Not content with being a pioneer of country music, Wanda Jackson decided to throw caution to the wind and embrace the wild new discipline of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s. While Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley received public praise, Jackson fought for recognition in the confines of a male-dominated genre, and is now widely heralded as the First Lady of Rock ‘n’ Roll. And as Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen champion for her glaring omission from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to be rectified, Jackson is doing what she has always done; letting her music do the talking. On Saturday night, Jackson brings her band to Velvet Jones, where Santa Barbarans will be afforded a very rare opportunity to get up close and personal with rock ‘n’ roll royalty.
I believe the reason you are currently out on tour is because you have a new album out-I Remember Elvis? No. The reason I am touring is to make a living!
So how do you find being on the road these days? I find that I do have to keep check of my energy, because traveling not only takes a lot of energy, but so does singing. If I go out all day before a show with people and shop and explore and talk, I find I’m too tired to perform adequately that night. So I have to watch that.
Touring has been a big part of your life because you have found success in some very diverse places. Outside the U.S., your music is a staple of both German and Japanese culture. The Germans call standards “evergreen songs,” which I really like. When I sing in Germany, it doesn’t matter what age group I am performing to, as they all know “Santo Domingo.” The success of that song led me to record 18 songs in German. And my first number-one came in the ’60s in Japan with “Fujiyama Yuma.” I still can’t figure that one out!
Given how much time has passed, what led you to make I Remember Elvis now? I finally got the nerve to do it. To take an artist like Elvis and perform those songs is a very hard thing to do. I thought that if I was ever going to say “thank you,” then now is the time I should do it. [Elvis] has been a big part of my life. I worked with him and loved him very much for the person that he was, so it only seemed right that I should do a special tribute to him.
How did you decide what songs to record? I chose the songs he was singing when I was working with him in the ’50s, and that then gave it purpose. And at the end of the CD, I also tell some stories about my remembrances of the first time I met him, the first night I worked with him, and the last time I saw him.
And how do those songs resonate for you personally? Those were the songs I got to watch and hear him sing. And they were the songs climbing up the Billboard charts when we were out on the road together. We would be watching the chart each week to see what number his song was. I got to be a part of that, which was very special.
It must have been a very dynamic time. And one would imagine that being a young lady exploring rock ‘n’ roll made it all the more interesting. By the time I started recording rockabilly music, it was 1956 and they were only just beginning to accept men doing what was thought of being this very wild and rebellious music; they sure weren’t going to accept a young lady singing this! It then took me until 1960 to get a hit.
You have also recently been the subject of a tribute album-Hard-Headed Woman: A Celebration of Wanda Jackson. What was your reaction when you first learned about that project? It was kind of a surprise to me actually. I was quite flattered that all of these wonderful young people would take their time and talent to record a song of mine. I think it came together very well and I enjoy it a lot myself, except for one song-“Fujiama Mama”-which I don’t care for at all because it’s very strange. But all the rest of them are so cute.
Out of the current crop of female artists, whom do you particularly enjoy? My favorite is Tanya Tucker. I really think that girl sings fantastic. And there are a lot of beautiful voices out there, but I am not a real big fan of the songs they are singing in the country style today. So I just don’t listen to much of it.
What do you listen to? I listen to Garth Brooks and Reba MacIntyre. There is so much wonderful talent out there, but it is a different generation now. Faith Hill has a beautiful voice, but for me it isn’t true country music. It is not the people; I just don’t care for those songs. They start and get your interest, but just don’t go anywhere.
As someone who has achieved so much, if you were to look back across your career, what would you consider to be one of your greatest achievements? After 53 years in this business, just to be able to draw big audiences everywhere I go. To go from a young teenage girl to someone who will be 70 next October and still be touring and having people coming to see me is something I am very proud of.
Club Mercy presents Wanda Jackson, The Cash Prophets, 13 Stars, and Rocksville on Saturday, September 1, at 8 p.m. at Velvet Jones (423 State St.). Tickets are $15. Visit myspace.com/clubmercy.