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Bluesfest Interview: Wanda Jackson

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Bluesfest Interview: Wanda Jackson

When your grandparents get into their seventies, you’re generally impressed when they have full control of their mental faculties and only call you three times a week to complain about what’s on television. But your grandparents aren’t Wanda Jackson – and not even your grandma’s apricot chicken can contend with the 75-year-old dynamo’s six-decade output of 31 albums; your grandma’s lamingtons are good, but they haven’t inspired everyone from Cyndi Lauper to Adele. And Jackson’s last two album titles (The Party Ain’t Over in 2011 and last year’s Unfinished Business) suggest that the septuagenarian ‘Queen Of Rockabilly’ is a long way from retirement.

“I haven’t finished, not at all,” Jackson says confidently. “I know I’m getting on in age but don’t count me out just yet! I’ve still got people to meet, songs to sing and things to do.”

To distil Wanda Jackson’s sprawling career down to a handful of sentences would be a cruel and impossible task; there’s a reason her name appears in the rock‘n’roll, rockabilly and gospel halls of fame. Her dizzying fusion of sped-up country music and the genome of rhythm and blues means that Jackson is rightly uttered in the same breath as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis as a rock’n’roll pioneer.

Jackson is as vulnerable to the passage of time as the rest of us, but she has a few theories why she’s one of the few early icons still going strong. “I think since the early days, it’s been good genes, and the wonderful Lord that I serve,” she says. “These days I’m kind of ashamed to say that I don’t really write songs anymore. I do try occasionally, but it just seems like I’ve gotten out of the habit maybe – the habit of being creative. And I play guitar on some shows and when I’m at home. It’s not always easy to stick to a program, to look after yourself, when you spend half your life in a hotel room.”

When Jackson collaborated with Jack White to make The Party Ain’t Over, it was difficult to tell who was getting the better deal. White had already proved capable of jump-starting a revered musician’s career with Loretta Lynn’s 2004 album Van Lear Rose, and his insistence that Jackson make a rockabilly album resulted in some of the strongest sales and reviews of her career. But in the middle of the dissolution of both The White Stripes and his marriage to Karen Elson, perhaps it was just as beneficial for White to learn at the feet of a master and teenage hero? “I don’t have anything to teach!” Jackson says with a laugh. “Maybe I’d been instrumental in inspiring him – Jack told me that he’d been a fan of mine since he was 15, and he was very familiar with my songs.”

Jackson is equally complimentary about her latest recording buddy, alt-country chameleon Justin Townes-Earle. The working relationship was forged in a similar manner to her collaboration with White, but Unfinished Business is more loosely structured, flirting with all the genres present in Jackson’s extensive back catalogue. A version of ‘California Stars’ (from Wilco and Billy Bragg’s Mermaid Avenue, a collection of unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics set to music) is gorgeous, sun-bleached Americana, while Jackson also injects some additional country hiccup into Townes-Earle’s own ‘What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome’.

“That was definitely a song I wanted to do,” Jackson says. “Before we started, Justin sent me songs to listen to that he felt might work for me. He sings a variety of song genres, the same as I do. [Jack and Justin] were so great to work with. Total opposites in terms of how they work in the studio, but they both get the job done.”

Several years have passed since Jackson last graced Australian shores, so she’s making up for it with a national tour and a prime slot on the Byron Bay Bluesfest lineup. She’s not entirely sure what’s on the agenda after that, but an extended vacation is unlikely. Maybe by the time she returns to Oklahoma, there’ll be further development of the film based on her life.

“I was in shock when the studio executives told me what they wanted to do,” says the ever-humble Jackson. “I still can’t believe that they would find my life so interesting to make a movie out of it, but they assured me many times that they are.”

“I’ve signed a contract, so it’s on the go and being written now. I’d given some thought to who would play me during my adult years, and I told them Angelina Jolie... What d’ya think?” she says with a cheeky laugh. “And to play my husband Wendell, who has been right by my side, so instrumental throughout my career, and has made all this happen for me – I think George Clooney would be good. When I told the gentleman from the studio that, he said, ‘Well, I’ll say one thing, you certainly do start big!’”

She may be joking, and she may be serious. The hard part for any would-be biopic makers is to know which part or parts of Jackson’s life to focus on – with all this unfinished business, her story is still being written.

Catch Wanda Jackson at Byron Bay Bluesfest, Thursday March 28 – Monday April 1, alongside Robert Plant, Iggy & The Stooges, Rodriguez, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmy Cliff and loads more.

- Mitchell Alexander