THE TITLE of the recent career documentary on Wanda Jackson, The Sweet Lady with the Nasty Voice, just about says it all. Her pioneering rockabilly records exhibit a persona that's equal parts sultry and honey sweet—the girl next door who just might have a few bad ideas. This is all theatrics, of course. Jackson, who's had a lengthy and remarkable career in rockabilly, country, and gospel music, is just about the nicest lady on the planet, which became immediately obvious when we spoke on the phone about her latest record, The Party Ain't Over, which she recorded with Jack White on his property in Tennessee.
"It's through my songs, the way I attack them and the type of material that I have always sung," says Jackson about her notorious bad-girl persona. "And when you're one of the first doing that, it's pretty much a shock. Of course now my little songs seem pretty innocent, but at the time they were provocative, you know? Jack said I was the first bad girl. I said, 'Well okay, now I am a grandma, but I guess I still have to be a bad girl.' You turn around and you be sweet with it, which takes that hard edge off. It's like acting, a role you play—so I try to have fun with it and let the audience know this goes with the song, but hey, I'm not really that way."
White assembled a crew of musicians in his converted barn-studio to back Jackson on a selected batch of songs. "I have recorded in smaller places, and I've been at a barn before, literally," Jackson laughs. "I gave him free reign, you know, because I knew he had an outcome in mind, an idea. Even though they are all covers, they're really fresh sounding, up to date."
The result is a bountiful collection that marries past with present, and finds the thread that has run through Jackson's nearly 60-year career and lays it bare for a contemporary audience. There's the blazing rockabilly of "Rip it Up," with Jackson's patented baby-doll voice sounding as youthful as ever, the funk gospel of "Dust on the Bible," and the sparse country blues of the album-closing "Blue Yodel #6," in which Jackson is accompanied solely by White's acoustic guitar. And there's "Rum and Coca-Cola," a bizarre electric take on a post-war calypso song about military men on leave in Trinidad.
"Jack said, 'Is there a song you've always loved and wanted to record, but never have?'" says Jackson. "I said yeah, it's the Elvis song, 'Like a Baby.' He wasn't familiar with it, but he listened to it and said, 'Oh yeah, that's perfect." (Jackson fans know well that she and Presley were a couple briefly in 1955, although she's of course been happily married to manager Wendell Goodman since 1961.)
"The biggest surprise was the Amy Winehouse song," Jackson says of her cover of "You Know I'm No Good," which White insisted be included on The Party Ain't Over. "I was pretty leery of that one. I didn't want to sing her version about being upstairs in bed with someone. I said I think it should be a little more age-appropriate here. So he changed it around and it kind of softened up those lyrics a little bit. I really enjoyed singing it once I learned it. He was pushing me so much. You hear me say it at the start of the song, 'You always have to push.' I was getting a little tired at that point, but he kept saying that was a good take, but let's get one more and push a little bit more for me. After we were through with the album, I said, 'Jack, I think what you've done is you've pushed me right into the 21st century.'"
At 73 years old, Jackson is hitting another of her many career peaks, and retirement is the furthest thing from her mind. "People retire so that they can do what they love to do. My husband and I both are doing what we love to do and that is be together and travel and meet people. We see the most beautiful places in the world, stay in top hotels, and are being paid to do it, so I don't know what I would retire from or what I would be retiring to do. I've just been so happy all my life that I could make my living doing this and making other people happy as I go. That's a life well spent."