Wanda Jackson was born in Maud, Oklahoma, a small town near Oklahoma City. Her father played piano in bar bands, but Wanda's first foray into musical performance was in the church gospel choir. In 1943, her father bought her a guitar, and at the age of 12 she won a talent show at the local radio station. Her prize was a daily 15-minute radio show. Hank Thompson, the country music star, heard her performing on the radio and invited her to sing with his group, the Brazos Valley Boys, on weekends. In 1954, while still in high school, Jackson recorded a country duet titled "You Can't Have My Love" with Billy Grey, one of Thompson's musicians. Much to her surprise, it became a national hit.
A short time after graduating from high school, Jackson toured the south with the Ozark Jubilee, where she met a young man named Elvis Presley. Elvis, not yet a star himself, convinced her that she should try rock and roll, then a decidedly male domain. Over the next 10 years, she recorded a number of hit songs. Some were country ballads and love songs and others are now considered to be classics of early rock and roll or rockabilly. Many of these recordings earned her a huge following in Europe and Asia. In the 1970s, Jackson decided that her religious convictions would allow her to record only gospel songs. Although she continued to perform and tour, followers of her early country material lost track of her. Several years ago, she made a recording that recaptured her old energy and style, and she now is performing for a whole new generation of fans. Jackson has the distinction of being inducted into both the Country Music and the Gospel Music Halls of Fame.
NEA: First of all, congratulations on receiving the National Heritage Fellowship. How did you feel when you heard the news?
MS. JACKSON: It's really wonderful. I'm very honored and very humbled by it. At first I thought my husband was kidding me, but he assured me he wasn't and showed me the letter from you folks. I've been on cloud nine ever since.
NEA: Tell me about your earliest experiences singing and playing the guitar, and why you were attracted to the music?
MS. JACKSON: My father was a musician and singer. He had a little dance band when he and mother met. At the end of the depression when times were still very hard in Oklahoma, they decided to go to California to look for work. I was about six years old. That's when he put a guitar in my hand, a little child's guitar, and began teaching me some chords. As soon as I could reach around the neck he began teaching me songs and we would sing together. When I finally could chord well enough he would play the fiddle and I would play the guitar. Shortly after that I took piano lessons for a few years.
On Saturday nights my family and other relatives and friends around the neighborhood would get together to listen to the Grand Old Opry on the radio. That was our Saturday night entertainment. I had a love of music born in me and I've had music around me all my life.
It's really thanks to my dad that I had a dream that I felt I could pursue and see fulfilled. He and my mother were wonderful in helping me in my career. Without all their support, I probably wouldn't have stuck with it.
NEA: What do you think has caused the revitalization of interest in rockabilly music?
MS. JACKSON: I'm asked this question quite a bit. My fun answer is, "Well, these folks just know good music!" In reality, I think it's because it's simple music and it reflects the simplicity of the '50s. The music was pretty innocent by today's standards. People long for those more simple times. They can't live them during the day - they've got jobs and families - but on their time off they can slip back into that world. Many of them drive the classic cars, dress in the vintage clothes. Their homes are decorated with deco stuff from the '50s.
NEA: What have been the highs and lows of having a career in music?
MS. JACKSON: I've always felt like the most fortunate person in the world because I've been able to make my living doing what I love. This is all I've ever done to make a dime. I've never worked as a soda jerk. I was never a waitress. I didn't ever baby sit. I started right out on radio and in a short time I had my own show. I was singing on Saturday nights with bands here in Oklahoma City while I was still in high school. Some weeks I was bringing in more money than my Daddy who had a full-time job. You know, through all the ups and downs and variations over the years, I really feel like I've lived a charmed life.
NEA: What led you to performing gospel music after being such a successful country performer? And then back to secular music?
MS. JACKSON: My husband Wendell and I became Christians in 1971. Christ made such a difference in my life and in our marriage, in our relationships with each other and with our children. Christ took the priorities we had all mixed up and changed them. You realize this part of your life has a higher priority and it just straightens everything out. Your thinking becomes straight. You find out the purpose of life and what you're doing here and what you need to do. I was so excited about all this I just wanted to get the Gospel out to everyone. The best way I could do that was through my music.
I still had a big name in country music in those days. As word got out that I was a Christian and was singing gospel music, invitations began to come for me to sing at churches and big revival meetings. But it was very different for me. This was a serious music. I still had to have fun doing it and make it entertaining, but this message I was singing was serious. That was a good challenge for me, and I've always enjoyed a challenge when it comes to music.
It wasn't long until Wendell's talents began to develop as a public speaker. He's a natural organizer and motivator. All of a sudden we had our own ministry. We were still basically doing what we had always done, he and I travelling together and he booking the dates. But now he was a part of the evening.
Then after about 20 years, that part of the career just kind of phased out. I don't know for sure why except I felt like it was God's hand. He had control of my life and I would be a voice for him in whatever way he wanted me to be. My career just suddenly swung back into secular music.
People began to call wanting me to sing at this festival or that, and then I was asked to go to Scandinavia to do a new album of rockabilly music. I was delighted. I was thrilled that someone still wanted me singing that music.
I felt like the time was right and we jumped in with both feet. God has just been blessing ever since. So I have to feel that it was God's will. I can be a voice for him in whatever way he needs me to be. And my testimony has gotten more publicity, more press and radio and television. Everyone knows of my Christian convictions now - when I was doing ministry it was just for a certain group of people. I just stepped up another notch to let people know, hey, you can do your work but you can still be a Christian.
NEA: What changes are you seeing in rockabilly? Are they healthy for the tradition?
MS. JACKSON: I believe it will continue to change. It has to change because you get new generations. I've been recording 51 years so I've seen the music change and musicians getting better. Singers and song writers are better. The engineering and the technology is great. The kids recording rockabilly now are talented people. It isn't always all going to be good but you'll always find the good rising to the top.
The look of the rockabilly venue has changed. Even though the fans might wear their vintage clothes, now they've got their tattoos and their body piercings, too. I don't like that sort of thing but you know, that's their generation's thing. We had duck tails and sideburns and the adults didn't like that.
NEA: What has inspired you to continue playing and performing throughout the years?
MS. JACKSON: Music is the only thing I've ever found that makes me happy. At one point my husband and I quit traveling for a couple of years. We thought it was what we were supposed to do and in retrospect I saw it did have a definite purpose. But I wasn't happy. He wasn't happy. The kids weren't used to us being home all the time and we weren't used to being full-time parents. Because we have this incredible support group we were able to go back and do what made me happy. Wendell's folks and my folks lived near by us. We had wonderful governesses and nannies. I was always encouraged from everyone around me.
God has blessed me and Wendell with health and this new surge of popularity, so I feel like I'm not supposed to quit yet. The day will come, but until then I'm just enjoying the ride and having the time of my life.