The Magic Wanda Jackson

Here’s a from-the-vault interview you probably didn’t expect to see on this blog: one with rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson. Online for the first time, the 2003 conversation revolved around Elvis Presley, Elvis Costello – and the Cramps too.

With Jackson’s new single – a double-covers record featuring Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ “Shakin’ All Over” – dropping this week on Jack White’s Third Man Records, the chat seems worth revisiting. After all, Jackson enjoyed the conversation and article so much that she sent along a thank-you note afterward.

Here’s the interview (and go here for the full transcript):

It’s not every day you hear a still-active musician say, “It was Elvis Presley who got me into playing rockabilly.” But that’s exactly what indestructible country legend Wanda Jackson tells ICE during a conversation about her new album, Heart Trouble.

Fifty-two years into her career, the Queen of Rockabilly continues to tour all over the world – 2003 has seen her grace Europe four times and Japan once already.

Jackson’s recording habits, however, have been far less consistent: Heart Trouble, touching down September 23 on bluegrass label CMH, is her first set of domestically issued studio material since 1984’s Rock & Roll Away Your Blues. (She has, however, recorded a handful of Europe-only albums since then, and last year saw the release of a new live disc, The Wanda Jackson Show: Live and Still Kickin’.)

About half the songs are newly written; half are staples of Jackson’s live set. The full list, with the eclectic array of featured guests in parentheses: “Heart Trouble,” “Cash on the Barrelhead,” “Funnel of Love” (The Cramps), “Woman Walk Out the Door” (Rosie Flores and Stray Cats bassist Lee Rocker), “Crying Time” (Elvis Costello, Attractions drummer Pete Thomas, Cracker bassist Davey Faragher and Doobie Brothers pedal steel guitarist John McFee), “Mean Mean Man,” “It Happens Every Time” (Dave Alvin), “Riot in Cell Block #9” (The Cramps), “Anytime You Wanna Fool Around,” “Hard Headed Woman,” “Lonely for You” (Alvin), “What Gives You the Right (to Do Me Wrong),” “Rockabilly Fever” (Alvin), “Anytime You Wanna Fool Around,” “Hard Headed Woman,” “Lonely for You,” “What Gives You the Right (to Do Me Wrong),” “Rockabilly Fever,” “It’ll Be Me,” “Walk with Me” and “Let’s Have a Party.”

Other notable musicians provide backing parts to many of the songs: her touring band, The Cadillac Angels, Beck guitarist Smokey Hormel, Michael Jackson backup singer Seidah Garrett and Tom Waits partners Stephen Hodges (guitar), Larry Taylor (bass) and Oz Fritz (engineer).

Recording on analog and utilizing vintage microphones, producer John Wooler (Willie Nelson, Counting Crows) and Jackson began laying down basic tracks to Heart Trouble in mid-January, bringing in other musicians when appropriate. Although Jackson recorded the duets “Crying Time” and “Woman Walk Out the Door” with Costello and Flores, respectively, other guests were invited into the studio after Jackson had completed her vocal parts. Every song put to tape was used on the album.

“We had to come up with a different sound this time, rather than just have her re-record classics that were already there,” Wooler explains to ICE. “Especially with all the reissue albums right now … if you want her classic sound, you can find it.”

Wooler is referring to the shower of Bear Family and Capitol vault items that have arisen in recent times, endowing Jackson with late-career hipster status a la R.L. Burnside. In fact, it was acclaimed Bear Family boxes Right or Wrong and Tears Will Be the Chaser for Your Wine that piqued the interest of another famous Elvis: Costello.

Jackson recalls: “When he walked into the studio, my husband took out one of the box sets … Elvis looked at it and said, ‘Oh, I already have that. And I have the second one, too.’ And I’m thinking, ‘My goodness, that means he had to pay for them!’ So I felt like we were real soul mates. He’s like putting on an old pair of house shoes.”

Wooler touches on striking collaborators The Cramps as well: “With them, the appeal was something for the younger crowd, but something that still has depth and quality. It’s psychobilly meet traditional country.”

With only one original song on the album (“Mean Mean Man,” one of the first songs Jackson ever recorded) and five decades’ worth of live favorites to mine, the remaining tracks see Jackson tinkering with tunes by Carl Perkins (“Rockabilly Fever”), The Louvin Brothers (“Cash on the Barrelhead” from ’56) and Jack Clement (“It’ll Be Me,” performed by Gerry & The Pacemakers in ’65 and made famous by Jerry Lee Lewis in ’69). “Hard Headed Woman” is a classic Claude DeMetrius tune Presley performed with The Jordanaires on the ’58 soundtrack to his last black-and-white film, “King Creole.”

Jackson has performed many of these vintage numbers on the road for years, and originally tracked three songs – “Mean Mean Man,” “Hard Headed Woman” and “Let’s Have a Party” – in the early ’60s.

As for the Perkins selection, for which she named a Swedish release in 1985, she notes: “I’ve been using that for an opener for several years. I worked with Carl in the ’50s … we’re old buddies. We toured Europe in the early ’90s, and he sang this in his show. I think it really says what I’m wanting to say: ‘Rockabilly fever is coming back again.’”

Newly penned tracks do populate the disc, though, including “Woman Walk Out the Door” and “What Gives You the Right,” co-written by Flores, and “Walk with Me,” a song scribed for Jackson by Flores collaborator James Intveld. Jaime Hanna of The Mavericks co-wrote “Anytime You Wanna Fool Around.”

Jackson emphasizes the Flores contributions in particular: “She was the first person I invited to be on the album,” Jackson states. “In 1995, she invited me to sing two songs on her new album at the time [Rockabilly Filly]. And that’s what started the whole revival for me in America.”

As to whether or not the 65-year-old hopes to further her renaissance, Jackson remarks: “My career has taken off the last 20 years in a way I never would have believed. Anything can happen. I’m ready for whatever.”

Originally published as “Wanda’s New Waxing” in ICE #198, September 2003.

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