Wanda Jackson started performing with "Wild Side of Life" singer Hank Thompson when she was a teenager, but her early recordings — now considered essential — were never more than regional hits.
That changed in 1958 when she charted "Let's Have a Party," an Elvis Presley cover. It was especially appropriate since it was Elvis who had encouraged Jackson, a country singer, to give rock-and-roll a chance.
Fifty years later, Jack White, who produced the fantastic Van Lear Rose album for Loretta Lynn, also encouraged Jackson to try something new. The result is The Party Ain't Over, a diverse collection of covers ranging from lush, horn-laden versions of songs by the Andrews Sisters and Amy Winehouse to a lean American Recordings-style take on Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel #6."
Jackson plays Minglewood Hall on Thursday, May 26th. Here's what rock's first lady had to say about the latest phase of her career.
Flyer: I've heard that Loretta Lynn would cook for Jack White.
Wanda Jackson: Would she?
I think so, yes. And she's always struck me as the jealous type.
Did she ever give you the stink eye?
You know, did she ever try to take you to "Fist City" for making a record with Jack?
Oh no. I never see Loretta. I probably haven't seen her in 10 years.
I'm kidding. But I was listening to The Party Ain't Over and to Lynn's Van Lear Rose, and they couldn't be more different. Jack's arrangements, and especially his guitar playing on songs like "Portland, Oregon," put Lynn's voice in a completely different context. Your performances are less surprising somehow because you're already singing rock-and-roll and have recorded with everybody from the Cramps to Elvis Costello.
That's right. But Jack pushed me hard to get those performances. My only real fear going into the project was that he might want me to sing in a more current style. If that's what he wanted to do, we were going to butt heads. I worried if I work with him, will my longtime fans even want to hear that? Then I met Jack, and he played some tracks he'd put together for me, and they sounded so good. He said, "Wanda, I've been a fan since high school. I don't want to change your sound. I want to give you fresh songs."
So you feel like he got something special.
He pushed me all the way into the 21st century. He kept saying, "Push harder." I didn't know what he meant at first. Push harder? I'm already a belter.
The last time we spoke, you told me about singing with Hank Thompson, who was a honky-tonk singer with a flair for jazz. You said the most exciting thing about being a girl country singer then was that you had to learn to yodel. And you close The Party Ain't Over with Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel #6." That takes you back to the beginning of your career.
I guess that does bring things full circle in a way. A couple of songs we recorded didn't come off the way we wanted, so we were trying to think of new songs. I was talking to Jack, and my husband said, "You do know she yodels, don't you?" He said he'd like to hear, so I got a guitar and sang "Blue Yodel." Then he started playing it, and for a while we played it together. Then I thought it's ridiculous for me to be playing when I'm here with Jack White.
It's probably my favorite track on the CD. I like how simple it is. Did you feel at home with all of the material?
I never thought I'd record a Bob Dylan song. "Thunder on the Mountain" was a challenge because the words come so fast. His recording is slower. And it's also 10 minutes long. Bob and Jack have been friends for a long time. Jack says he has three fathers: his heavenly father, his biological father, and Bob Dylan. When Jack asked him which of his songs he'd like to hear me sing, he didn't hesitate. He knew it had to be "Thunder on the Mountain."
Has this project changed how you tour? You're playing bigger venues.
Yes, I'm playing more theaters and fewer clubs. And I have four bands that I play with depending on what part of the country I'm in. That way I'm not always having to rehearse with new bands, which takes a lot of pressure off. And the money's better. And I'm going to be playing shows in Canada with Adele. She's had the number-one record in the country, and she asked me to open for her. That's going to be really strange, but I think I can handle it. I just hope I can win over that kind of audience.
Do your shows touch on every period in your career or do you focus on the new stuff?
I do it all. I open with the older material. Then I throw in a yodel, which the crowd loves. I could encore with the yodel. I do a tribute to Elvis and close out with gospel.