Interview: Rockabilly Queen Wanda Jackson on Jack White, Lady Gaga and Being a Woman in Today's Music Industry

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How do you sum up the influence of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Wanda Jackson? During her 50-year-plus(!) career -- which started when she was a high school student in Oklahoma City -- the singer has moved effortlessly between country, rockabilly and early rock & roll. She opened for (and covered) Elvis Presley, had a then-undiscovered Roy Clark in her band and has never let waning chart success derail her touring schedule. At the age of 73, the queen of cool is touring behind a new, Jack White-produced/arranged album, The Party Ain't Over. (Before you ask: No, White isn't part of Jackson's touring band for this show.) Jackson is again making waves on the strength of Over's first single, a cover of Bob Dylan's "Thunder on the Mountain." She'll be performing at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room on Sunday, March 27, at 8 p.m. Dex Romweber Duo opens. $20 tickets are still available. Jackson recently spoke with Robin Wheeler about her new album

Robin Wheeler: The new album is fantastic. You sound amazing. Wanda Jackson: Thank you. I'm very proud of it. It's all Jack. He's got those great arrangements, and he pulled that performance out of me. Man, he just pushed me right into the 21st century. It's feeling pretty good, by the way.

Are you bringing the horn section for your St. Louis show? You know, on those dates, I'm not the one to ask. Sometimes I don't know for sure. I'm using a band out of Nashville. They're a very good band, but I don't think they're having the horns. Don't say for sure, because things change on me from day to day, and I don't always know what's going on in the office.

You got your start in Springfield, Missouri, with Ozark Jubilee... Oh, my old stomping grounds!

Looking back, how to you feel about that time, being in that place? Well, I think it was some of my better years. I made some great friends, and when you work a show like, every week, or every week that you possibly can, you get acquainted with your cast, the band members and Mr. [Red] Foley himself. It was great. Brenda Lee was coming up in the ranks on the show, and Porter Wagoner and some of the greats in country music. It was a good time, and working with Red Foley was a good experience.

[Ozark Jubilee] was the first network country show. I had just been invited to join the Grand Ole Opry. I also had been asked to join Ozark Jubilee as a regular. To me, that was a no-brainer. I had to have the network television. At least I was smart enough to know that. That gave me such national exposure.

How did you and Jack White choose which songs to cover on the new album, specifically Bob Dylan's "Thunder on the Mountain"? That young man just seems to have an uncanny ability to match performers with the right songs. I don't even question it. I just take his word for it because he seems to really know. He and Bob Dylan are apparently very close. I read in one of his interviews that he said he had three fathers. He has his biological father, his Heavenly Father and Bob Dylan [Laughs]. So that tells me they're pretty close.

He called Dylan and told him he was recording me, and if I did a Dylan song, which one should it be. And Jack said he [Dylan] didn't even hesitate. "Oh, it's gotta be 'Thunder on the Mountain'." And Jack, of course, knows the Dylan version, and he rewrote some of the verses, changed them somewhat to make them pertinent to me. It was fun. It was a challenge. Jack did it just a little bit fast. It's kinda flyin' at ya.

It has that feel of what you started out doing. He copied that energy we had, and that was the challenge for me. He's wanting to pull that eighteen-year-old foxy, little feisty gal out of me. I did my best to give it to him. Wanda Jackson with Jack White, "Shakin' All Over"

How does being a woman in the music industry now compare to what it was when you were eighteen and just getting started? It was a lot more difficult then. You gain some star status as you move along in your career, and oh yeah, it's a lot different. When I first began, my father drove me and was on the road with me. We covered the whole United States driving in a '54 Plymouth. A good little car, but there was no interstate highways, and I don't think any four-lanes. We traveled Route 66 a lot.

Now I get to fly, and I have dressing rooms that meet my needs. Used to be there was no such thing as a rider on a contract [Laughs]. I didn't know anything about being able to say, "I need a mirror in this room. And I do need a chair." It was so much harder, but I was young and I was willing to do it. I was just passionate about my music and what I wanted to do. I had a goal in mind, and I didn't care how hard I had to work to reach that goal.

With being one of the only women at the time who was performing rock & roll, how did you come to have that goal? It wasn't so much a goal as having a difference, as it turned out. Being as different as I was. I just wanted to sing. That's just all I ever wanted to do. Life is a constant changing. All that just happened, just because I was willing to be different. My dad had always said to follow your dreams and do what you want to do, but do it different. Don't be like anybody else.

I was a forerunner of Lady Gaga [Laughs]. You can't help but love her, anyone who's got that much nerve. She is a talent. She knows about how to get attention. She's coming to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in May, I think. I had mentioned to my granddaughter that we ought to go up and try to get tickets. Let's go see her. And my granddaughter was horrified! She said, "Oh Maw," -- they call me Maw, my grandchildren. I thought I'd never like to be called Maw, but now it's very sweet. I love it when they say Maw. "I think you would be offended. She uses bad language a lot." And I said, well, that's a shame because the way I see her she doesn't need to do that. So I probably won't go see her, but I do recognize her as a talent. I didn't mean to get off on that tangent [Laughs].

I'm glad you did! I like it when interviews go ... When they go awry? [Laughs]

I can sit here and ask you the same questions you've been asked for the past 50 years, or you can tell me what's really on your mind. I don't get asked about her very often!

I have a seven-year-old daughter, and she's a little rock & roll monster... No kidding! Well, bless her heart! "Thunder on the Mountain"

Looking at kids like her, what words of wisdom would you pass along to her? What have you learned? Does she have ambitions to sing or be a performer?

She has stage fright. Stage fright usually makes for a very good performer. I had stage fright in the very beginning, but after awhile I didn't. I'll tell you one person who did -- I guess you would call it stage fright -- who did quite well, and that was Elvis Presley. He used to just wear me totally out backstage. There were usually a few artists on before him. I'd be one of them. So I'd do my show, and there he'd be, pacing. Back and forth and back and forth, kind of wringing his hands and shaking his hands out. I'd say, "Elvis, why in the world are you so nervous? All these people have really come to see you. They're tolerating us, but they've really come to see you. So why would you be so nervous?" And he'd say, "I don't know. But it's the first time these people have seen me in person. I just want to be all they expect me to be." You know, that just endeared me to him, because he loved his fans that much. He didn't want to disappoint them. That caused him to be fearful. There's nothing wrong with it.

I'd tell her to follow her heart. Actually, you need to find God's will for your life. So many people don't understand that now, but it's really quite simple. You'll know when you're in God's will, and doors will open for you. You don't have to go out, you know, knocking on...I don't know. I'm not a good one to ask about this because I had it so wonderful and so easy. I had so many good people around me.

Don't you think that God might have put those people in your path? Well, absolutely! I know that now. I didn't know it then, but it seemed like I wanted to be a singer. That's all I really wanted to be. I didn't prepare for anything else. I either had to make it as a singer or I was in deep, hmmm, trouble [Laughs]. Yeah.

First of all, concentrate on your studies. Get your education. And have fun. Enjoy being a little girl. You'll find what your heart is set on. You'll find your dream eventually.

You don't have to follow the trends of all the other kids. It takes a lot of guts to stand up against what everybody else is saying is cool, if you don't go for that. That was me, carrying my guitar down the hall at school, up to my little radio show. They'd laugh, and the guys would taunt me about it. I'd just laugh at 'em and go right on. Laughed all the way to the bank.

How do you have a party these days? I think a party is just having friends enjoying the same type of thing. Put on some records, clear out a little space to dance. Good conversation, good music, good food. That's a party.

You just described most weekends at my house. Hey! Where do you live? Let's throw the sawdust down and turn the music up!

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