Despite efforts to force it into a strict chronology, the history of rock 'n' roll is a zigzag affair, and the career of Wanda Jackson illustrates this principle perfectly. During the rock 'n' roll revival of the early '70s, Jackson — who had cut some of rock's fiercest sides in the late '50s — was singing country, and she'd soon turn to gospel. A generation of fans busy rediscovering rock's hidden history turned Jackson into an '80s icon, and today she continues to record a variety of material — in the past two years, she has released a couple of Nashville-recorded collections pairing her with young producers. Jackson is a great rock 'n' roll singer, a superb country vocalist and an all-purpose pop artist whose musicality transcends simple revivalism.
A couple months ago, Jackson released her full-length Unfinished Business, a set of songs produced by Justin Townes Earle. Last year, she made a splash with The Party Ain't Over, which saw Jack White applying his droll sensibility to songs by such tunesmiths as Harlan Howard and Amy Winehouse. The new records prove that Jackson can sing anything, even if you think the imposition of White's and Earle's production styles sometimes obscures her interpretive ability.
Born in 1937 in Maud, Okla., Jackson began her career when she was a teenager. Securing a 15-minute radio program that was broadcast on an Oklahoma City station, she was discovered in 1954 by country singer Hank Thompson, who paired her with his arranger, Billy Gray, on a series of recordings for the Decca label.
"I had a radio program after school for a couple of years, and after my show one day, Hank Thompson called me and invited me to come that Saturday night to sing with him," Jackson says from her Oklahoma City home. "He and I both remember me saying, 'Mr. Thompson, I sure would love to, but I've got to ask my mother.' "
Although her Decca sides were conventional — 1955's "Tears at the Grand Ole Opry" is a listenable curio — they established her as a rising talent. Signed to Capitol Records in 1956, Jackson began to record the rock 'n' roll songs that would entrance future generations of seekers.
Today, Jackson includes such rockers as the atomic-age tune "Fujiyama Mama" in her sets. Having converted to Christianity in 1971, the singer now sees no dichotomy between rock 'n' roll and her faith. She hit the pop charts with 1960's rocking "Let's Have a Party," but the following year's self-penned "Right or Wrong" furthered her reputation as a country singer.
"I introduce some rock fans to some country by yodeling, and doing 'Right or Wrong,' " says Jackson. "Now, Jerry Lee [Lewis] and some of them have had trouble thinkin' they couldn't do rock. And I guess, as brand-new Christians, we kind of wonder about that. But after you walk with God and you realize that what God wants for you is whatever is best for you, then He makes way for you."
Jackson's rock sides feature her cheerfully lewd vocals and guitar work from such superb players as Buck Owens and Joe Maphis. Her 1956 "I Gotta Know" begins with five bars of a country waltz before Jackson explodes over a rock 'n' roll underpinning: "When you're on that floor / You're cool, man, cool / But when it comes to lovin' / You need to go to school." It's perhaps the most telling marriage of Jackson's disparate impulses on record.
Moving back to country in the '60s, Jackson continued to hit the charts. Her final Capitol single, 1972's "Tennessee Women's Prison," is among her best work. She continued recording gospel music, and her reputation began its rise in the '80s with the publication of an essay about her in Nick Tosches' 1984 book, Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll. Jackson had never really been forgotten — such connoisseurs of unbridled rock as The Cramps were her disciples.
Jackson recorded the 1984 full-length Rock 'n' Roll Away Your Blues with Swedish musicians, acquitting herself with panache. Her 2003 Heart Trouble paired her with The Cramps' Lux Interior and Poison Ivy on a remake of her 1961 "Funnel of Love." White's production of 2011's The Party Ain't Over adds horns to her sound, while Earle's Unfinished Business proves Jackson can sing material by the likes of Steve Earle and Greg Garing.
Jackson's career has been remarkable, and she tells the Scene a film biopic is in the works. "As we speak, a screenwriter is writing a movie of my life," she says. "It will be done this coming year, I think." Interesting to see how her story might translate in movie terms — she is a protean figure whose contributions to musical culture transcend rock 'n' roll itself.
Meanwhile, Jackson remains an impeccable singer. On Unfinished Business, her rendering of the Woody Guthrie-Wilco song "California Stars" demonstrates her ability to sing virtually anything. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, Jackson finds satisfaction in being one of the great rockers, although she transcends category.
"The rock 'n' roll songs are just too much fun to sing, and my audiences just revere me," says Jackson. "They think I hung the moon. You can't complain about that. After being inducted into the Rock Hall, well, I sure don't mind singin' those songs."
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