Wanda Jackson Transcript, 6.26.03: On ‘Soul Mate’ Elvis Costello, Elvis Presley And More

Here’s my vintage, previously unpublished conversation with the Queen of Rockabilly (Bob Dylan’s words, not mine), Wanda Jackson. In it, she gives a track-by-track analysis of 2003’s Heart Trouble – which still stands as her most recent album.

[Here’s the related article, and here’s a personalized Wanda Jackson card and matchbook.]

When did you realize that it was time for a new album?

Well, of course I’d been wanting a new release in America for a while, but CMH approached us. And so I was very flattered, naturally. I mean, they’re a fine company. Been around a while. And so when they offered to do the project I was thrilled. I don’t know how long ago that’s been, I’d say late last year sometime. October or something.

Had you already recorded material on your own?

No.

So you waited until the label approached?

Oh, yeah. I know a lot of the artists go ahead in the studio and record and find a company, but no. I haven’t ever done that.

Did you have any sort of ideas in mind when you went into the studio?

Well, I think that’s a rather interesting story, because CMH Records are mainly known for bluegrass. I mean, as far as I know. And that’s what I was told also, it’s mainly bluegrass. Well, so when they approached me, naturally I assumed they wanted a bluegrass album and I was thrilled because I’d never done one. And I love bluegrass and I know a lot of the songs. But then, as we kept going and talking about songs, it just changed. And so all of the sudden it was more like, for lack of a better word, a showcase. So they said you can do anything you want. You can do country or rockabilly or old or new or you can do gospel. So we have little bit of all of it in there. But I do have some of what I’m calling, strictly for reference sake, new country. That’s not to say I’m trying to do songs like Faith Hill and Martina McBride and those. But it is new songs from the new writers in Nashville, and I just felt very honored that they were sending me some really good things from the writers in Nashville. Aretha Sills did that for me. She got that done and I think I did about five original country [songs]. That’s not county-country. It’s new country but it’s not … whatever this new country is, it’s like almost pop. It’s not that kind of country. It’s not going back to the chump-chump-chump old country stuff. It’s what’s happening now.

You could even call it new classic country.

Oh yeah, I like that. Let’s hope it will be.

Could you touch a little bit on each track?

“Heart Trouble.” That was one of the new ones from Nashville, and I loved it so much. And I think it came out so good. So John and Aretha and I all decided that should be the title song.

And you put it first because you were so enamored by it?

Well, maybe I’m from the old school, but I think the title of an album, if you’re using the song title, put it first. Why bury it in the middle of your album somewhere, or at the very end? I have albums like that by other artists, and I’m thinking, “Why did you do that?” So anyway, it kind of sets the pace for the album. It gives you a little taste of what I’m going to be doing.

And then we have “Cash on the Barrelhead”. Well, that’s an Ira and Charlie Louvin song from the ‘50s. And I see Charlie often in Nashville. Not too long ago we did a show with him. Ira was killed, you know, in the ‘60s. So I just wanted to reach way back and find a good old country song and try to bring it up to date. So hopefully that’s what we did.

Interesting to contrast a new country song with an old one because it sets the tone for the rest of the record.

It really does, and I can attribute that to Aretha and John Wooler. They’ve set out the lineup and they’ve done an excellent job. But they also got my input. You know, I was with Capitol Records like, 18 years, and they didn’t consider hardly any of my wishes. I might have gotten photo approval, but I never had anything about the lineup. So this was all new to me. And I thought it was very interesting that our thoughts were along the same lines.

So anyway, the next one is “Mean, Mean Man”. A song I wrote. One of the first ones I recorded when I started doing rockabilly. And I wanted to do that one again because I’m doing it in every show I do now, for the last ten years at least. Because I’m finding how popular it is, and I didn’t know it. You know, with the fans. And also I learned that many of the musicians that are on the album with me, the Cramps, and Poison Ivy and Lee Rocker and all these, I just thought it’s still popular with my fans so bring it up to date with the new musicians. That’s kind of how that happened.

And then “It Happens Every Time.” That’s just another new one out of Nashville.

“Want Me to Walk Out the Door.”: Rosie [Flores] wanted to be on the album with me, and I thought it was so neat, because in 1995 she invited me to sing two songs on her new album at that time. And that’s what started the whole revival for me in America was doing the songs with Rosie. And I said, “Rosie, if I can come to California and help you promote your new record any way at all, let me know.” So it wasn’t long till she and my husband were getting together and she had hired a booking agency and we wound up doing five weeks of dates. Bimbo’s in San Francisco all the way to the Bottom Line in New York City. And so she wanted to be on the album and certainly she was the first one I invited. And so we did one of the songs that she had written, “Want Me to Walk Out the Door.”

Then we have “Riot in Cell Block Number Nine”. That’s another song that just continues to be popular. It’s like “Mean, Mean Man.” I just do it every show, and people who might not even know it like it. And those who know it just really have a good time with that song.

When did you first play that song?

It was the early ’60s. And the same with the next one, “Funnel of Love”. I have a little story around that. On the tour with Rosie, I kept getting requests for “Funnel of Love”, and I thought, “How do these kids know this song?” It was on the flip side of “Right or Wrong” on the 45. So I’m thinking, “How in the world? I don’t even know the song anymore. I’ve never sang it except on the record.” And so I let that tour go by. I couldn’t learn it that quick and get it all done. So I waited a while and I kept getting requests for it everywhere I went. So I finally got the record out and I learned it again and now I’m using it in every show. Even in Sweden, they love it too.

Then there’s “Crying Time.”

Yeah, well that just really blew me away. Because for Elvis Costello to even say he wanted to record a song with me on my album, that was an honor.

Were you familiar with his work?

Well I certainly knew of them, yeah. And I knew that he was up for three Grammy Awards. And so they got it coordinated where he was in California, but at that point I couldn’t get in. I think I was in Japan or somewhere. But anyway some dates changed and something cancelled and something else opened up, so I was able to come in at the very time he was in L.A. to do his guest shot on the “Frasier” show. So, that young man said that the only way he’d record with me, this was his request, was that we be in the studio together. Of course he’s such a fine artist, he has reasons for all these things and I didn’t know that. But he not only came in to record with me in person, but he brought his band. So he’s a real perfectionist. And the first time I met him he walked into the studio we were using for this project, and my husband said, “Why don’t you give Elvis one of your #1 box sets with all of these rocking songs?” I said, “Great, good idea.” So my husband meets him and he says, “Wanda has something she’d like for you to have.” And he takes out this box set and Elvis looks at it and says, “Oh, I already have that. And I have the #2 box set also.” And I’m thinking, “My goodness, that means he had to pay for them.” They’re family records. And so that really told me he was a fan. And he was the nicest guy, I just felt like I’d known him all my life. He’s like, I’d say, putting on an old pair of house shoes. Very comfortable with him. And I had sent him several songs to consider for duets, and this is the one he picked out. And this is my favorite also. So I felt like we were real soul mates.

Did you get a chance to play that with him live?

Well I’m hoping. If magazine articles like yours draw enough attention to the album, who can say? I’m at the point now where I don’t try to second-guess anything. My career has just taken off the last twenty years in a way I never would have believed. So anything can happen. I’m ready for it, whatever.

How about Carl Perkins’ “Rockabilly Fever”?

I’ve been using that for an opener for several years. I worked with Carl in the early ‘90s, a tour in Europe. And of course I’d worked with him in the ‘50s, we’re old buddies, but again in the early ‘90s and he sand this song on his show. And I kept listening to it. I thought, “Man, what a great song that would be for an opening song for me.” So I just learned it off his record and started using it and what can I say? I just wanted to do it. I think it really says what I’m wanting to say. “Rockabilly Fever is coming back again.”

Did you play it live in the ‘50s as well?

No. I’d never even heard it until the ‘80s. I recorded it in Sweden, in fact our album was called “Rockabilly Fever” and that would have been in ’85. So somewhere before that I worked with Carl and heard the song. And I just feel like he must have written it for me. When you listen to the worlds, it talks about Elvis and rockabilly’s coming back and everything. So I thought it was a natural.

And there’s another song co-written with Rosie Flores, “What Gives You the Right to be Wrong”.

That’s my very favorite song on the whole album. That doesn’t mean it’ll be everybody’s but that song is just so, I don’t know, I just really love it. What can I say, but the melody and the story, it’s a great song. I think it’s probably a song that an artist that’s really big in country right now, you know, Patti Loveless or whoever it might be, could do this and probably have a smash hit. I know it’s a hit song. I don’t know if it’ll be discovered, my version of it or not, but I think it’s a great song.

“Any Time You Wanna Fool Around”?

I think that is the greatest little country song. It’s probably my second favorite on here. I have like three favorites, or four. I gotta have four. But they’re really the original ones. “Heart Trouble,” and “What Gives You the Right” and “Any Time You Wanna Fool Around.”

And we have “Hard-Headed Woman” next.

I’ve been doing that in my shows around a little tribute I do to Elvis I do in all my shows. So I’ve been using that for a long time, and I think Aretha and John like that and they said, “Let’s do that again.” If I remember correctly that was their suggestion. Because it was Elvis Presley that brought me into getting into rockabilly.

What other songs in the Elvis tribute?

Well, I have different things I do with different bands. I have a band in Sweden that does a medley of songs. Like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Money Honey” and “Hound Dog”. And then really the most popular song with the audience in “One Night With You.” And I recorded that on Denmark CD project that I did a couple of years ago. But “One Night With You” and “Trying to Get to You.” So it can be a combination of any of those.

What about “Lonely for You?”

It’s just another one of the original songs out of the group of songs I got. It just came to the top also, the cream of the crop, you know? And I like it. I think that maybe you could say that this is the 21st century rockabilly song. I would think this might be it.

Three remaining songs. “It’ll Be Me.”

That was an old Jerry Lee Lewis song. It was brought to my attention somewhere along the way and I thought, “Man, that was a great song written by Chuck Willis.” It’s another one of my favorites on the album.

Jack Clements is credited with the song.

You’re right. That was Jack’s song.

You brought in backing vocalists on “Walk with Me.”

You’ll have to ask John about that. They did their part after I left. I really don’t know who it is. I don’t know their names but I’d love to give them credit in your article because I thought they did a fantastic job on all of them. Someone said Poison Ivy and one of the guys from her group did some of the backup and then there were some other people did the others.

When you leave, some of the musicians even had to come in. We’d just lay down a basic track and then the guitar player or the piano player would come in. So it was all kind of new to me when it all got put together.

So you recorded with the rest of the band?

We had the majority of the people there when I was recording. But still there were some little special things. Like if you want a heavy piano like in “It’ll Be Me.” We had piano there, but maybe we didn’t get enough piano. So I would say, “I want more piano.” So he’d come in and lay his stuff down. He was there and the guitar player was there when I was recording. Because I have to have enough music to feel these songs, right? But if you wan to add a little tasty thing, if you want organ, if you want a little vocal here and pull this out. You have to do that later, because I don’t live in California and I tour 12 months a year. So they just have to get me when they can and then they might throw something else in. But I knew basically what it was gonna be. It wasn’t a surprise to me. I have approval on everything.

The closing track, “Let’s Have a Party.”

There again, people in America have not heard a recording of me singing, “Let’s Have a Party” since ’59 or ’60. That was the original. So even “Mean, Mean Man” and “Hard-Headed Woman” and “Let’s Have a Party,” I recorded them before but it’s been that long. In the early ’60s. So if they liked them, this is a little up-to-date version. And we put some titles in there, or John and Aretha did, so that my fans could look and say, “Oh, hey, here’s ‘Party,’ ” and we’re putting the other ones in to show them some new things. And I have some fans I’ve sent a song or two for them to listen to and they like them real well so I’m hoping all the fans will like them.

Is this a greatest-hits album?

To me, if I pick up an album, or I’m wanting an album by somebody and I pick it up, I’d like to see something on there that I’m familiar with, of theirs. Know what I mean? So I didn’t want this to be an album of all original things. Nobody would know what it was. So by putting this on there, and the way they have blended them so well, you’ve got a new and an old and another new, and yet it just all blends so nicely. John Wooler has just done a fantastic job of putting all this together. I’ve never worked with anybody any easier to work with. I’ve never been treated better by any company that I have with CMH.

What releases have you put out in Sweden but not in the U.S.?

Well, I’ve done a couple of recordings in Sweden but it was a few years ago. They were never released in America. I’ve done two albums in Denmark, and one of those was picked up by an American company. Rounder Records. They took the album and changed the title to Rock & Roll Away Your Blues. In Denmark it was something else. And I do a lot of recording with other artists in Europe. Kind of like Rosie did on my album and I did on hers and James Enfield, he didn’t sing but he played and he wrote the song for me. So it’s kind of like a cameo. And I do a lot of that in Europe and it’s really been interesting and been fun to do. Germany and Austria and Czechoslovakia and Hungary and Denmark.

Do you spend most of the year outside the U.S.?

I’d say half and half. We’re in business with our son and our daughter works for us and so our grandkids are there so yeah, we get home. Stay home all that we can. But we love to travel, it’s been our life. We’ve been married, in October it will be 42 years. That’s almost a record for people in show business. At least the people I know. So we try to be home all that we can but we love to travel and as long as we can we’d like to do that. Our health is good and the fans still come out. It’s so interesting that this is my 20th consecutive year to tour for a month to six weeks in Sweden. In October of last year, a place I’ve worked for about five years in a row, every year, I drew the biggest crowd I’ve ever had. And I’m scratching my head thinking, “This can’t be happening.”

Why Sweden in particular?

That’s a good question. I don’t know. I tell the people in Sweden, “Sweden and I have been having a love affair for 20 years, and my husband says it’s OK.”

Future recording?

Probably, if this one does good. I’ve got both my hands, the fingers are crossed. Probably CMH would want another one, if it’s successful. Everything is kind of iffy at this point. But we’ll see.

When will you come back to the U.S.?

I go back in August, the day after my grandson’s birthday. Then we come back to England for a big rockabilly festival in September. So that’ll be four times I come to Europe, Lord willing, this year. So it’s always four to five times a year. And we’ve also been to Japan this year. So that’ll make five. You know the jet-lag is kind of hard on you.

More transcripts:

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• “Wanda Jackson Transcript, 6.26.03: On ‘Soul Mate’ Elvis Costello, Elvis Presley And More
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