The subtitle to Wanda Jackson’s engaging memoir signals an important conflict at the heart of her career: she started as a country singer but found herself serendipitously transported to the world of rock and roll, firstly thanks to her boyfriend Elvis and more recently due to the dedicated fandom of the rockabilly scene. Yet she never left country music behind and you can tell as you read her life story that in her heart she wishes for more recognition from the genre she began singing in.
As a young child Wanda’s family would gather round the radio to listen to the Grand Ole Opry and she developed a strong connection to Western swing music, thanks to her musician father. She learned to sing early and soon played piano and guitar to such a standard that her friends encouraged her to audition for a local radio talent spot. Despite only being fourteen her talent shone. She was given fifteen minutes live on air, playing country hits and this opportunity eventually led to a regular full hour show and spots on TV.
She was somewhat famous locally but that didn’t impress her high school friends too much, as Wanda explains: ‘country music had a stigma to it at the time, and some people didn’t want others to know they liked it.’ And even more problematic was the fact that there weren’t any women succeeding in country – this was before all the big names like Kitty, Patty and Loretta. Wanda found an ally in Hank Thompson whose mentorship allowed her to develop as a performer, while she balanced school and touring. He helped her record a demo but it was rejected by one label who claimed ‘girls don’t sell records.’ Eventually Decca took a chance on her and she had early success on the country chart in 1954, singing a duet with Billy Gray.
But Wanda didn’t see corny duets as her future direction. She preferred feisty songs which allowed her grittier side to emerge. After graduating high school she began to seek out opportunities on the road and was signed up to tour with Webb Pierce and an up and coming singer named Elvis Presley. Soon she began a close personal relationship with the King himself, witnessing his colossal rise and the birth of rock and roll. Elvis had musical vision – he saw in Wanda something of the rockabilly spirit and encouraged her to experiment with her sound (he would also rightly predict that the odd ‘loner’ opening the tour, one Johnny Cash, would become the biggest legend in country music).
After her relationship with Elvis fizzled out due to touring schedules, the idea of rock and roll continued to grow in her musical heart. Perhaps Wanda was pushed towards this new style after some disappointing experiences in the country genre. Staying in Oklahoma meant she always felt an outsider in Nashville, missing out on the big songs and never getting a chance to build a live following. Even worse, her first experience of the Grand Ole Opry was humiliating when she was forced to cover up, as her dress was deemed too revealing, and on stage her song was accompanied by Minnie Pearl and Stringbean’s comedy act. She vowed never to return.
There’s an echo of bitter resentment in her retelling of these stories – she was ahead of her time and many in Nashville obviously didn’t understand that things were changing. As she explains, ‘I didn’t want to be a cowgirl anymore.’ Wanda began to dress more provocatively and sing songs that were deemed ‘racy’. She designed her own glamorous stage outfits, taking inspiration from the movies and Marilyn Monroe. Wanda pushed country music women away from gingham dresses, paving the way for future stars to express themselves through their appearance. As she writes, ‘I hope I made it a little easier for gals like Dolly Parton, Tanya Tucker, Lorrie Morgan, Faith Hill and Shania to embrace their femininity and recognise that it’s okay to be sexy and be a good country girl at the same time.’ Wanda’s rebellious spirit would echo across the genre for years to come.
Wanda left her record label, signing with Capital and recording the first attempt at a song which bridged her two worlds of country and rockabilly. ‘I Gotta Know’, written especially for her by a mother of a friend, starts as traditional country before speeding into a rock and roll chorus and then going back to her country foundation. It’s an odd sounding hybrid to modern ears. What is interesting of course is her stories of the conflict between country music and the new ‘rock and roll’ genre is strangely familiar. Times change but issues of genre purity never seem to go away.
Wanda was less concerned with genre boundaries explaining, ‘Good music is good music, whatever you call it.’ During the sixties she would have both country and rockabilly minor hits, even splitting the genres on the A and B side of her singles. At the time Wanda felt that actually in being in both genres was beneficial to her music, ‘my rock and roll attitude was informing my country success.’ Her rockabilly fans perhaps did not embrace her country music in the same way. By the end of the decade her hits dried up and she ended up falling into that ‘too rock for country, too county for rock’ void.
In the seventies she found herself changing direction towards gospel music after finding new faith in God. The final section of the book concerns the eventual recognition and resurgence of her rockabilly career in the eighties and nineties – beginning in Europe and slowly filtering back to the US. Wanda gives credit to Rosie Flores for her support in achieving renewed interest in her career.
However some were still to wake up to Wanda’s legacy, and one of the most powerful moments of the book is the letter from fan Elvis Costello to the Rock Hall of Fame, castigating them for Wanda’s continued exclusion. The letter begins:
‘For heaven’s sake, the whole thing risks ridicule and having the appearance of being a little boy’s club unless it acknowledges the contribution of the first woman of rock and roll.’
Thankfully they listened and Wanda was inducted in 2009, with an equally wonderful speech by Rosanne Cash. Since then Wanda has worked with Jack White on new music and continues to perform, despite the sad loss of her husband last year.
Interestingly one of the final chapters of the book finishes with a list of her achievements and accolades before she admits to wishing she was also in the country music hall of fame, arguing ‘country was where I started, and I had far more commercial success – nearly thirty charting singles – in that genre than I ever did in rock or gospel.’ In 1966 she had even released an album called ‘Wanda Jackson Salutes the Country Music Hall of Fame.’ Perhaps what it will take is another intervention from someone significant in country music to write a letter like Elvis did and explain her legacy to a genre that she always stayed loyal to, even when rock wanted to claim her for their own.
Wanda is an icon to many, known now as the queen of rockabilly. Her memoir proves this is only one side to her remarkable story. ‘I was never interested in trying to sound like anybody else. Daddy always told me to to do it my way and be who I am.’ Country music should celebrate this unique artist and her groundbreaking legacy while she is still alive to appreciate it.
Each month I read and review a music book by a woman in order to promote and share suggestions for reading beyond the usual white, male music books. Next month’s choice is ‘First Time Ever’ by folk singer Peggy Seeger.