From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. To read my review of “Unfinished Business,” click here.
Wanda Jackson still has “Unfinished Business” as she turns 75
Column: Oklahoma’s own Queen of Rockabilly marks a milestone birthday Saturday and celebrated last week the release of her 31ststudio album, produced by acclaimed alt-country singer/songwriter/producer Justin Townes Earle.
Wanda Jackson is celebrating her 75thbirthday in true rock ‘n’ roll style, with a critically acclaimed new album, an international tour and an exciting new project on the horizon.
And the Queen of Rockabilly wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve toured 12 months a year my whole life, so I’ve always been out there,” she said with a laugh during a Monday phone interview from the road in Connecticut. “We’ve always had good crowds, even before the record with Jack (White). Of course, after that came out, it was notched up quite a bit. I have different venues, larger ones, getting larger crowds, a lot more publicity and more celebrity surrounding me. So I’ve enjoyed that.”
Since her 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, the Maud native, who turns 75 Saturday, has been on a definite hot streak. In January 2011, she released a barnburner of a comeback album, “The Party Ain’t Over,” produced by respected rocker Jack White. Since she believes in striking while the iron is still cherry red, Jackson teamed with acclaimed alt-country singer/songwriter/producer Justin Townes Earle to make her new album, aptly titled “Unfinished Business.”
“It seems to kind of say what I’m trying to say with this album: I’m not through yet. You know, don’t count me out,” Jackson said of the title of her 31st studio album, which debuted last week on Sugar Hill Records.
While “The Party Ain’t Over” celebrated Jackson’s rock ‘n’ roll trailblazing with raucous horns, scorching electric guitars and forays into neo-soul, funk and calypso, she and Earle (son of wildcard Texas singer-songwriter Steve Earle) firmly planted “Unfinished Business” in her country, rockabilly and gospel roots.
“He felt like — and my team agreed with him — that rather than trying to top Jack White’s album, let’s just complete that cycle and take me back to my roots. Of course, Justin is a new and up-and-coming country singer for the most part … and that’s where his heart is. So, he wanted to see me scale down the band and pull me out front a lot more and just let the main part of the song, the interesting part of the song, be my performance,” Jackson said. “He chose some very good, outstanding musicians. They came in the studio and I was in studio with them, so that’s always nice to have the live music right there that you can sing to rather than have the pre-recordings.”
Along with their divergent musical styles, she said her working relationships with White and Earle were completely different.
“They’re both young men, they’re both very talented and I think creative. But they are as different as day and night as far as my experience with them goes. Jack was a firecracker, and I’d say Justin is an old comfortable pair of shoes,” she said with a laugh. “But I like to work with different people like that. Like Jack stretched me a lot, and then with Justin, he just wanted to make me comfortable with the songs that he chose and I chose. He didn’t push me real hard.”
The success of “The Party Ain’t Over” primed the singer to open 10 dates on Adele’s 2011 summer tour, perform at last year’s prestigious Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival and head back into the studio with Earle.
“It gave me a boost to my confidence in myself working with Jack because we produced a very good album and one that I’m very proud of. It did quite well. It even got in the Billboard charts, where I broke a record being the oldest lady to have an album on Billboard charts. Before me, it was Mae West of all people,” Jackson said en route to a Pennsylvania show.
“When two young men who are singers/musicians themselves and they choose to work with me, I mean, that’ll give you confidence right there. Not that I don’t have confidence in myself. I do. But it never hurts to get an extra dose, you know. And it makes me feel more a part of today’s music scene because artists like myself, if we’re not careful, we’ll just be thought of as has-beens. And I think right now I’m a more … relevant artist.”
Jackson also is getting ready to become the subject a new movie. She said producer Mickey Liddell, a fellow Oklahoma native, is planning to make a feature based on her breakout as a teenage country singer, her long-running, genre-jumping career and her 51-year marriage to her manager Wendell Goodman.
“He’s already hired the screenplay writer. I’ve already been with him for three days, he’s gone to a couple of my concerts, and we’ve talked and done some interview work. So he’s in the process … of writing it,” said Jackson, whose life and career were chronicled in the 2008 documentary “The Sweet Lady with the Nasty Voice.”
“I was floored, absolutely floored, and I thought, ‘You know, there’s nothing much interesting about my life.’ But they said, ‘No, you’re wrong. You’re wrong there. People find it very interesting that a person can be in show business all their life and not ever get on drugs or become addicted.’ I’ve never even been to rehab.”
As for her 75th birthday, Jackson has no special plans. But she is playing a show Friday night in Delaware and then embarking Wednesday on a three-week tour of Germany and Austria, so rest may be part of her Saturday celebration.
“That’s the way it usually is: I’m on the road doing what I love. I’d just as soon sing at my own birthday party; nothing wrong with that. One year, I was touring in Germany and I had five birthday parties, and one of them was in a castle. So I can’t complain about that,” she said. “At 75, you’ve just about done everything, but I’ll enjoy it, that’s for sure.”