Wanda Jackson remains a vital force in country, rockabilly and gospel music — and she touches on all those influences on her new album, Unfinished Business. At 74, the Oklahoma native is still on a spitfire onstage, delivering sassy signature hits that span back to the 1950s, when she made her first mark on the music scene (and also dated Elvis Presley).
During a visit to Nashville, after playing a fantastic set that features her new song “Tore Down,” the always-cool Rock and Roll Hall of Famer chatted with CMT.com about her country influences, her ongoing tour and her road to the silver screen.
CMT: How has country music influenced your sound?
Jackson: Well, it factors into my sound because I am country! Rockabilly and country are kissin’ cousins. If you like one, you normally like the other one. It just kind of fits. That’s where the term rockabilly came from. If you played country music, played the guitar, back in the ’50s, you were called a hillbilly singer. I never did like that — “hillbilly” — but that’s what everybody was called. So we got looped into this other thing in music, rock ’n’ roll, I guess. And we became rockabilly because we still had the guitar on. But it influences everything I do.
In fact, I had a role in a high school play. I had the lead role and it was a Cole Porter musical, so the songs were definitely not country. I had to do “Anything Goes,” and my acting coach said, “Wanda, you’ve got to stop patting your foot! You don’t pat your foot in pop music!” So that was the hardest for me.
Are you going to be on the road a lot this fall?
The artists today, they go on tours. They’ve got a winter tour, a summer tour, a world tour. … I tour 12 months a year. And so, yes, I’ll be on the road! I’ll be pushing my album along with all of the standards. I have to keep “Fujiyama Mama” and “Let’s Have a Party” in my set regardless, so that way, the audience gets a little of the new and the old.
Have you found that the European audience has embraced you?
Europe has been fantastic to me. In fact, it was Europe in 1985 that I got back into rockabilly because of the fans. I had been in gospel, and I recorded an album and went on a three-week tour in Sweden in ’85. I wondered, “Where am I going to work in Sweden for three weeks? I don’t even have fans over there.” And we got there and went on the tour — oh, the places were packed! It was just me and maybe an opening act. I was just floored.
Then we did the same thing in other countries, so I’ve been working Europe for a long time. Germany has always been good for me. In 1965, I had a No. 1 song in Germany. It was “Santo Domingo,” but I sang it in the German language. So that made them happy. (laughs)
Why was it important for you to include the gospel song “Two Hands” on this record?
Well, I’m a Christian. I was in ministry for a few years, and it’s still a vital part of my life. So I like for everybody to know how I feel and about my faith. I don’t labor the issue, but I do tell them, and I always do a gospel song at least. So it was just natural. On the last album, I also had a gospel song. So Justin [Townes Earle, who produced the album] found this, picked it out for me, and he didn’t even ask if I wanted a gospel song. It was understood.
Is there anything else you’d like fans to know about?
This year, in the coming year, there will be a movie on my life. And I can’t believe it. … The producers asked me, who did I think should play me and who should play my husband Wendell? I thought a minute and I said, “I think for me, Angelina Jolie, and I think for Wendell, George Clooney.” How about that?