The long awaited companion volume to “Queen of Rockabilly” (CDCHD 776), THE VERY BEST OF THE COUNTRY YEARS is the first comprehensive collection of Wanda’s finest country sides on a single CD. It contains a few more early rockers, all of her important country hits (there were more than 20 spanning 1961-71) and several essential LP tracks; together they showcase the varied skills of this remarkable artist.
Wanda Jackson’s career has taken her from country to rock‘n’roll, then back to country again, followed by a lengthy detour into the gospel field. In recent years, she has made a return to secular music.
Wanda has always described herself as a ‘honky tonk singer’, at her happiest in front of an audience. During the earliest days of rock’n’roll, she was constantly touring, working with legends such as Elvis, Johnny Cash, Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis. She was the first artist to record the country standard, Silver Threads And Golden Needles, though it was tucked away, unnoticed, on a B-side.
Unlike many artists on their first hit, at 23 Wanda had six years experience behind her and was ready and primed to take advantage of the break when it came. Let’s Have A Party reached #38 on the Hot 100 in late 1960, revitalising her career at a time when she was beginning to doubt whether she would ever fulfil her potential. By the end of 1960 she was playing classy lounges in Las Vegas such as the Golden Nugget, Silver Nugget and the Showboat and remained a favourite with Vegas audiences for many years, as well as headlining in Reno hotels and country venues across the States.
Early 1961 saw her switch direction, notching up two consecutive Top 30 pop hits with the self-penned country ballad Right Or Wrong and the equally melodic follow-up, In The Middle Of A Heartache. She once joked, “I was relieved and glad in a way because otherwise I would have had to stay with that hard rock‘n’roll growl for the rest of my life and I’d have no voice left by now.”
1963 was a difficult year for Wanda as she held together the demands of family life – she was expecting her second child – while striving to establish a permanent presence in both the pop and country markets. The arrival of Beatlemania in early 1964 made it that much harder, if not impossible, for country acts to get airplay on pop stations. It was at this point that Wanda decided to fully target the country market, going back on the road with the Party Timers, a band whose line up remained reassuringly stable through the middle-60s.
At the end of the decade, country music underwent something of a streamlining. Songs became wordier and seemingly more profound in their portrayal of the little human dramas that were its hallmark. Wanda hits such as Tears Will Be The Chaser For Your Wine, A Girl Don’t Have To Drink To Have Fun and My Big Iron Skillet were beautifully produced little vignettes of pocket philosophising.
Suddenly, performers of all ages were sporting grossly extravagant coiffures and markedly more flamboyant fashions. Wanda Jackson had virtually invented the uptown bling look for female country performers. “I was really a maverick,” she recalls, “I was trying to put some glamour and sex appeal into country music when it wasn’t the done thing. My manager was doing his best to get me to just wear skirts and sweaters. He said, ‘You should look just like the people in the audience.’ I said, ‘No, I think they come to see someone look a little different than the girl next door.’ It helped establish me and set me apart.”
Wanda Jackson remains very active on the touring circuit, having found a following among younger audiences who sense her rebel spirit.
By Rob Finnis