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‘Sweet lady with the nasty voice’ still rocks

Wanda Jackson talks Elvises, assets, and staying humble

Publicity photo of Wanda Jackson, age 17

Wanda Jackson, aka the Queen of Rockabilly, helped kick off the musical revolution known as rock ’n’ roll. From Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello, Bob Wills to Cyndi Lauper—and even Jack White—Jackson has shared the stage with many. Originally from Maud, Okla., she is a local and national treasure who has lived her dream of being a professional musician since 1952, her sophomore year of high school. Jackson—now 80, a great-grandmother, and still doing the damn thing—will return to Cain’s Ballroom on Jan. 21 to play an all-ages show. Tickets and more information at cainsballroom.com.

Kris Rose: I noticed in your videos that you have “Wanda Jackson” written on your guitar. Was there more than one?

Wanda Jackson: Yes. That was a series. Daisy Rock Guitars. I represented them for a while, but I don’t play guitar much anymore. It’s a signature line, I think is what it’s called. It has my autograph, then my initials in mother of pearl up the neck, I think. I get more comments on that than just about anything. I had my name and then two or three stars, and my mother and I put rhinestones around it.

Rose: Because everything has to have rhinestones, right?

Jackson: Yeah.

Rose: When did you stop playing so much guitar?

Jackson: I finally decided guitar was covering up my assets. (Laughs) And it’s heavy. I got tired of it. Your guitar is really what you’re hiding behind, so I started when I had a band—I didn’t pick up my guitar on the third set of the night. Before long I was doing two sets without it. Now I haven’t played in a while, because I’ve had excellent bands back me. So, I’ve lost my calluses, and it hurts to get those back. Guitars are heavy for me now. At 80 years old, I don’t have the strength I used to.

I can still sing and rock. Rockin’ chair. Not really. I’m one of few rockin’ great-grandmas. We just had our first great-grandchild.

Rose: Congratulations. I saw the picture. I also read in your book that you originally wrote the song “Right or Wrong” with Brenda Lee in mind and that you worked with her a little bit. What other female rockabilly performers have you worked with?

Jackson: Lorrie Collins … It was a television show in California. [The Collins Kids] were regulars, and I would do a lot of guest appearances. When I had dates in California I’d do the Ranch Party. We were in Las Vegas at the same time. I was at the [Golden] Nugget and they were at the Four Queens, I think, so we’d chum around together.

Rose: Were female performers back then supportive of one another?

Jackson: Yeah, we were all that way in country music in that day and time. We were happy for everybody that got hits … there wasn’t any backstabbing or gossip. We were just all happy to be on TV.

Rose: You’ve had quite a few contemporary female performers, like Cyndi Lauper and Adele, cover your songs. Do you have a particular favorite?

Jackson: Well, Cyndi Lauper, I thought she did “Funnel of Love” very good. She and I performed it together. That was fun, to work with her. She’s a real sweetheart. And I’ve had a lot of people cover “Right or Wrong.” I know Skeeter Davis had it in one of her albums. These new rockabilly artists [recorded a] whole album as a tribute to me. Like 21 different people were singing my songs. It was called Hard-Headed Woman. (Laughs)

Rose: Is there any current performer you’d like to cover your songs?

Jackson: I think Miranda Lambert, would do some of my things real cute. What I really wanna do is sing with Ronnie Dunn, another Oklahoma guy. He’s about my favorite male singer currently.

Rose: We have movies about Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline. When are we gonna have a Wanda Jackson movie?

Jackson: It’s been in the works off and on. One company gave me a good bit of front money, but they’ve got other things going. Now that my book is out, maybe something will happen.

Rose: Do you have anybody in mind to play Wanda?

Jackson: I think there’s gotta be several Wandas. Miley Cyrus would be a good teenage Wanda. I love to hear her talk.

Rose: I love her accent, too. So, you know about the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Was there any Weinstein-type guy back in the day that the women performers warned each other about?

Jackson: Not that I recall. It probably went on, but I was always protected by my father. [He] acted as my road manager, booked dates, and drove me for about six years. Daddy kept me on a pretty short leash, because I was just 17 when I started touring. I’d had a couple of hits, Billboard chart songs, while I was in high school. I had a lot of respect from the men I worked with. I was their little buddy or sister. Then, not too long after I married Wendell Goodman, he took over the spot Daddy filled and began booking the dates. He was very capable, very smart, and he kept my band going. That’s a lot—trying to keep four or five guys out of jail.

Rose: You’ve had one of the most successful careers without any of the drama of alcohol, scandal, pills, or temper tantrums. What advice can you give to young female performers about having a long career?

Jackson: We’re all individuals, and we make our own way. Times have changed so much it’s hard for me to tell somebody how to get started. I tell them if there’s anything else that can ring their bell, that can make them happy, to get up in the morning ... then you might should go do that. But keep your eye on your goal. Even if you get sidetracked, get back on the right path and keep your nose clean.

I told ‘em when they were writin’ the book, “I don’t know what you’re gonna write about. I never even had a divorce; I was able to raise two children reasonably good.” They said, “Well, you kept it all together, and that’s your story. It needs to be told.”

We all find our way. Stay clear-headed and don’t get the big head. My daddy was a wise guy, and he said, “Wanda, everybody else gets a job. They have to get up, punch a time clock. That’s their job, and yours is no more than that. It’s the job you’ve chosen.” That keeps you on the straight and level. Don’t become a diva. Do your job, get paid, and live happily ever after.

Rose: Are you looking forward to playing on the Cain’s stage?

Jackson: Yeah. Elvis Costello was there one time. He had me come out and sing our song we’d recorded together. I worked there once, just me, and we had a good crowd. I remember the old Cain’s, but I think it’s very nice now.

Rose: They’ve cleaned it up.

Jackson: And made it more of a show than just a dance.

Rose: I remember reading that your husband said to Costello, “Great, that’s all I need is another Elvis in my life.” (Laughs)

Jackson: That’s all the hell I need. (Laughs)

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