Wanda Jackson: Did It Right

Written by Joe Vitagliano

Videos by American Songwriter

Around six years ago, a meeting was arranged between two of the most iconic women in music history: Joan Jett and Wanda Jackson.  

“My publicist at the time, Jon Hensely, suggested we contact her,” a now-84-year-old Jackson tells American Songwriter. “We asked if she’d be interested in doing a few duets and she said, ‘No, I wouldn’t be interested in that—but I would be interested in doing a whole album.’” 

That was the moment the first seed of Jackon’s latest (and final) album, Encore, was planted. After the initial meeting, the two camps sought about getting all the paperwork signed and the details in place, and before too long, Jackson made her way to New York to begin work. Everything was going smoothly—until a series of setbacks arose. 

“While we were in New York, my husband had a small heart attack, so he wound up in the hospital for a few days—that stopped rehearsals,” Jackson says. “A few weeks after that I was in the hospital myself because I had to have a knee operation, and then I had to re-have it. Then, Joan ended up in the hospital too because she had to have a shoulder operation. So, I was thinking ‘Oh, we’ll never get this done.’”  

At that point, it looked like the record was going to end up on the back-burner for a few years, but fortunes began to change when one of Jackson’s granddaughters, Jordan Simpson, moved to Nashville. 

“She wanted to get into the business side of show business and ended up getting a degree in something called ‘strategic communications’—that means she can zero-in on booking and publicity for artists,” Jackson explains. “So, she was getting involved in all of that and she asked me why I didn’t write anymore. I said, ‘Ah well, I just don’t feel inspired to write anymore.’ She said back to me, ‘Well, you still can!’”  

With the same enterprising spirit her grandmother has been demonstrating since she got her first record deal with Decca as a high schooler back in 1954, Simpson started making some phone calls to a few of the major players in the Nashville songwriting community—soon, work on Encore began again in full swing.  

“She got in touch with all these writers who were getting No. 1 songs and she set up writing sessions for me, so I flew into Nashville,” Jackson says. “After a few visits, we had a batch of songs—we got the music from Joan in New York and put my parts on top. Then, we mixed it all like a cake; we put in a little of this, a little of that, and we made a really good collection of tunes. I’m quite proud of all of them.” 

With that wonderfully collaborative second wind in their sails, Jackson and her team pushed through and completed Encore, finally getting it on shelves and DSPs last August. And listening to its eight tracks, it’s clear why Jackson is so proud. With memorable melodies, a truly stirring energy, and blistering modern rock arrangements (put together by Jett and The Blackhearts), her legendary vivaciousness is on full display, beaming mid-century wonder into the digital age with exciting clarity and profound impact.  

And, amazingly, the process of writing Encore afforded Jackson something that’s pretty rare to find after nearly seven decades of being an international icon: a new experience.  

Arriving in Nashville to write, she was amazed by the professionalism and talent of her collaborators. With a team of celebrated artists and veteran writers—like Elle King, Lori McKenna, Vanessa Olivarez, Luke Laird, Sonia Leigh, Angaleena Presley, Will Hoge, and more—she hunkered down and began learning a whole new approach to her life-long occupation.  

“When I came in, I didn’t know how it was going to work,” Jackson says. “I was shocked to find out that it was done quite business-like. Most of my songwriting was just done on my own, where if I got an idea, I’d go get my guitar, sit down somewhere and write. With this, though, we’d set aside a few hours for a session at a publishing place. I thought I was just going to be a little fly on the wall, watching and inserting a few ideas, but instead, they started out by asking me all sorts of questions.”  

A bit surprised that these writers were so fascinated by her answers, Jackson quickly found herself doing something she hadn’t done much of before: co-writing. “I would be answering their questions, and someone would say, ‘Hold it, hold it—I think that’s a song,’” Jackson continues. “The ideas for each song literally came out of the conversations we were having… and I was shocked to death that they found what I was saying interesting. We took a little creative license to make the songs complete, but the ideas all came from my experiences.”  

While that might seem like a simple revelation, in actuality, it was a monumental moment in Jackson’s career—those sessions marked the first time she had ever written about her own life in such concrete terms. Recalling the various episodes and lessons from her life, the stories weaved together into intricate and nuanced musical offerings. For example, reflecting on the guidance her father (who served as her manager in the early years) offered led to the track, “Treat Me Like A Lady.”  

“That one came from my dad,” Jackson explains. “He always told me, ‘Don’t copy anybody, be yourself. Remember that it’s your name out there, so make it the way you want it to be.’ He’d tell me all those things, and then he’d say, ‘There’s just one thing I ask of you: always remember that you’re a lady.’ That stuck with me. I never drank on stage or smoked in public—I did those things, I just didn’t brag about them or flaunt them. Because of Daddy, I was always a lady on a stage, so, consequently, I was always treated like a lady. I always felt very dignified.” 

On an even deeper level, the songs on Encore also gave Jackson the chance to explore her relationship with the true love of her life: her husband, Wendell Goodman, who passed away in 2017 after decades of serving as her manager and confidant. He inspired the album’s moving closing track, “That’s What Love Is.” 

“The two other writers on that one—Lori McKenna and Luke Laird—are so great,” Jackson says. “We were talking and they were asking me questions like an interview, and I was telling them about my wonderful husband, Wendell, who traveled with me for the 56 years that we were married. I was telling them about how sweet he was for taking care of me, that no matter where we were in the world, he would get up earlier than me and let me sleep because he knew that I needed to have ample sleep to be able to perform. He would go down and have breakfast or read the newspaper, then, when it was time, he’d come back up to bring me coffee and wake me up. He’d open the drapes and turn the TV on with me griping, ‘I don’t wanna get up yet—close the drapes!’ But he’d do it anyway, for me, which was so sweet. He told me once, ‘My purpose in life is just to take care of Wanda Jackson,’ and he did take very good care of me.” 

Naturally, the loss of Goodman was profoundly sad for Jackson, but rather than deter her from finishing her Encore, she found herself even more determined to make the best record she possibly could.  

“Working on these songs gave me something to do, something important—I had to keep putting one foot in front of the other,” she says. “I poured my energy into getting my parts for this album done, which gave me strength. It was rewarding. I remember that I got to play ‘That’s What Love Is’ for Wendell shortly before he passed, and he was in tears when it was over. He knew exactly what it was written for. That was the sad thing—he worked so hard with me, but he didn’t get to see this album’s completion. But I hope he knows that it all worked out good. If not, when I get up there, I’ll ask the Lord if I can go over and tell him.” 

Now, with her career as a musician officially at a close, Jackson is settling into her retirement, taking stock of all the years, faces, adventures, and experiences that have gone by. From her first gig as a featured performer (she played Reno Sweeny in a school production of Anything Goes) to her legendary stint dating Elvis to her enduringly rockin’ contributions to the Great American Songbook, not only did she leave a profound mark on the history of popular culture, but she did it all while heeding her father’s only request: to be a lady while doing it.  

“I want to be sure and mention my folks because I’m an only child and they really made supporting me the family business,” she said. “They were there for all of my career. I couldn’t have done it without them, I really couldn’t. My mother made all of my stage clothes—she cut the thread by hand and set the rhinestones one at a time, all while holding down her eight-hour-a-day job. My daddy put a guitar in my hand when I was six and taught me how to play chords. By the time I was seven when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said: ‘A girl singer!’” 

Eventually, with the help of a lot of folks along the way—her parents, her husband, her granddaughter, her team, her collaborators, and more—she’s spent a lifetime making that childhood dream a reality. But while she’s certainly sentimental and thankful, don’t for a second think that the Queen of Rockabilly is living with any regrets. Far from it. 

“Sometimes I get asked about what I would tell the young Wanda Jackson,” she said. “Usually, they’re kinda shocked, ‘cuz what I’d tell her is: ‘You did it right, just do it again!’” 

Photo courtesy of Emma Lee

Photo courtesy of Emma Lee.

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