When Wanda Jackson first ventured into rock 'n' roll, she was a lonely figure. It's not just that there were few women playing and singing the music. "There weren't any," she says, with a laugh. "I was out there on a limb by myself. But I believed in that music, and I thought that I could do it."
Jackson, now 72 and still touring almost nonstop, bills herself as the First Lady of Rockabilly, and if anything it's an understatement. After some early recordings for Decca while she was still in high school, she signed with Capitol Records as a country singer in 1956, the year she turned 19. But she had been touring with Elvis Presley, and at his urging, she expanded her ambitions.
"On my very first session with them, I threw in some songs like ‘Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad,'" she says. "I'd been working with Elvis for a couple of years, a year and a half, and he had persuaded me to try singing something other than just straight country.
"After I found the songs, I realized ‘I can sing these,' and I enjoyed singing them, very much. I could just kind of abandon everything and just sing it the way I wanted to."
The way she sang those songs, in a growling shout that still leaps out of the speakers more than 50 years later, established the principle that women could sing rock 'n' roll, and made inevitable that more of them would. In Jackson's brash voice, you can hear premonitions of a whole lineage to come: Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Joan Jett, Courtney Love. But at the time, it was nearly a nonstarter.
"The general public and the disc jockeys were being ‘adults,'" she says, with cheery sarcasm. "They were in the same category as the mother and daddies, and they were not going to accept Elvis and Jerry Lee, because this was so new and it was scary to them. They labeled it the devil's music. But Elvis, when he explained it to me, he could see this very early that it wasn't just adults buying records anymore. The young people had a voice, and they were the ones calling the shots now. So he said, ‘You need to record things that the young people will like.'"
They did like it—especially "Let's Have a Party," a rock number that Capitol somewhat grudgingly allowed onto her 1958 debut album, only to see it picked up a few years later by disc jockeys and teenage audiences, who pushed it into the top 40. Into the early '60s, Jackson alternated between country balladry (much of it classic, like the 1961 hit "Right or Wrong") and stomping rock 'n' roll. You can find incendiary clips of her from this period on YouTube, tearing up "Hard-Headed Woman" or "Fujiyama Mama"—the latter a hit in Japan, either despite or because of its staggering open lines: "I been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too/The things I did to them, baby, I can do to you!"
But Jackson's rock side was a bit raw for the mainstream. Listen to her recording of the Coasters' hit "Riot in Cell Block #9" and you can see why: Transplanting the action to a women's prison, Jackson substitutes "Two-Gun Matilda" for the original's "Scarface Jones" and infuses the song with caged-heat lust. ("Each and every trooper looked so tall and fine/All the chicks went crazy up in cell block #9.")
Her country records were selling well, so she followed her fans and spent most of the '60s focused on Nashville. There, too, she was a trailblazer. "My wardrobe changed the look of women in country," she says. "Putting some glamour into it, sex appeal." She notes with a mixture of amusement and pride that the CMT network recently named her "the first sex symbol" of country music. "I'd shake my fringe dresses, you know, I didn't do anything outrageous. Those fringe dresses, you just pat your foot and it looks like you're doing something."
In the 1970s, she turned toward gospel music, and it wasn't until the rockabilly revival of the '80s that her early rock singles gained a new generation of fans. Since then, she has seen periodic spikes in interest in the various phases of her career. In 2009, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's roster of "Early Influences."
Most recently, Jack White (of the White Stripes and Raconteurs) produced an album for her, to be released later this year. The first single came out in January, a cover of Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good" that shows Jackson in fine, gritty voice.
"Sometimes it takes someone like that to see new horizons for an artist," she says of White. "It turned out to be the most exciting album I've done in I don't know how long. I tell people he pushed and pushed me until he pushed me right into the 21st century."
Her stop-off in Knoxville is part of an itinerary that has already taken her to Europe once this year, and will again, with an Australian jaunt in between. She admits to physical limitations on some counts; climbing more than three flights of stairs at a time can wear her out. But Jackson, who travels with her husband and manager of 48 years, Wendell Goodman, laughs at the notion that she might be ready to leave the road behind.
"Just when things are happening, I'm not about to retire now," she says. "I'm having too much fun."