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What’s the most rock ‘n’ roll thing about you, the reigning queen of rock?

The way I sing. We normally say I’m “the queen of rockabilly, the first lady of rock ‘n’ roll.” I was the first girl to record [rock music] back in 1956. ’Course, I didn’t get any hits. The disc jockeys wouldn’t play my record, and that was our main source of exposure in those days. We didn’t have all the media we have today. I continued to record ’em, but I only got one hit from ’56 to ’62 or ’63, and that was “Let’s Have a Party.” That didn’t happen, though, until, I think, 1960. It was nothing like a number one; it was bubblin’ around the top 20, I think. It was definitely a boys’ club, and there weren’t very many women recording on their own. The big western swing bands would have girl singers in them, and so this was kind of new to everyone in the industry. The lady that really broke through that ceiling was Kitty Wells in 1952, I think, with her recording “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” And when it became number one, then all of a sudden, the record companies were more interested in signing girls. So she did a lot for us. I was about the third woman in country music to come along. For a good while, it was just the men. Jack White has said you are a trailblazer, especially for women. What kinds of frustrations did you encounter as a woman playing rock ‘n’ roll?

I just wanted so much to have a hit. I had been working quite a few tours, not exclusively, with Elvis Presley. I did many tours with him, from ’55 until ’57, so I knew [rock] was the coming thing. This was what was gonna be big, you could see that. But I didn’t really think much about a girl singing it. To me, it was fine. My dad, who was my manager, wasn’t a fuddy-duddy—he didn’t call [rock ‘n’ roll] “devil’s music.” He liked it, and he thought that I should try. That gave me the okay, as far as I was concerned. I just wanted it very desperately. But my record sales were beginning to drop, so we decided, in order to keep the country audience that I’d built up, we’d put a country song on one side of the single and a rock ‘n’ roll song on the other.

[Jack White] wants a lot from you, which is fine, but he can get you to this in such a sweet, gentle way that you find yourself wanting to please him. —wanda jackson

What did rock ‘n’ roll offer you as an artist that country did not?

Well, I was a teenager [laughs], and this was my generation’s music. When I went out dancing, I wanted to dance to that music. So, I think it was only natural that I want to sing this, and I want to be successful in it so that I can sing it. They went over great [at live performances]—I had no problem, I was doing “Hard Headed Women” and “Rip It Up” and songs like that, and people loved ’em, but they couldn’t buy my records because they couldn’t find ’em! But [rock] gave me so much freedom and the ability to really have fun onstage. I worked with Elvis and I saw the enthusiasm it brought out in these young people. And here I was going onstage singing tearjerkers about drinkin’ beer and losing the love of your life and so forth, and I wanted to do this happy music. [Laughs] You had to be convinced to do this album. What were your reservations?

I knew that Jack White was one of the top artists in rock ‘n’ roll around the planet, and so naturally I’m thinking, he’s wanting me to do this new kind of rock stuff. My reservation was I could probably do it, but would my fans want me

doing that kind of stuff ? Well, I was wrong on both accounts. [Laughs] He did not want me doing the stuff like he does; he wanted that 18-year-old that was singing “Fujiyama Mama,” and so his term all throughout the recording was “Push, just push those lines a little bit more, a little harder.” We just had a take, and he said, “That was great!” and I kinda wiped my brow. I got what he wanted! Then he said, “Now give me one more, and just push a little bit harder.” [Laughs] So, when you hear him say, “We’re rollin’” [on the beginning of “You Know I’m No Good”], I say, “I always hafta push,” because I was getting frustrated. But a lot of times, I had to get either mad or just an “I’ll show you I can do it” attitude in order to get the performance out of me. [Laughs] What must a great rock ‘n’ roll song make you feel?

It brings out something in you that might be layin’ dormant. It might be like tribal, something like to pull out all the stops, have fun. Of course, rock has changed so much, I don’t know what it takes now. I don’t understand [modern rock songs]. I don’t know why they’re so popular. That’s why I was afraid to record with Jack. Then I found out, he’s a velvet-covered brick. He wants a lot from you, which is fine, but he can get you to this in such a sweet, gentle way that you find yourself wanting to please him. At that point I was just like, “I’ll show you, Mister Jack White! I can get this!” [laughs], and that was exactly what I wanted. If you could go back give your teenage self a single piece of advice, what would it be?

You rock, girl! Keep it up! I guess I’m not one to think real deep, mainly because I’ve been so happy all my life, and I don’t feel like I’ve done anything wrong in my career.

The Party Ain’t Over is available now from Nonesuch.

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Dimple Records' In-Store Magazine, February 2011  

"Indie Rock with a Slice of Green." Cowbell Magazine features Bright Eyes, The Decemberists, Wanda Jackson, Tapes n' Tapes, Smith Westerns a...

Dimple Records' In-Store Magazine, February 2011  

"Indie Rock with a Slice of Green." Cowbell Magazine features Bright Eyes, The Decemberists, Wanda Jackson, Tapes n' Tapes, Smith Westerns a...