Wanda Jackson Remains Rockabilly’s First Lady

Music Pioneer Talks About New Album and a Fascinating Career

When Elvis Costello learned Wanda Jackson was recording a new album, he contacted her record label to see if he could play a role in the sessions. That’s the kind of respect she commands.

They call her the First Lady of Rockabilly and she’s among CMT’s 40 Greatest Women of Country Music, but Jackson’s contributions extend far beyond the musical realm. In addition to bringing a heightened sense of fashion style and sophistication to country music, Jackson found herself taking up the banner of racial equality in the early ’60s when her touring band included an African-American musician.

Along the way, she became one of the first successful female rockabilly artists, blazing trails at Capitol Records with hits such as “Let’s Have a Party,” “Fujiyama Mama” and “Right or Wrong.” Now at age 66, Jackson has released her first studio album in 15 years — getting help from Costello and other notable friends on the CMH Records project, Heart Trouble.

With Country Music Hall of Fame member Ken Nelson producing her ’50s recordings at the Capitol studio in Hollywood, Jackson is often identified with the West Coast country sound. Although Jackson did live in California as a child, she has spent her entire adult life residing in Oklahoma.

Referring to Nelson, Jackson tells CMT.com, “He just had a magic about him. I learned so much from him. Everything was done for the artists.” Even if the studio musicians weren’t pleased with their work on a particular take, Jackson’s best vocal performance always took top priority when it came time to release a single. “Ken was a politician,” Jackson explains. “He’d said, ‘OK, let’s do that over.’ He’d tell me later, ‘I’m using your performance, but we want to make them happy.’” Jackson laughs, adding, “I can say that now because most of those guys aren’t playing anymore.”

Before making a name for himself later in the ’60s, Buck Owens often played rhythm guitar on Jackson’s records. “The funny story about Buck was that he’d drive down from Bakersfield — him and Jelly Sanders on the fiddle,” Jackson says. “He was so poor, I guess, his guitar case didn’t even have a handle on it. It was all taped up with white tape and he’d carry it under his arm. I thought, ‘Poor Buck. I hope someday he makes enough money to buy him a case.’”

The music from those sessions has been imitated, but some of it has never been totally duplicated. “Joe Maphis played guitar on my first ones,” she says. “Great, great talent. He was so laid back and cool. I have the bands these days try to copy some of those licks Joe did for ‘Fujiyama Mama’ and ‘Hot Dog.’ They get close, but they can’t really get it. People like Joe just brought their own magic to it.”

Jackson also recorded extensively in Nashville, a place where the backing musicians started using formal musical arrangements in the early ’60s on hits such as “Right or Wrong,” “Middle of a Heartache” and “Little Bitty Tear.” Each take was done live in the studio. “I don’t remember them ever overdubbing anything, unless I sang harmony with myself,” she says.

In 1960, Jackson became one of the first country artists to headline shows in the Las Vegas casinos. Starting out at the Showboat, Jackson formed her own band when she became the headliner at the Golden Nugget.

“You had to do five back-to-back shows those days in the lounge,” she says. “It was 45 minutes on — and 15 minutes off. … None of my guys actually entertained, but they could sing.” To alleviate some of the pressure, Jackson hired a guitarist who was working the club circuit in the Washington, D.C., area. She says, “I remembered Roy Clark, having worked with him on the East Coast. I said, ‘I’ve got to get some help here.’ It worked well for him and for me, too.”

It could be argued that Jackson’s sense of fashion and style paved the way for Dolly Parton, Shania Twain and others. “I didn’t do it to blaze any trails, necessarily,” she says. “I just didn’t look good in that cowboy stuff. I mean, a woman knows. I decided I could do better than that, so I started designing the straight skirts with the rhinestones, low necklines and high heels. I thought country music could use some glamour from the girls. I guess if I made any inroads in country music, that was it.”

In her own way, Jackson also made inroads against racism during the turbulent era of the early ’60s when her band included the talented pianist and vocalist Big Al Downing. As an African-American, Downing faced formidable challenges as a musician on the road with a country band.

“It was very hard on Al,” Jackson admits. “We’ve all asked him how he put up with it and he said, ‘It’s for the music.’” With hotel managers refusing to provide lodging to blacks, Downing would hide under a blanket in the car while the other band members rented their rooms. When the coast was clear, they’d smuggle him to their rooms.

“He couldn’t eat in most of the restaurants,” Jackson says. “He couldn’t eat in the hotel restaurants. They’d have to take his food out to the car. On our jobs, he couldn’t even use the men’s restroom. He had to stay on the stage. The guys would bring him Cokes and things.”

Recalling one night onstage in Montana, Jackson says, “The guys started playing and then I came out. Then out came the manager or the owner. He called me over to the side and said, ‘The black guy’s gotta go. We can’t have him on the stage or in the club.’ I looked at my band and said, ‘Well, OK. Start packing it up, guys. We’re leaving.’ The owner said, ‘No, not all of you. Just the black guy.’ I said, ‘No, he’s my piano player. If he doesn’t play, I don’t sing.’”

The club owner finally relented. “It caused some problems, but nothing really major,” Jackson says. “But if they wanted me, then they had to take Al. It was that simple. I mean, what part of that do you not understand?”

On her new album, Costello joins her on a duet of the Buck Owens classic, “Crying Time.” Instead of overdubbing his vocal after Jackson and the musicians recorded the basic tracks, Costello insisted on recording together live in the studio. “I was so glad he did that,” she says. “I had to make an extra trip to the West Coast to work around his schedule, but I was glad to do that. It was like we’d known each other for a long time. We went over it a couple or three times. I only took about three takes.”

Heart Trouble also features other guest appearances by the Cramps, Rosie Flores, Dave Alvin and former Stray Cats bassist Lee Rocker. “I’ve always been one who tried to stretch myself,” she says. “I still do that. The new album is part country and part rockabilly — some of my older songs redone. It’s a different kind of country for me.”

Jackson acknowledges that she was apprehensive about re-recording some of her older material. “At first, I thought, ‘Why am I doing this? It’s not going to sound as frisky and lively as I did when I was 18.’ But I finally realized that I don’t have to sound like that now.

“All the reviews have talked about the energy the songs still have — and how I’ve still got the growl. It still sounds like Wanda Jackson. I guess that’s the main thing.”

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.