Wanda Jackson on Justin Townes Earle, Adele, and Elvis
Legendary rockabilly singer/songwriter and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Wanda Jackson puts out her 31st studio album, Unfinished Business this October. It marks the producing debut of alt-country star Justin Townes Earle, and continues Jackson's five-and-a-half decade legacy in the genres of country, pop, and gospel. Her songs and vocals move fluidly from feisty, to sultry, to sorrowful.
Jackson performed to sold-out audiences across the country last year, including a ten-city tour supporting Adele. As part of her fall tour supporting the new record, she performs the Minnesota State Fair this Friday and Saturday at the Leinie Lodge. The cherished singer spoke to Gimme Noise from her home in Oklahoma City.
Gimme Noise: You broke ground for so many artists when you started out. When you were young, breaking out in rockabilly, how did you keep going?
Wanda Jackson: My record company and my producer mainly had enough confidence in me to let me choose my own material pretty much all the time. He was like, "If this is what the kids want and what Elvis encouraged her to do, let's let her give it a try." And I did try pretty hard, for four years, I recorded these things. When I was singing them in person, people liked them. I got cheers and whistles, and the whole works but I couldn't get airplay from disc jockeys. That's what we depended on back then. If disc jockeys didn't play your records they were dead on the shelves. They didn't want to accept Elvis and Jerry Lee doing this new kind of music and they sure weren't going to help a teenage girl. I'd write letters to them and stop by on tours and talk with radio stations. They just wouldn't help me.
GN: What turned it around after those years?
WJ: In '59 in Japan, "Fujiyama Mama" was number one. I'd signed a contract for a two-month tour over there. I had no idea how popular that album was over there. I think I made $100 a night. I spent the whole summer over there. But it was a good experience.
It wasn't until 1960 that I got a pretty good-sized hit in America. Actually internationally it probably did better. At least it got in the Billboard top 50. I think it was bubbling around in the 30s and that was "Let's Have a Party."
Oddly enough it was a disc jockey that broke that record for me. He played it as his theme song. He called my producer and said "I think you're going to miss the boat if you don't pull this song out from the album as a single." So Capitol took his word for it and it became a pretty good-sized hit. And that's the only one that did anything for me, at least in America.
But nowadays, the new generation has fallen in love with the '50s rock music -- they know all the songs, they sing with me and it just blows me away to see the younger people loving these songs.
GN: That's awesome! You toured recently with Adele. How did that go?
WJ: That was a very good experience. Her people treated me like royalty and she is a very sweet gal.
GN: Unfinished Business is an great record and I love it. I'm particularly drawn to "Am I Even a Memory?"
WJ: I think that is such a beautiful song and I have a story about that. I met the writer, Greg Garing, and he told me he wrote that song especially for me -- 17 years ago. And he never got it to me. I just thought it was the most beautiful melody, and idea, what a sad idea. I'm not even a memory to this guy. I wanna wring his neck! (laughs).
GN: Justin Townes Earle's band backs you on this record.
WJ: They're the ones he uses on his records. They're a fine bunch of pickers, for sure. I enjoyed doing the record with him. Just the other day in Nashville, we shot a video for the main song, "Tore Down." He ran in and said "hi," and watched a little bit. He was leaving for a month tour the next day. I thought that was nice that he came out and see what we were doing.
GN: You did a cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Two Hands."
WJ: Justin Townes Earle was named after him. I don't know the story. "Graveyard Shift" was written by Justin's dad, Steve Earle, He recorded it in a different style completely. He did it like unplugged, bluegrass style. I always like to have one or two gospel songs on the album.
GN: Your record with Jack White, The Party Ain't Over, is really great, too. What was it like working with Jack White?
WJ: Well, it was pretty different for me (laughs). I loved the experience. I learned some things from him, and he wasn't afraid to give me direction, you know "do this on this line." And for the biggest part, no one anymore wants to tell Wanda Jackson how to sing a song. Right? And that's understandable, but I still want the best pulled out of that song I can get, no matter if its just an album cut. That's what Jack was doing with me. He wouldn't let me finish a song until everything was done to it that could be done to it (laughs). That was very good for me, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. We butted heads once but we got that worked out real quick!
In one interview I described him as a "velvet-covered brick." You get the idea! He was so sweet. "Now do it again. Do it again. Let's push this line a little harder. Pull back on that word . . . and blah blah blah." He was going to get his way, but he was very sweet and gentlemanly like. So before long I was like putty in his hands. "Is this what you need, Jack?" He's real cute. He's very confident in what he wanted.
GN: Speaking of pushing your songs to the most, your voice is so unique, amazing. I wondered if you worked on variations over time or that's your natural approach from the beginning.
WJ: You evolve as a singer, hopefully grow and continue learning. The sound of my voice, noone can duplicate it. They can phrase like me they can growl or hiccup or anythgnin byut they still won't sound like me.
A guy being interviewed about me said, the thing with Wanda is, when you put on her records you know her voice immediately and it conjures up a whole lifestyle. When I hear Wanda's voice I see kids in convertibles and ice cream sodas and people jitterbugging. I thought, that's true, I listen to Elvis's first songs and that takes me back to the '50s.
GN: Please tell me what it was like to perform shows with Elvis?
WJ: That was the first thing I did after high school when I went on tour. The first one that I worked with. I did a lot of other things in those years too. But I did several long tours with him. It was at the time when his career was exploding; everything was happening all at once. Big television shows, big record sales, he changed managers, he changed record companies. And the crowds he was drawing got larger and larger, more unruly. He finally had security, even back then. It was exciting, if you had one word to describe it. To see his records move up in the charts and the crowds get larger and larger. It was always exciting at his shows, to see the crowds, the girls' reactions to the shows. We had never seen anything like that. That was something totally new and unique.
GN: In all of your career, what has been one of your favorite touring experiences or places you loved to play, most memorable to you?
WJ: Well I love everywhere we go -- I and my husband. There's a reason we love our work. Seeing people having fun. I like to help them along, having a good time. Its nice conditions we work in, so everything is fun.
I remember being asked to tour Sweden to do an album in 1985. I'd been doing nothing but gospel music for 15 years at that time. I was thinking "Three weeks? I don't have any fans in that part of the world. How is he going to book me for three weeks? " I was quite shocked when we went there, began doing our concerts and saw the crowds. It was a thrilling thing for me. And they would bring albums out, stacked up to their chin, wanting me to sign all these albums they'd collected on me. That was a new experience at the time.
So Europe endeared themselves to me. They loved our music all these years, still do to this day. I had fans in Sweden -- a man brought his family down to the highway where we were going to be driving, passing by. It was raining, so I thought, "They won't be there." But I was going to at least wave at them. Even though it was raining, we got there and it was him and his wife, their two kids and two of their friends, standing out in the rain. So of course I told the driver, "Pull over, pull over. I've got to get out and hug them." You have that kind of loyalty and its been very unusual and rewarding for me to see all this.
And in 1995, when I began working concerts, when I did a couple songs with Rosie Flores on an album and did a 5-week tour across America from San Francisco to New York City I found I had a new generation of fans, right here in America. This astounded me. I thought, "Where have they been?" Then I realized I'd been in Europe so much. I was making four and five trips a year to Europe and staying two months at a time. It's good to have fans in America so I can stay closer to home a whole lot more now.
GN: You're playing the State Fair August 31 and September 1. Have you played the MN State Fair before?
WJ: Not the State Fair. I've worked in Minneapolis since the word "go." I've always had a good crowds. I've always loved Minneapolis. It's been a special place to me.
GN: I like the Stephen King write-up on your record.
WJ: That was a shocker. He listed his ten favorite songs of all time in People magazine and "Let's Have a Party" was number 8. (laughs) He was more than happy to do the liner notes for me.
GN: Anything you'd like to add?
WJ: There's going to be a movie of my life, as soon as the screenplay gets written and okay'ed. That'll happen next year. I'm working with a writer on a biography.
Friday 8/31 and
Saturday 9/1, Leinie
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