June 8, 2008
The original rockabilly queen.
When Wanda Jackson heeded Elvis Presley’s advice and put some rock in her country, she shattered all conventions associated with her gender’s place in country music, injecting a raw energy into her records and live performances that still turns heads today.
In the beginning, her aspirations weren’t that lofty. Her dad bought her a guitar when she was a young child, and she grew up imitating the country acts of the forties, like Spade Cooley and Tex Williams. She was just fifteen when she won a local talent contest in Oklahoma City, the prize being her own 15-minute weekly radio show. She continued to perform on the station throughout the rest of high school, and her time was doubled as her popularity grew.
Hank Thompson heard her on the radio, and wanted her to join him on the road. She insisted on finishing high school first. It wasn’t long after graduation that she made a name for herself. She sang a duet with Billy Gray, Thompson’s bandleader, called “You Can’t Have My Love,” and it was a top ten hit in 1954. Gray’s label, Decca, signed her to a deal, and a string of unsuccessful singles followed.
Finished with school, she was ready to go out on the road, and she was placed on the bill with a rising country star named Elvis Presley. She dated him briefly, but her changed her life when he pushed for her to record a new style called rockabilly. She resisted at first, saying she was a country singer, but he replied, “So am I,” and made the case to her that this exciting new sound was the music’s future.
In 1956, she switched to Capitol. There was debate over whether she should record the new rock and roll that was all the rage, or stick to country. The brilliant solution was to do both. Actually, at the time it didn’t seem so brilliant, as her string of rockabilly singles sold poorly. But they ended up being widely influential. Her ferocious readings of “Let’s Have a Party,” “Hard Headed Woman” and “Cool Love” were like nothing a female artist had ever dared to record before. She ditched the gingham and performed in slinky dresses that accented her figure, and rather than just stand there and sing, she shimmied, shaked and gyrated.
A string of LP’s in the late fifties and early sixties captured her progressive sound, and Rockin’ With Wanda and There’s a Party Goin’ On are now considered classics. But Jackson could be just as convincing as a pure country singer, oozing pain and conviction on the teary ballads “Right or Wrong” and “In the Middle of a Heartache”, two of her big country hits in the early sixties. Throughout the remainder of the decade, her music more closely resembled conventional country, but her lyrics remained sharp, with potent releases including “Tears Will Be the Chaser For Your Wine,” “My Big Iron Skillet” and “A Girl Don’t Have to Drink to Have Fun.”
The latter single applied directly to Jackson’s own life, as a dependence on alcohol was leaving her despondent. As was the case for Connie Smith and Jeannie C. Riley, she gained strength through her faith. Her dedication to Christianity moved her to clean up her lifestyle, and she recorded some powerful gospel material in the seventies.
By the eighties, she was being rediscovered and earning the credit that she deserved. She toured to rapt audiences in Europe, and her catalog was made available again. By the nineties, Bear Records had made the bulk of her pioneering records available on CD.
As her music was reintroduced to the world, rising stars like Pam Tillis credited her as a major influence. The reality is that there isn’t a single female country artist with an ounce of grit that doesn’t owe a debt to Jackson’s trailblazing. Performers like Tanya Tucker, Carlene Carter, Wynonna Judd and Shania Twain wouldn’t have been possible without Jackson having gone before them. Fortunately, audiences can still revel in the experience of seeing Jackson live, as she continues to tour. She’s also been active in the studio, adding to her legacy with the stellar albums Heart Trouble and I Remember Elvis in just the past few years.
- “I Gotta Know,” 1956
- “Cool Love,” 1957
- “Fujiyama Mama,” 1957
- “Let’s Have a Party,” 1960
- “Right or Wrong,” 1961
- “In the Middle of a Heartache,” 1961
- Wanda Jackson, 1958
- There’s a Party Goin’ On, 1959
- Rockin’ With Wanda, 1960
- Right or Wrong, 1961
- Two Sides of Wanda, 1964
- Heart Trouble, 2003