Rockabilly Legend Wanda Jackson: "I Do Music People Like"

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Wanda Jackson has had a career most musicians would envy. The "Queen of Rockabilly" has entertained audiences for decades with such songs as "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad," "Hard Headed Woman" and "Fujiyama Mama," displaying an originality and bravado that helped pave the way for artists as diverse as Jack White, Adele and Tanya Tucker.

In 1965, Jackson shifted gears into country, releasing songs like "Big Iron Skillet" and "Earl Had to Die" that left a mark on latter-day stars such as Pam Tillis and Rosie Flores (with whom Jackson recorded and toured in 1995). She recorded a few gospel records in the '70s, and experienced a popularity surge in the '80s when European revivalists sought her out and invited Jackson to play country and rockabilly festivals, which she has continued to do.

Rocks Off recently spoke with the Oklahoma-dwelling legend about her brand-new album, Unfinished Business, touring with Adele and her legacy.

Rocks Off: What's been key to your having such a long and illustrious career?

WJ: Well, I think I do the music that the people like. I do music that continues to live on and on. It takes on a life of its own. If you were the first girl to do it, it works pretty well. I kind of lucked out on that one I guess (laughs). I'm enjoying it.

RO: Your latest album is called Unfinished Business -- a collection of new songs and covers of Etta James and Woody Guthrie, among others. What made you decide to cover such artists?

WJ: The young man that produced the album [Justin Townes Earle] chose the songs. He sent me a lot of songs to go through. I'd been quite busy and I didn't know for sure when I was gonna do my next session.

I liked everything that he picked out. We both had the same idea of going back to my roots - the rockabilly. Even though they're more current -- they're more rockabilly, country, gospel and blues. I was more than happy to do that.

RO: What was it like working with Justin?

WJ: He was very easy to work with. We had the same ideas and liked the same songs. He's more into country and alternative music, so he was familiar with my music even though he's young himself -- just like Jack White was. He's [White] been a fan of mine since he was a teenager. Both of them knew where I was coming from, and they made it easy to work with them.

I was happy with Justin. I had never met him, but we talked on the phone and discussed the album. I could tell he was going to be easy to get along with. I was so happy that a young, up-and-coming man like him was interested in taking time out of his schedule to record me. I think I'm the first one, other than his own records, that he's ever produced. He wanted to take me on, so I said, "OK, let's go for it."

RO: Another song that caught my attention from your latest album was "Two Hands," a gospel song infused with rockabilly. How has your faith influenced you as a whole?

WJ: It definitely affects you as a whole. Your whole life takes on a different perspective. Life is much easier when you become a Christian as far as your priorities, which get set up right. It makes a world of difference. So it certainly influenced me.

RO: I know that you have seen a big popularity surge, especially in Europe, because of your work with artists like Jack White and touring with Adele. What was it like working and touring with those artists -- especially Adele?

WJ: Well, I thought she [Adele] was a sweetheart. I didn't get an opportunity to hang out with her because, when you're on tour, your time is pretty tightly scheduled. You have places to be, interviews to do, miles to make, airplanes to catch.

She would usually come by just about every night, poke her head in and say hi. She met a lot of my friends and was kind to stand and take photos. She was just your girl-next-door-type. She's a gal I'd like to have as a neighbor.

RO: How has this popularity surge affected your career?

WJ: It's done a lot for my career. I'm working larger venues, therefore I am drawing much bigger crowds. I just returned from about a month in Germany and Austria. Right before we did The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, we flew from Berlin to Los Angeles. That was a long one. Every venue that I worked there were larger places and much larger crowds. It's made a big difference, even in Europe.

RO: I know many country, soul and rock legends have cited you as an influence or been fans, a rarity. How does it make you feel to know that you've had that kind of influence?

WJ: It truly is awesome. I had no idea that I was making that kind of an influence on everybody, especially artists of that stature. I figured they had their own influences, but I certainly didn't think I was one of them, so it's very exciting when you find out people like that had been listening to you, [and I] encouraged or influenced them in some way.

RO: I know that you have toured in the past with the likes of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many other rock legends. What was it like touring with those guys?

WJ: He [Elvis] was the first person I actually toured with, so I didn't know what to expect. I had nothing really to compare it to. But I know we had a lot of fun. All of those guys were my buddies because we worked together so much for a year and a half.

Jerry Lee and I still work together every once in awhile. We're at festivals in London and places like that. It was great and proved to be great for my career. Elvis is the one that tried to talk me into doing the new kind of music [rockabilly], which actually didn't even have a name in 1955 -- it was just "Elvis' kind of music."

I didn't think I could do it. He's the one that encouraged me. He said, "I know you can do it and you need to be doing it if you wanna sell a lot of records. You need to do the songs that young people are buying." He said that "young people are beginning to buy the records. " All of that was something new.

Wanda Jackson performs with Jonny Fritz and the Beans, 7 p.m. tonight at Fitzgerald's (upstairs), 2706 White Oak, www.fitzlivemusic.com.

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