Friday, September 28, 2012

Rockin' with Wanda

"Man, you really like the old warhorses!", a friend once remarked as he flipped through my CD collection. He was referring to the female vocalists who dominated my collection and who were 'of a certain age,' shall we say: Dusty Springfield, Marianne Faithfull, Tina Turner, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Shirley Bassey.

The thing was, this was the early 1990s, and none of these women were really that old! At the time they were probably in their late forties or early fifties. I guess it said a lot about our (or, rather, my friend's) perception of what it meant to be "old"! We were still in our twenties, after all. Even so, I really didn't think of any of these women as old in any kind of negative sense. Rather, I appreciated and resonated with the sense of transformative journeying that I discerned in their lives and careers. I guess I saw them as survivors. But they were also much more than that. They were and are icons! And we gay men, it seems, love our icons. And why not, especially if like any authentic icon they point us toward and led us into dimensions of greater awareness of ourselves, of love and life, and of that sacred force that holds all things together.

I mention my friend's rather crude comment as I recently wondered what he would make of my current interest in the music of 74-year-old Wanda Jackson, the "Queen of Rock" and a living legend not only within that particular genre but also within those of country and rockabilly.

As you may recall, I recently saw Wanda perform at the Minnesota State Fair. It actually wasn't the first time I'd seen her in concert. About ten years ago I saw her perform at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. I must admit I didn't know much about her; I couldn't even name one of her songs. But the image used to promote the concert (right) intrigued me, as did the fact that she'd been around for so long as a revered artist. Yes, that iconic, archetypal sense of journey, again!

Seeing her at the Minnesota State Fair earlier this month (above) reminded me of the album she recorded last year with Jack White. He had previously worked with another legend of country music, Loretta Lynn. Despite the fact that I'm not a country music fan, I bought the album Lynn and White made together (Van Lear Rose) and unreservedly recommend it. (I highlighted a song from it back in 2007.)

A few days ago I bought The Party Ain't Over, the 2011 album that Jack White produced for Wanda. Here's how describes the album:

This collection of vintage and contemporary covers was produced by fan and new-found friend Jack White at his Nashville studio and recorded with a late-night honky-tonk feel by members of My Morning Jacket, the Raconteurs, and Dead Weather, among others. The White-curated lineup of tunes, says Jackson, showcases "all the various types of music that I've done through the years - some country, some gospel, some rockabilly, some rock n' roll. It's got all of that, and we threw in a Bob Dylan song 'Thunder On the Mountain,' just to be safe."

The spirited Jackson, revered for such classic singles as "Let's Have a Party" and "Fujiyama Mama," proves that brash rock and roll attitude need not have an age limit. Her trademark growl remains intact on rockers like "Rip It Up" and "Nervous Breakdown"; she opens the set with an echo-laden sneer on a rollicking version of "Shakin' All Over" and ends it 10 songs later with a plaintive take on Jimmie Rodgers' "Yodel #6." Along the way she tackles the Andrews Sisters kitschy "Rum and Coca Cola" and a big-band rendition of the DeCastro Sisters' "Teach Me Tonight," and she out-sasses and out-classes Amy Winehouse on a cover of the British bad girl's "You Know I'm No Good," which has already been released as a single.

Below is the video for Wanda Jackson's cover of Bob Dylan's "Thunder on the Mountain." It's followed by Rosanne Cash's insightful words about Wanda, spoken when she inducted the "Queen of Rock' into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.

Wanda Jackson. Even the name sounds like a declaration and a promise – Wanda Jackson. I asked Wanda what she wanted people to know most about her and she said: "Number one, I can rock! Number two, I was a lady and reputations are important. And number three, rock 'n' roll and God are not mutually exclusive.

As one writer has noted, Wanda was there at the beginning of rock and roll, and for girls with guitars, myself included, Wanda was the beginning of rock and roll. Everyone who cares about roots music and rock 'n' roll reveres Wanda. But in particular, every young woman I know, musician or otherwise, worships her as the prototype, the first female rock star, as she so modestly acknowledges herself.

But this is not a woman who used her staggering beauty to manipulate an audience. This is not a coy woman. This is not a woman who used her powerful energy as a means to just become famous. She is vibrant and edgy without being abrasive, and sweet without being saccharine. This is a woman who has rhythm and joy in equal parts to the depth of her soul.

. . . She started her career when she was a junior in high school in 1954 and she said it was a family affair. Her father drove her to performances and managed her career and her mother sewed her outfits. She was put on package shows in the South with Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and my dad [Johnny Cash], among others; her buddies, as she calls them. . . . She may be the only lady in history who had that kind of rockin' rhythm and raw sensuality and not only didn't self-destruct but had fun and kept her soul intact in the process. She's not a red carpet-celebrity-rehab-tabloid kind of person. She's a person of strong religious conviction, deep integrity, a road warrior, and a rock 'n' roll queen.

In the beginning, Wanda was a country singer, and one day on the road Elvis said to her, "You should do the new kind of music like I'm doing." And Wanda said, "But I'm just a country singer." And Elvis said, "Well, I am too." And that was that.

Wanda was equally authentic in rockabilly as she was in country. Elvis let the genie out of the bottle with that one little exultation. She told her mother, who was making her stage clothes, that she didn't want to wear those big skirts anymore, and so she and her mother created the fringe dresses, the high heels, and long earrings that brought her image and her musical style into an electric, cohesive, sharp focus.

But she never gave up doing country as well as rockabilly. Sometimes she would release a record with a rocker on Side A and a country song on Side B. She had and still has enormous international popularity. . . . She has been recording for 54 years and has recorded in four languages. She's made around 50 albums, she's toured the world and inspired legions of people with her grace and fire. She said she wants to keep doing this "as long as my health holds up and as long as the fans want to come out and see me. But it's not fallen away yet." No it's not . . .

In his review of The Party Ain't Over, Nathan Phillips wonders why Wanda was for so long "the most under-appreciated rockabilly pioneer." He suggests it may have been due to sexism within the music business or Wanda's "conversion to Jesus." Elsewhere on the web I found the following quote by Wanda, in which she talks about her faith.

. . .[T]he main thing that happens when you become a Christian or you’re born again is the change in your own heart and the peace that you can have. You just — you can’t hardly describe it.

It’s just the knowing that Christ is there, he’s real. He’s more real than anything that we can see or hear or feel or touch. He guides my life. I just want my fans to know that if they’re floundering in life and realizing that they need a savior, and they need someone to throw them that life ring and save you, that’s what the Bible says happens: we get saved, and it changes you wonderfully. I don’t belabor the point, but I just briefly tell an audience what happened to me: that I received Christ as my lord and my savior and he made a wonderful change in my life, and I do a gospel song in just about all of my shows. People love it. They love to hear that something good has happened to people, you know.

October 9 sees the release of Wanda's 31st studio album, Unfinished Business. And judging from the following preview, it's going to be a great collection of songs.

Recommended Off-site Links and Updates:
Long Live the Queen: An Interview with Wanda Jackson – Shelley Peckham (True Endeavors, August 29, 2010).
Roots of Rock: Wanda JacksonDigital Reporter (via YouTube).
Wanda Jackson Unveils Autobiography Every Night Is Saturday Night – Brittany McKenna (Rolling Stone, August 30, 2017).
Wanda Jackson, ‘Queen of Rockabilly,’ Retires From Performing – Ryan Reed (Rolling Stone, March 27, 2019).

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