Wanda Jackson on advice from Jack White and Elvis, and being a hard-headed woman
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In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.
The artist: For almost 60 years now, Wanda Jackson has been making and recording music. Known to most of her fans as The Queen Of Rockabilly, Jackson has had a more varied career recently. A born-again Christian who experienced a musical resurgence through a collaboration with Jack White, she’s spent the past few years recording and releasing everything from Amy Winehouse covers to more traditional country tracks. Her latest record, Unfinished Business, was produced by country singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle and is out now on Sugar Hill Records.
“Am I Even A Memory” (from 2012’s Unfinished Business)
Wanda Jackson: I love the song. I think the melody is beautiful, and the thought is so sad, you know? “Don’t you even remember me?” [Laughs.] But I met the songwriter right before I recorded the song, and I told him I thought it was so beautiful. And he said, “Well, I was hoping you’d do it, because 17 years ago, I wrote that song just for you.” And I thought, “All these years later”—and I’m sure the song has circulated around a little bit—“and I wind up recording it on a new album.” That’s kind of amazing.
The A.V. Club: Did you like working with Justin Townes Earle?
WJ: I just found him very easy to work with. He and I have country roots, and each song, we’d set a tempo—he would, or the band—and we’d get the tempo at the pace we wanted, and we thought pretty much alike. But these days, you can record your part, and the band does theirs. But still, when the record comes out, they add voices, they add maybe an organ in the background or something like that. So you never know exactly what’s on your record until it comes out. I enjoyed working with him in the studio, and I was in there with the band, so it wasn’t like it was already recorded and I had to sing it their way. I got to have some input that way. It’s the old-fashioned way of doing it, but all of us seemed to like it better anyway.
AVC: How did you end up working with Justin? Did your label come to you with him in mind, or did you meet him independently?
WJ: Well, my publicist and assistant—he’s really my husband’s assistant—he’s really a get-up-and-go, make-things-happen type of guy, and he came to us wanting to do our website. He said, “You have a nice website, but I can make a great one for you.” [Laughs.] And he did that for free for, I don’t know, a year or two. So he’s that kind of guy who’s just a mover and a shaker. He’s the one who got Jack [White] lined up for me to record for him, too. And he just said, “We gotta get another album out.” And I said, “Well, I don’t see any big hurry. Most of the artists these days, they put out one every three years.” He said, “No, we want to get another one out so we can ride on the momentum of the last one.” “Well, okay,” I said, kind of dragging my feet. It just happened to hit me at a time when I wasn’t feeling well. I had impacted sinuses and lung congestion. Still traveling and trying to work. I had laryngitis. [Laughs.] And so I was not in much of a mood to do an album, but I got a lot better before I went into the studio.
AVC: So he said, “You should work with Justin”?
WJ: Something like that. He said, “What do you think about letting Justin Townes Earle produce this album?” I said, “I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him.” I didn’t really know who he was. Of course, I didn’t know who Jack White was either, at the beginning. I’m kind of out of the loop these days. I work by myself so much, and I don’t work with other artists, so I don’t know anything about them. But I said, “Well, sure, fine. Tell me something about him.” And then he did.
So he started getting in touch with Justin, then Sugar Hill [Records] came into the picture, and before long, Justin and I began exchanging songs. He sent me every song on Unfinished Business with the exception of one. I was impressed that he had put some thought into this. Before even I knew I was going to be doing it, he was getting songs. Apparently he wanted to do this project, and it was fine with me. So we were in the studio not too long after all that happened, enjoying working together.
He’s very quiet and laid-back. One time, I tapped him on the shoulder. I said, “I’ve got a question, I’m sorry I woke you up.” [Laughs.] He said, “No, no, I wasn’t asleep.” He’s just so easygoing.
“You Know I’m No Good” (from 2011’s The Party Ain’t Over)
WJ: Well, that song was a difficult song for me. I actually went into the studio totally unprepared to record it. I thought it was too sexually explicit and a little bit too much. I tell my audience it really isn’t age-appropriate, but Jack was really set on me doing this song, and I said, “Jack, I don’t think my fans expect me to sing songs like that.” He said, “Oh, but they’ll love it. I guarantee you they’ll love it.” And sure enough, they do. So I said, “Well, you’ll have to teach me the melody and work with me.” He said, “That won’t be a problem.” And I said, “I’m not singing that second verse, either.” I put my foot down, “I’m not gonna sing that second verse.” He said, “Oh, okay,” and he took out his pen right there on the spot, just began keeping the same idea, but changing it and taking the mention of [Amy Winehouse] being in bed with her ex-boyfriend, and softened it. I said, “Well, okay, that’s better, I don’t mind singing that verse.” I wound up really enjoying singing that song. It’s great to perform. My audiences do like it.
AVC: Was working with Jack easy? Was he a little more forcible than Justin?
WJ: Yeah, he had more definite ideas.
AVC: He seems like he knows what he wants, like he has a clear vision.
WJ: Very, very much so. It was harder work. It was more of a challenge, because he pushed me on every song, it seemed like. I admit, I need to be pushed, but sometimes I was getting a little put out. I would do a take, and he would say, “That was great, Wanda.” And I would go, “Whew, good, I pleased him, now we can go to another song.” [Laughs.] And he would say, “Give me one more take, and push just a little bit more.” And I said, “Jack, you’re a slave-driver.” [Laughs.] I said, “I’m an old lady, you gotta remember that.” And he’d just laugh it off, “Yeah, well, you get in there and growl and get hold of the song and make it your own.” So I did my best to do that, and we wound up with a darn good album, I think.
He is just something else. And we’re friends now. We don’t necessarily stay in touch, he’s a busy guy, but I feel like we are friends. It was a good coming together of talent, and he made it work in an excellent way.
AVC: Was putting Billy Gray on that track a way for the label to hedge putting out a semi-progressive track from a single lady?
WJ: I wouldn’t think so, because they were helping me along, even though I was that young. You may not know the name Hank Thompson, but he turned out to be my friend and mentor. I worked with him, I learned so much from him. He would work here in Oklahoma City. He lived here, but when he also worked here, he had me sing with his band. He got a TV show and he put me on that, so all of my early learning about entertaining came from him. I always wanted to please Hank. But that song, it was just a duet song, and on the session, I think I did three other songs that weren’t duets. So I didn’t want to be typecast as a duet.
“Hard Headed Woman” (1960)
AVC: You and Elvis both did this song. Did you learn anything from him?
WJ: Oh yeah, he was a natural. I learned some things from him. And he’s the one who encouraged me to try singing this kind of music. He told me how popular it was getting, and explained that young people were beginning to buy the record now, not just adults, like it had always been before. He talked to my dad and me. He said, “If you want to sell a lot of records, I think you’re gonna have to pick up on these songs along with your country music.” And so we took the message, and I started looking for songs, and it was kind of hard. There weren’t many songs being written for girls like that. In the beginning, it was kind of blues songs or a country song that we could work with, but then the artists began writing their own, and that’s what I had to do, too. I wrote quite a few of mine in order to have material to sing.
Elvis was a very important person in my life and my career. Hank Thompson and Elvis and my dad, and now my husband. I’ve always been surrounded with men. I guess it just takes a man to push me into doing these things. Hope I give ’em a run for their money.
“Fujiyama Mama” (From 1960’s From Rockin’ With Wanda)
WJ: This song didn’t do much of anything here in America when it was first released, but it did well in Japan. I couldn’t believe it, because it hadn’t been that many years since we had won that war by dropping the atomic bomb, and that’s what the song is kind of referring to, the woman to the volcano, Mount Fuji into the atom bomb. And so I thought, “Boy, America is gonna love this.”
It wasn’t an original. Annisteen Allen had the original on it, but I covered it and did it quite a bit different than she had done it. Before long, I was hearing that it was No. 1 in the country of Japan for one whole summer. Of course, we had a lot of military guys in bases set up in Japan by that time. So naturally they liked that song. Then I wound up doing a two-month tour, and it was a dream come true for me, because I always wanted to travel the world, and I sure wanted to go to Japan. It was the first on my list, and then Germany. And it pretty well worked out for me that way. Japan was the first time I left America. Then Germany came along a little bit later.