Unfinished Business: A Q&A with Wanda Jackson
Unfinished Business: A Q&A with Wanda Jackson
It’s not often that we have royalty in central Iowa, but Friday night the Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson herself, will co-headline the Maximum Ames Music Festival. The 74-year-old music legend took a few minutes (working through several malfunctioning phones) to talk with me about rock, Jack White, Elvis and more.
Q: You played Des Moines back in the KRNT Theater days when Smokey Smith would bring acts to town. Do you have any memories of Des Moines from that time?
Well, mainly of Smokey Smith himself and his family. I stayed with them when I was in town, usually. My dad always traveled with me if I was going somewhere and coming back home. But if I was by myself I would stay with them.
Q: How did you start working with Jack White on “The Party’s Ain’t Over”?
He said he was a big fan of mine and my publicist set about getting in touch with him. He asked Jack if he might be interested in doing a duet with me on an album. Jack said no, but he would be interested in producing an album and a couple singles with me. That’s how it began.
Q: Your 35th album, “Unfinished Business,” is out next month and was produced by Justin Townes Earle. How did the two of you get together?
Well, actually again it’s my publicist, John Hensley, who is a hard working young man. He has a hand on the pulse of the buying public. He thought it would be a good idea to do an album with more of a country artist doing it. He got in touch with Justin and they exchanged some ideas. Then I was called and talked with Justin and we were in agreement over the type of album we should do.
Q: These recent albums have caused a surge in popularity that includes younger fans embracing your music. I know your opening act in Ames, Peace, Love & Stuff, are all big fans. Do these younger crowds mean anything different for you as a performer?
Yes, quite a bit, in fact. I like the energy that they bring and the spontaneity and repoire we have with each other. They show so much respect for me. It’s really awesome.
Being the first woman to record rock, and to have been right there with Elvis and Jerry Lee and Carl and Johnny Cash, working with those guys as this whole new music was born. They respect that greatly. And I have fun with them. It’s just wonderful.
Q: Did you have any idea what rock would become and the many directions it would go back in the beginning?
No, I don’t think anyone could have foreseen that. I knew that this was like the next big thing. Something was happening. Young people were beginning to buy records. Before we directed our marketing and the songs we chose to adult people. All of a sudden that was changing. The young people were having a voice in what was being played on the radio.
In the beginning, radio was our main way of publicizing ourselves and keeping our name out there. So radio was very important. It was getting totally shook up all of a sudden, and they didn’t have the power they had before. Young people were speaking up and it caused quite a sensation. Disc jockeys were breaking records on the air and newspapers were printing bad things about Elvis and about the music.
I didn’t really get into it until 1956; I began working with Elvis in the summer of ’55 when I graduated from high school that year. It was Elvis who talked me into trying this kind of music the young people liked. He said “They’re the ones that are buying a lot of records. If you want to sell a lot direct your appeal to this younger group.” So that’s what I set about to do.
Q: Over the next few years rock and country became more distinct. Did you feel a pull towards one camp, or did you want to try to keep things merged with rockabilly?
I think I was trying hard to work for the merger. The term that was finally being put on our type of music was rockabilly, which kind of makes you think of a country guy, or at least someone playing a guitar with two or three other instruments. That was considered a country artist doing rock. I don’t know if the term has been phrased yet.
Q: How does hitting the road to promote an album now compare to when you were in your 20s?
The promotion is pretty different. Today it’s all of the media, and of course the internet is so important. Where as in the early days of country and rockabilly we went to radio stations. We made it our goal to tour radio stations mixed in with visiting the distributors of our music. Sometimes we would have autograph signings at record stores. That we still do quite a bit. Everything hasn’t changed.
Q: Your album is called “Unfinished Business,” but you’ve been in this business for more than 50 years. Do think there will ever come a point where you walk away from music?
Well, I’ll put it this way: As long as the public will come out to my shows, as long as they still want to hear me sing and pay their hard-earned money to come see me, I’ll keep doing it.
Another thing that’s always pending is your health. My husband and I travel together and so far the lord has blessed us with good health. We’ll probably continue until the lord directs us to some other way where we have to quit traveling and just record or just do TV or something. Right now we’re doing all of it.
Q: I wanted to ask one Elvis question. In those early days did he have as big an appetite for unique foods as he later became famous for?
I don’t think so. I didn’t have a lot of meals with Elvis, but after a show –just like it is today – we were at the mercy of whatever was open at that time of night. Just hamburgers and things like that.
He had breakfast with my dad and I a couple mornings. I thought it was unusual that he wanted watermelon for breakfast. One time he ordered sliced bananas in milk. I think he put sugar in the milk or on the bananas. I thought that was unusual, but I tried it and it was darn good. Now I’ll occasionally have watermelon with breakfast.