A little Oklahoma girl with a heart the size of Texas, Wanda Jackson brought undeniable spunk to her music. She was the first woman to join the rockabilly craze in the mid-‘50s thanks, in part, to the encouragement of Elvis Presley. As a woman, she had trouble getting played on the radio and was forced for a time to return to country music. Then in 1960, she had a hit with a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Let’s Have a Party.” When rockabilly gave way to rock, she returned again to country, joining Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells and Tammy Wynette in bringing a self-possessed spirit to the music.
Jackson became a born-again Christian in the ‘70s and released a series of gospel albums. She sat out a good bit of the ‘80s and ‘90s before returning with a self-titled album in 2001. Two more albums followed and an induction in the Rock Hall of Fame in 2009. This sparked a renewed appreciation of Jackson’s music, and last year’s Jack White-produced album, The Party Ain’t Over, capitalized on it, with her best selling album to date. She returns Oct. 9 with Unfinished Business, produced by Justin Townes Earle. And now, Jackson’s in town for the 51st Annual Philadelphia Folk Fest.
I guess it was your father who really sparked this, and they really did whatever they could to help make this dream a reality.
Yeah, once they realized that was my dream. Because my Daddy had always sung and played. He had a little band, but it was during the Depression days, and I think they just worked little local places around. But he loved music. And he played fiddle and guitar. So I think it was born in me, the love of music. He’s the one that taught me. He knew that I wanted to learn to play guitar, so he bought me a little guitar. I’m an only child, so they doted on me and got me anything I wanted. Then when they knew it was my dream to be a singer, then they just made it happen for me.
You career essentially began when you were double dared to go onto a radio contest. If they hadn’t double-dog-dared you, where would we be?
Yeah, where would I have been? Selling Avon? It was a little radio show where [the host] devoted 15 minutes to local talent. My friends knew that I sang because I sang at church meetings and things. All my friends knew that and just double-dog-dared me. I was shy and never really sang for anyone other than people that I knew. But they double-dog-dared me, so I had to.
Even though this was music of your generation, singing rockabilly felt a little funny to you at first?
Well, simply because it was so new, and the only ones I had heard sing it was Bill Haley and Elvis. In the very beginning, I started working with Elvis in ’55. I was just out of school, so all I heard was what they were playing on the radio. All the girls were pop singers, and then Kitty Wells came along. [Presumably 1952’s “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”] She had a number-one song. Loretta Lynn wasn’t around yet, singing her kinds of songs. We were mostly demure and soft spoken in country music. But music, like life, is forever changing. Always in transition. So you just hold on a while—it will change.
I love that story that you had stage fright to begin with, but Elvis had it worse.
I didn’t have a lot of stage fright once I got a little confidence that I knew what I’m doing. But he’d just run his hands and walked a mile back and forth, back and forth, and I asked him why was he so nervous still, when he was so successful and all the people in the audience were here to see him, not anybody else on that bill. We were just taking up time. And he said, ‘That’s the thing. It’s the first time they seen me in person, and I don’t want to disappoint them. I want to be what they want me to be.’ And it just made him nervous.
That drive is probably part of what made him a great performer.
It does. It keeps you on edge. The times when I do feel a bit nervous usually turn out to be good shows.
I understand a lot of this late career renaissance started with Elvis Costello stepping up for you with the Rock Hall, and it’s been gathering momentum ever since then?
I think you’re right. Exactly. My husband [Wendell] started to spearhead a drive to get me in that Rock Hall. I had never thought much about it because I didn’t ever think I would be in it. I thought that was for the superstars of the era. But when they put me in the Early Influence category, then I felt, this is good, this is right. Because I had to think back to all the ones that last few years who told me I influenced them. Their style and their manner of dress. A lot of things. I was happy with that. And Elvis Costello did a song on one of my albums a few years ago [2003’s Heart Trouble]. He had just been inducted himself into the Hall. So he said he was just outraged when he found out I wasn’t in there. So Wendell got Elvis on his side right quick, and he said we have to make that happen. Then Bruce Springsteen steps up. There’s just been a bunch of big artists who told me I influenced them. And it’s very thrilling.
I noticed Steve Earle is on the bill. Are you going to be offering him a positive report on his son, Justin?
Yeah, I have nothing but positive things to say about his son. We had a very good relationship, and we’ll be doing more things together in the future. I enjoyed working with him. He was very laid back and very cool. Totally different than Jack White. Jack’s a little uptight.
One of my favorite songs of yours is “Funnel of Love” Could you tell me what you remember or your thoughts on that song?
I have a new memory of that song, which is the best of all. I always liked it, and Ken Nelson, my producer, liked it so. It wasn’t country, it wasn’t rock, but we knew it was a good song. So we made a good record on it. Last year, Adele asked me to open 10 of her shows, which I did, and she told me—and she tells her audience, and I’ve seen it in magazine interviews—she said if she hadn’t heard Wanda Jackson sing “Funnel of Love,” there never would have been a “Rolling in the Deep.” She says she’s my newest, biggest fan. I don’t know how it inspired her to write that song, but that’s great it did. Her song’s a great song; I wouldn’t want to lose that.
Do you have any special affinity for Philadelphia?
PW's Music Issue 2014