Music News & Reviews

Fans haven't forgotten rockabilly's Wanda Jackson

For the past 25 years, Wanda Jackson has found rockabilly fans even when she wasn't looking for them.

During the mid-'80s, when the veteran singer largely devoted her career to gospel music, she discovered enough interest in her rockabilly past, which gave rise to hits like Let's Have a Party, Fujiyama Mama and Mean, Mean Man, to record a roots-oriented album and to book a subsequent tour.

In 1995, new-generation rockabilly star Rosie Flores recruited Jackson for duets on her album Rockabilly Filly. That's when audiences began to reawaken to Jackson's music.

Then in recent years, enough of a global fan base emerged to warrant Jackson tours of Australia in 2007 and 2008.

“It seems rockabilly has really come to the forefront again all over the world,” Jackson, 71, said by phone recently from her home in Oklahoma City. “And that lands me right in the middle of it.”

In April, Jackson's mighty rockabilly past will receive its greatest acknowledgement with an induction — along with Jeff Beck, Metallica, Run-DMC, Bobby Womack and Little Anthony and the Imperials — into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“How about that? I have lots of various Hall of Fame inductions, but this is the big one. Of course, I'm especially honored to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with all of my buddies — Elvis (Presley), Jerry Lee (Lewis), Brenda Lee. I'm very flattered.”

In a career that stretches back to the mid-1950s, before there was music officially termed rock 'n' roll, Jackson has established ties with quite a few “buddies.” She briefly dated Presley while on tour and, nearly three decades later, recruited another Elvis — Costello — as one of several guests on an album titled Heart Trouble.

Costello petitioned the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for Jackson's induction. In an open letter to the nominating committee, Costello wrote, “You hear lots of rocking girl singers who owe an unconscious debt to the mere idea of a woman like Wanda. She was standing up onstage with a guitar in her hands and making a sound that was as wild and raw as any rocker, man or woman, while other gals were still asking, ‘How much is that doggy in the window?'”

One of Jackson's many touring mates, iconic country singer George Jones, will perform in Lexington on Friday — the same night that Jackson will perform at The Dame.

“I remember being with George for quite a few tours and some television appearances,” Jackson said. “Of course, I never lived in Nashville, so I never knew George socially at all. But we were good friends.

“I'm sure he's been told this many times, but George is one of country music's greatest voices. While he's such an individual stylist, he has come to embody what country music is.”

The same could be said for Jackson's affiliation with rockabilly, as well as her fascination for blending rootsy grooves with country tradition in the '60s on hits like Right or Wrong and In the Middle of a Heartache. Of course, when a career lasts for decades, that means those songs have to be delivered night after night, year after year. But Jackson said that growing weary of singing the same hits has never been a problem.

“I heard a saying by another singer one time that I've never forgotten. It goes, ‘There is no such thing as a tired song, only a tired singer.' That's the motto that I live by, and it has served me very well.

“Even though it's a song I wrote, I still enjoy singing Right or Wrong. And, heck, I've never gotten tired of singing Let's Have a Party. I've been doing that one ever since 1960.”

The primary constant in a career that stretches over half a century has been her home life. Jackson married Wendell Goodman in 1961. He also is her manager and travels with her on all of her tours.

“I consider my marriage the most important accomplishment of my life,” Jackson said. “Sometimes you just need a man around to do the business part of things. I'll do a show and have so much fun that I'll forget to get paid.

“My husband thinks our marriage has lasted because there's no competition. He's not a performer, although he's quite an entertainer in his own right. It seems the marriages where the husband and wife are both trying to be stars have the most trouble. There's not enough room in a marriage for that much ego.”

And so life and music go on for, as the title of a recent Jackson film documentary calls her, The Sweet Lady With the Nasty Voice. Jackson laughs at the description but isn't sure which part of it suits her life and music best.

“I don't know about that ‘sweet' part.'”

The “sweet” part might better describe Jackson's audience — especially younger fans who turn out for her concerts. Some might view rockabilly as a bit of retro fun. Others, who have followed the links between rockabilly and the evolution of rock 'n' roll, might view a Jackson concert as an opportunity to witness a musical pioneer at work.

“I still love to sing those little rockabilly songs, especially to the young audiences out there in all of their vintage clothes,” Jackson said. “It kind of keeps you feeling like a teenager. And you've got to love that.”

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