Wanda Jackson Dishes On Jack White & How She Changed The Music Biz

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Fact: Without Wanda Jackson, there would be no Taylor Swift, no Pistol Annies, no Carrie Underwood. Dubbed "the queen of rock," Jackson started her career when she was barely a teenager, touring with Elvis and tearing up the charts. Soon, she had established herself as the country's first female rockabilly star and an all-around badass. In '09, a buzzy, critically lauded collaboration with Jack White landed her on the Billboard Top 200 LP chart, and at 75, she's still touring — how's that for longevity?

She plays The Hamilton tomorrow night, and we caught up with her by phone before a show in Nashville last week. We could have chatted with her all day, getting the scoop on her style, tour life, and how she changed the role of women in rock.

What do you think when people call you an icon? What does that mean to you?
"Well, I was hoping you could tell me! I guess it means someone who's old enough to have been around a long time. But I think of an icon as someone who's bigger than life — I don't think of myself as an icon. To me, that would be like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elizabeth Taylor. But I'm flattered, so I'll go along with it."


Photo: Courtesy of Wanda Jackson
wanda-3slideDo you approach the craft of music differently now than you did when you were younger?
"These days, I don't worry so much about what's currently popular, which I did back when I was recording for Capitol Records. You had to keep your record sales up — or you felt like you did — because they could drop you anytime they wanted. So, we watched that very carefully, and if the sales were kind of dropping, I'd start listening to what was popular and think, 'Well, what are they buying?' Now I don't worry about that."

How do you feel about the current country-music scene? Are there are any singers or groups that you listen to?
"There are some very good singers, you can't deny that — great voices. I personally don't care a lot for contemporary, or what they're calling country music now — it's pop. It's good pop, but it's pop. Maybe it's because I was in the business, but I hear so many fans and disc jockeys say that country music is just not country music anymore. I think The Band Perry is very good…it says a lot when I go out and buy someone's record."


Photo: Courtesy of Wanda Jackson
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Your collaboration with Jack White was amazing. What was that process like?
"When I recorded with Jack White, he made a great statement to me. I think he could tell I was nervous, thinking 'What does he want me to sing?' He said, 'I've been a fan of yours since I was 15, and I'm not out to change you at all. I just want to give you some fresh material and a fresh sound.' With the new record, Unfinished Business, Justin Townes Earle said, 'Why don't we reverse this and take you back to your roots? Go back to the country, rockabilly, blues type of thing, more of a stripped-down version.'"

Who else would you love to work with on a record? "Well, I feel like I've worked with the very best, but there is a young man standing in the wings that I'm really considering using for my next album, and that's Shooter Jennings. He played drums in the band when I did The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. I'm getting ready to record the vocal part in a tribute album to Jack White, and Shooter will be A&R on that."

If you weren't a musician, what else would you do?
"I have no idea — I can't do anything else! It sounds like I'm rather dull and I probably am, but you have to consider I've been singing professionally since I was 13. [My mother] was a real one-of-a-kind mom, and I was an only child and a spoiled brat. She said, 'If you're going to sing, then you don't need to do all this other stuff. If you don't know how to cook, you don't have to.' My son says I make a mean bowl of cereal. For a while, I got into painting, which I really loved, but I can't carry it on the road, and from one time to the next, you get out of the mood."


Photo: Courtesy of Wanda Jackson
wanda-5slideTell us about your style. What do you like to wear for concerts?
"I'm kind of known for the silk fringe. Right now, I have two fringe jackets and a solid fringe top. I was the one that changed the look of girls in country music — I was young, 16 or 17, and I didn't like Western clothes. I'm a city girl and I felt silly in cowboy boots. So, once I became a young lady and wore high heels, I wanted to get more glamour into my dress. I figured it would just be me who did that, but it just took off — all the girls were ready for a change. I still wanted a Western touch, and my mother was a seamstress, so instead of leather fringe, she found this silk fringe that was new at the time. So, I just went to the silk fringe so it wouldn't be so heavy, and it just became my look. Big hair, long earrings, and fringe."


Photo: Courtesy of Wanda Jackson
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Are there any little luxuries that you need when you're on the road? "I love a nice hotel room — especially a suite that has two rooms, so that I don't always feel like I'm in a bedroom. When you're out for a month and then home for a week and then back out for two weeks, you get tired of being in a bedroom all the time."

How do you take care of yourself while you're touring?
"I probably don't do the greatest job at that, but I have a great husband who kind of took over right where my mom left off. He spoils me, and makes sure that I have time for resting and have whatever I need wherever I go."

Is there anything you want to do in Washington while you're here?
"By the end of this tour, if I have any time, I'll rest. I have had, for the first time in my life, some throat problems — laryngitis starts when I go to sing, and I never know when it's going to do it. If I can rest and get sleep, it's not a problem. The shows take a lot of energy, and I want to be ready to give everything I need to give."


Photo: Courtesy of Wanda Jackson