formula that’s still effective today. As the song “Rockabilly Fever” says, Jackson and her contemporaries “took a little country music, put some pop in, and dressed it up in soul.”
Jackson is more than a footnote in rock history in 2017. With a new album produced by Joan Jett in the works and an exhaustive biography penned by Songcraft: Spotlight on Songwriters podcaster Scott Bomar on the way, Jackson remains relevant in popular music at 79 years old.
Jack White and his Third Man Records imprint deserve a heaping helping of credit for revitalizing Jackson’s career. Before White produced and released 2011’s The Party Ain’t Over, which reached number 17 on the Billboard Top Rock Albums chart, Jackson was mostly known to record collectors in the states and rockabilly purists in Europe. The album’s surprise success was due to more than just the inherent value of White’s seal of approval. It proved that the hands of time haven’t diminished Jackson’s global and multi-generational appeal. “[My] work with Jack brought, naturally, a lot of publicity, and I think he got the best album I’ve cut since the ‘60s,” Jackson says. “He knows how to get the best performance out of artists.”
The mainstream rise of Americana and traditional country music has also furthered Jackson’s audience, as fans of Kacey Musgraves, fellow Third Man alum Margo Price, and others trace their honky-tonk heroes’ roots. “That’s the thing with the internet and all the resources everyone has. It seems like I pick up fans every day,” Jackson says. “Somewhere in the world, someone is finding my songs and enjoying them.”
Despite new audiences and fresh tunes, Jackson finds herself singing “Funnel of Love,” “Let’s Have a Party,” and other old favorites to appease crowds. “I’ve found that when I try to change my show up and add some of the newer country songs, people aren’t too interested,” Jackson says. “If people want to hear [fellow Oklahoma Hall of Famer] Miranda [Lambert]’s song, they’d probably rather listen to her do it than me. So what they want to hear from me is my ‘50s and ‘60s rock stuff. I do that, but I throw in some country and throw in some gospel. I’ve got some from the Jack White album I’m doing that are still popular.”
Jackson sees this interest in her early material as a longing for simpler times and equally simple tunes. “I think I understand the appeal of our original rock ‘n’ roll music,” she explains. “You could sing along with it. If you heard it once, you about knew it. If you played guitar, all you needed was three chords. Also, a lot of people long for those simpler times. The last years of slow pace and simple America was the ‘50s. The ‘60s began to change everything.”
Early rock music serving as a symbol of supposedly squeaky clean times is a tad ironic, considering the uproar Jackson caused back then with her revealing fringe dresses. It was a moral outrage that’s as iconic now as Elvis’ swiveling hips, before TV shows started shooting him from the waist up. “I still wear fringe, but I had to change it to different spots,” Jackson says. “The sand is shifting!”
Jackson’s religious material, dating back to 1971’s underrated Country Gospel album, doesn’t seem out of place in her massive discography, considering the number of early country and rock singers who sang songs of faith. In fact, there was a time when it was a given that any country singer or group with a television or radio show would end their program with a hymn. For Jackson, these songs are as much a statement of personal faith as an embracing of an old tradition. “Mother was a Christian lady, and she saw to it I had a church,” Jackson says. “But I actually didn’t know the Lord personally until 1971. That was a turning point in my life and my husband’s also. We received Christ and were very excited about what all He’s done for us.”
After a stint touring churches and mainly performing gospel songs as part of a family ministry, Jackson reentered the secular music world to share her testimony with a broader audience. “We felt like we had the blessing of the Lord and that’s probably what He wanted us to do,” she says. “Everything has been a blessing by Him all along the way. It’s been very exciting to see others accept Christ through a few words that I might say.”
Jackson’s Christian testimony is still part of her live set, and it’s shared with a captive audience, often at clubs and bars that are a far cry from the Evangelical churches she played 40 years ago. “The age group I draw is real interesting to me,” Jackson says. “They are young adults, and they show so much respect for me. It’s really touching that whatever I’m talking about, it’s really quiet. They want to hear what I have to say, oddly enough, so I try to put some stories and some funnies in between my songs because they enjoy hearing them.”
Per Jackson’s description of her next album, the next phase of her career and ministry will be, as a famous Mormon once sang, “A little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.” Jackson’s Nashville-based granddaughter and publicist, Jordan Simpson, has encouraged her grandmother to collaborate with top country songwriters, including Grammy winner Lori McKenna and Pistol Annies member Angaleena Presley.
Despite the influence of proven country talent, the main draw for the album will likely be the pairing of two guitar rock generations, Jackson and Jett. Better yet, Jett may not be the only famous rocker with an appreciation for Jackson’s legacy involved with the album. “Just about any girl that does that kind of rock, they kind of have to know me,” she says. “I was first. Like Cyndi Lauper, she just gushes about what all I’ve done for the women in rock music. I’m hoping she’ll do a duet with me on the album. I sang with her on a TV show over the Thanksgiving holiday. She did my song ‘Funnel of Love’ on her new album. I have to put in a plug for her. That new album of hers is just great. She went back and did country stuff from the ‘40s and she yodels like Patsy Montana or somebody.”
Jackson has struggled with physical problems over the past two years, halting her tour schedule and progress toward the next album. In the interim, Bomar has spent time with Jackson and her husband at their Oklahoma home, gathering stories for the biography. ““Even though it’s my life, I’m finding it so interesting,” Jackson says. “This writer is so good, and it’s just blowing me away. He’s reached right into my soul and pulled out the words just the way I’d like to have said them.”
“We’ve been trying to coordinate the album and the book so they can be promoted together, but with all this illness I’ve had and Joan’s shoulder surgery, we don’t have anything even on tape yet,” Jackson adds. “I spent a weekend in New York City before Christmas break, and we practiced so that her band got to know my songs. She wants me to record them in New York City. I’m a little unhappy about that, but for her sake I’ll try and if I like it we’ll go from there.”
This album might be one of the remaining ways Jett can live the rock ‘n’ roll dream in a new and exciting way, considering she’s a legend in her own right that’s gone from a teenage Runaway to a Hall of Famer. Still, despite Jett’s well-earned reputation, it’s hard to predict who will elevate whose ongoing career if Jackson’s next album nears the heights reached by The Party Ain’t Over and its Justin Townes Earle-produced follow-up, 2012’s Unfinished Business (Sugar Hill Records). Will it be the time-tested rock co-creator or the equally accomplished heavy rock innovator? Don’t be surprised if Jackson is the driving force behind any level of success. With all due respect to Jett, it has been the Queen of Rockabilly’s decade thus far.