Off the Charts

Wanda Jackson: the Queen of Rockabilly

In the tiny town of Maude, Oklahoma, Wanda Jackson came into the world in 1937. Her dad bought her a guitar and took her to lots of western swing concerts by folks like Tex Williams and Spade Cooley. By the time she was 19, Jackson had her own radio show. Today, she’s made over 40 studio albums, charted countless times, and is considered the first important female rockabilly star.

Her career certainly had a colorful start. When she was 17, Capitol Records asked her to record a duet single with Billy Gray, leader of Hank Thompson’s country band, the Brazos Valley Boys. The record hit the country top ten, but Capitol wouldn’t give Jackson her own contract. Ironically, it was producer Ken Nelson who refused to sign a woman to a solo contract; he would end up producing all of Jackson’s most successful albums. Capitol came to its senses and signed her in 1956. Around this time, Jackson briefly dated Elvis Presley, and he’s the one who introduced her to playing rockabilly.

Her first album, Wanda Jackson, came out on Capitol in 1958. Most of its songs were by other people, but the last two tracks on Side B were by Jackson herself. She would develop into an accomplished songwriter, as these early examples suggest.

The final cut on the album is her own “Baby Loves Him.” Jackson has that bouncy rockabilly swing down pat. The studio musicians, uncredited on this and other Jackson albums, were always hand-picked by Ken Nelson. They often included Buck Owens on guitar – usually a Fender Telecaster – before he made it big in his own right.

 

The albums dropped at a furious pace, and the hits kept on coming. The title song from Right or Wrong (1961) did very well, originally a jazz standard from the 1920s that came into the Western swing repertoire thanks to a recording by Bob Wills. None of the songs on Right or Wrong were written by Jackson, but she had excellent taste in material, so all of it is worthy of being covered.

For example, there’s “The Window Up Above,” a heartbreak ballad by George Jones. Jackson shows off her low register, never over-singing. The light, skillful brushwork by the unnamed drummer on snare helps the arrangement from becoming too sentimental.

 

The Sherman Brothers, Richard and Robert, most famous for writing the score to the film Mary Poppins, sold a song called “The Things I Might Have Been” to country singer Kitty Wells in 1952. Recognizing a good thing when she heard it, Jackson snatched up that same song for her 1963 album, Love Me Forever, which happened to be her first LP released in stereophonic sound.

This is a very different sort of arrangement from the earlier examples above: Here we have sweeping violin lines and a cadre of silky-smooth back-up singers. Despite the pomp, Jackson still controls her delivery, letting the drama happen all round her as she maintains her clear, intense tone.

 

Nelson was still producing Jackson’s records when she made Wanda Jackson Sings Country Songs in 1965. By now, Nelson had made a name for himself as the man who introduced Merle Haggard, Merle Travis, and Gene Vincent to an insatiable and growing country fanbase. He was unusual for dominating both the more traditional, stripped-down Nashville sound and the richer, more electrified rockabilly style.

Side A of Wanda Jackson Sings Country Songs ends with Jackson’s own “Kickin’ Our Hearts Around.” There’s a real elegance in her singing, creating perfect counterpoint with the steel guitar line (probably played by either Hal Rugg, Weldon Myrick, or Ralph Mooney, but as usual, no credit is given).

 

Country music has never been an easy field for women to break into, so Jackson deserves credit for trying to help a songwriter named Ann Bruce. Over the years Jackson recorded several of Bruce’s songs; sadly, it doesn’t seem to have resulted in much of a career for the composer.

One of those songs is on Jackson’s 1967 album You’ll Always Have My Love. Bruce wrote “My Days Are Darker Than Your Nights,” a solid country number. The guitar solos are by Roy Clark, leading a band called The Party Timers, which toured with Jackson during this period. The other members were Michael Lane on steel guitar, Don Bartlett on drums, and Al Flores on electric bass. Sometimes Tex Wilburn filled in on the road for Clark, who had his own tours to worry about.

 

All great top-selling artists’ careers must wind down eventually. Jackson’s last record for Capitol was Country Keepsakes (1973), produced by an icon of country music, Joe Allison. One interesting cover on this record is “Reuben James,” the song by Alex Harvey and Barry Etris that had been a hit for Kenny Rogers in 1969.

Jackson is a great storyteller, with a sense of mystery and even humor that surely influenced Dolly Parton.

 

As is true of many classic country musicians, Jackson had a passionate love of gospel. In her case, though, it was relegated to an open secret for much of her career; she didn’t have a chance to put much down on vinyl while she was with Capitol. When she left, she took advantage of her newfound freedom to make lots of gospel albums for a wide range of labels. Among those was Nashville-based Word Records, for whom she recorded Closer to Jesus in 1977.

These are mostly covers of songs from established gospel artists, including Gary S. Paxton, who produced the album, and Bill Gaither. Paxton wrote “He Was There All the Time.” The violins and steel guitar, engineered to bring out their high frequencies, hardly make for an original sound, but Jackson’s sincere delivery sells the song.

 

One of Jackson’s last recordings, from 2006, brings her right back around to her starting point. I Remember Elvis (Goldenlane Records) is a tribute to the man who introduced her to rock and roll. Some tracks are written by Jackson on the topic of Elvis, and some are covers of songs the King made famous.

Here’s her version of “Love Me Tender.” Her voice has lost much of its intensity and stability, but the emotional commitment and dramatic phrasing remains.

 

 

Still living in Oklahoma City, Jackson suffered a stroke in 2018, which forced her to announce her retirement. But she has since insisted that a duet album with Joan Jett is in the works. Whether that comes to pass or not, no one can take away her crown as the Queen of Rockabilly.