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Rockabilly Grandma 

'50s icon Wanda Jackson returns to the spotlight.

Wanda Jackson keeps the rockabilly fever burning.
  • Wanda Jackson keeps the rockabilly fever burning.
Wanda Jackson covers a telling old Carl Perkins anthem on her latest album, Heart Trouble. Bopping along on a chugging rhythm and fueled by a twangy electric-guitar lead, the song sounds as if it's meant to be seminal. Naturally, the tune is called "Rockabilly Fever," and Jackson sings it with understated conviction: "Rockabilly fever/Looks like it's coming back again."

Jackson is uniquely qualified to make the assessment. She caught the rockabilly fever back when it was still an infant germ in the rock-and-roll swamp. The singer is 66 years old now, one of the lone holdovers from the exciting era between 1956 and 1961, when hillbilly music meshed with glitz, bravado, and raw sexuality and drove the sock-hop teenyboppers wild. She played a guitar emblazoned with her name, shared stages with Elvis Presley, and smoldered on such classic songs as "Mean Mean Man" and "Funnel of Love," scoring a huge hit in 1960 with the jolly, combustible rocker "Let's Have a Party."

Four decades later, that party is still raging. This is not a nostalgia story. Heart Trouble is Jackson's first original U.S. recording in more than 20 years. Yet while it stacks a number of oldies, the album finds Jackson also tackling new, intense songs by some of country music's finest songwriters. Her glamorous '50s look has faded with age, but her stinging, sensual voice has lost none of its exuberance.

Along the way, Jackson invites members of the psychobilly band the Cramps, guitar pros Dave Alvin and Smokey Hormel, and underground rockabilly favorite Rosie Flores to perform alongside her. For a touching cover of Buck Owens's "Crying Time," new-wave icon and latter-day Renaissance man Elvis Costello joins Jackson on the microphone.

Admittedly in the dark for years about the market for rockabilly and old country of all stripes, Jackson now is something she never bargained for: very, very cool.

"I can't believe it. It's blowing me away," a polite and modest Jackson says of the response to the album, from her home in Oklahoma City. "It was all going to be something totally different, but this all just totally evolved."

For years, Jackson was invisible to the eyes of American pop. When she converted to Christianity in the early '70s, she focused her efforts on gospel music -- only to see her gospel market disappear in the States by the early '80s.

But thanks to an invitation from Flores to tour with her in 1995, Jackson began performing to American club audiences again, often to dancing, shaking approval. After sharing a bill with Jackson and others at a rockabilly festival in Los Angeles, the San Antonio-born Flores, 53, invited her idol to sing with her on a cover of Jackson's own "Rock Your Baby" on Flores's 1995 album Rockabilly Filly. It was around that time that the energetic dance music of the '50s -- not just rockabilly, but swing, too -- began to trickle back into pop consciousness, thanks to their kitschy embrace in the films of Quentin Tarantino and to their promotion by bands like the Brian Setzer Orchestra.

"I don't think she was aware of the amount of people that were into any kind of rockabilly scene," Flores says from Nashville, where she now lives. "I knew that all across America, people would just flip to see her now."

Jackson says she was stunned by the enthusiastic response, as well as by the fact that the twenty- and thirtysomethings in the audience knew even her obscure B-sides.

"They knew my work. So I said, 'Where y'all been?' And they said, 'Well, where've you been?'" Jackson says. "It was a wonderful little affair."

With Heart Trouble, Jackson has become a modern-day critical darling. The album landed at No. 9 on the Associated Press's Top 10 albums list for 2003, behind acts like R. Kelly, OutKast, and Beyoncé.

It's not that she hadn't enjoyed success in the years preceding the revival. In Europe, she remained viable, as a healthy club scene for would-be pompadour cowboys has bubbled in Germany, Denmark, and other countries since the mid-'80s. Jackson says that she still travels to Europe for tours and promotional appearances three to five times a year, and two boxed sets of her music are still in print in Germany.

But, she says, she'll gladly forgo a few of those treks for a second coming here.

"If you really want your life to count for His purposes, you leave yourself open to [God]," Jackson says. "I didn't pursue [an American comeback] at all. It came to me."

The enthusiasm, as Jackson discovered, wasn't limited to just the fans. Once word got out that Jackson and producer John Wooler had decided that her album for CMH Records would be a country-rock romp rather than a bluegrass collection, writers and artists began lining up to contribute. Paul Kennerley, a Nashville-based Brit who has written for Emmylou Harris, Wynonna Judd, and other country stars, landed three new songs on the album, including the fiery title track. Los Angeles honky-tonk veteran James Intveld wrote the spiritual "Walk With Me," in which Jackson sings, "Lord help me/I've got no one to cling to." Flores served up two songs, including the feminist ballad "Woman Walk out the Door."

The most unusual request, however, came from Elvis Costello, a longtime closet fan of Jackson's work. He demanded that the two work face-to-face in a studio rather than trade studio tapes, as scheduling conflicts forced Jackson to do with others in a few instances. It took some luck -- Costello found himself nominated for Grammys last year, and illness forced Jackson to cancel a scheduled surgery -- but the two were able to meet in L.A.

Jackson at first was a bit overwhelmed and suspicious of this gesture from a hipster rock icon.

"I thought, 'Well, maybe he is a fan of mine, and maybe he isn't,'" she says.

She brought one of those German boxed sets with her to the studio. Costello told her he owned both. She laughs as she recalls her response.

"I said, 'Well, you don't have an autographed one.'"

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