Oklahoma City’s Wanda Jackson carries a storied past, but she’s not dwelling on it. She’s a legend, an icon, a slice of rock ’n’ roll history, and while those things are well and good, all she’s ever really wanted is a crowd to hear her sing.
Nearly two years ago, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a fitting and well-deserved recognition for the Queen of Rockabilly. She was delighted with the honor, citing how long and hard she and her camp had worked toward that destination; still she was still looking forward, even at the induction ceremony.
“I’d just been thinking how much longer I would be able to do this,” Jackson said. “It was such a big push to that, and I kind of wondered where I would go from there. It felt like there was only so much time I could keep singing these old, simple songs of mine and keep drawing crowds.”
She paused. “Then Jack White called, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is how I get to stick around.’”
Although 73, Jackson’s hardly the type to just fade away, making it plainly clear she will perform as long as her body lets her. But to do that, she needed audiences to keep coming back.
Getting antsy, Jackson wanted new material, something not only for those who had followed her during her full, 55-year career, but also to hook a new crowd. That’s when White, front man for alt-rock’s The White Stripes, made his offer.
Enter “The Party Ain’t Over” (a throwback to her 1960 hit, “Let’s Have a Party”). Released this week, it is Jackson’s first studio album in eight years, and her first with Third Man Records, the label founded and run by White, who also produced.
I guess he was trying to push me into the 21st century. I think that’s what he’s done.
On it, she covers 12-songs both new (Amy Winehouse’s “You Know That I’m No Good”) and old (The Andrews Sisters’ “Rum and Coca-Cola”), backed by an indie-cred cast that includes White. Their pairing has proven to be an unlikely, if not perfect one. Although she is more than twice his age, they seem to belong to the same era. They would have made a great couple, if the years had folded accordingly (it’s only fitting that White depicted Elvis, whom Jackson briefly dated in 1955, in the 2007 musicbiopic parody “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”).
They are both innovators and musical icons, hell-bent on making good music that anyone can appreciate, and that fact — along with Jackson’s knowledge of White’s winning collaboration with country royalty Loretta Lynn — was the comfort she needed to accept the partnership, despite initial worries.
“I can’t really put my finger on what exactly I mean, but he’s younger than my son,” she said, laughing. “I knew he was one of the hottest names on the planet, but I also thought that just because he was a big artist didn’t necessarily give him the credentials to being a good producer.
“I was also fearful of what kind of material he would be wanting me to do, maybe bringing me up-to-date and singing like somebody else. After we began talking and I got to know him a little bit, he told me that he wasn’t trying to change my style; he just wanted to give me a fresh sound and fresh-sounding material.”
White stayed true to his promise, crafting an album that is just as much Jackson as ever, all while pushing her harder than she had been pushed in years, if not decades. He worked tirelessly to keep her signature, immaculate voice as soft but gritty as ever, all while launching an overall vibe far removed from the decades that birthed it.
“He kept pushing and pushing me, always saying I could push a little harder. I guess he was trying to push me into the 21st century,” she said, laughing. “I think that’s what he’s done.”
While impressed, she didn’t escape the studio unaffected. The entire project was a two-way effort with Jackson resuming the role of student. It’s like a son teaching his mother how to be a good parent, but she listened with an intent ear, often surprised at what she could take away.
“He coached me a little, and I welcome that, although if I don’t always agree. I am the old pro,” Jackson said with a laugh. “I feel like I’m always learning, and you can learn something from everyone you meet. Jack offered a lot to learn from.”
Jackson’s work didn’t
stop in the studio, and it’s been a dizzying experience promoting the
disc. Having rarely taken a break from touring in half a century, she’s
no stranger to sweat — just not at this speed.
“Once Warner Bros.
picked up the album, things went into high gear,” she said. “It’s fun to
work with people who do that and do it well. They are working me to
death, however, but that’s what it takes nowadays. I’m kind of standing
in the middle, scratching my head. Things are moving really fast.”
they are. She’s making numerous appearances on national television, did
50 interviews over the course of three days while in Europe earlier
this month, and is prepping for several dates stateside, including
Friday’s free performance at the ACM@UCO Performance Lab, in promotion
of “The Party Ain’t Over.”
gone as great as imaginable, as Jackson finds herself reaching a whole
new audience, selling out a pair of shows in Los Angeles and another in
New York in less than half an hour.
The grizzled vet is hardly naive.
realizes much of this resurgence is thanks to White, and her newest
fans are the 20- and 30-somethings willing to give anything he touches a
listen. It doesn’t matter to her; what matters is that they are
this whole new generation of fans accepting me because of this,”
Jackson said. “I’m doing Letterman and Conan, and I know it’s on the
strength of his name, but that doesn’t bother me. I want to come through
as Jackson says it’s for him, it’s also for her. She’s lived and
breathed for audiences as long as she can remember, and remains as
passionate and willing as ever. It’s what she’s always asked for, what
she will always live for.
getting to do what you know you were born to do makes it worth it all.
To do the only thing you’ve ever been passionate about my whole life is
music. I’ve always loved to sing; no one has ever had to ask me twice,”
she said. “I feel good about what’s happening now, I really do. I’m
always thought of as an icon or a legend or a trailblazer, but those are
all things in the past. It’s good for your ego, your confidence, to be
thought of as a relevant, current artist, and that’s where I am and hope
to always be.”