Rockabilly Legend Wanda Jackson Goes Out in Style with Joan Jett on ‘Encore’ Album

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It took decades for Joan Jett and Wanda Jackson’s paths to cross, but once they did several years ago, the intersection of those pioneering artists seemed fated in ways big and small. During their first meeting, for example, Jackson told Jett she wanted to record her own version of the rocker’s “You Drive Me Wild” — a raunchy, bluesy track originally released on the Runaways’ self-titled debut in 1976.

“‘Well, that’s strange. That’s the very first song I ever wrote,’” Jackson says Jett replied. It was the first of many songs Jett would write that picked up right where Jackson left off — a crucial link in their musical lineage, one too often understood only in the context of their genders.

Without meeting in person and eventually working together, they may have remained just two dots on some superficial timeline of “Women in Rock.” At first glance, they appear totally different: Jackson, lauded for challenging country’s conservative norms aesthetically and culturally and ultimately creating something totally new, while Jett shaped a whole different generation of rockers, putting an unapologetic twist on the music in its now-classic era.

But collaborating on Encore, Jackson’s 32nd and final album (out Friday on Big Machine/Blackheart) showed Jackson and Jett that they share a strain of creative DNA — a willingness to innovate and subvert, coupled with larger-than-life talent and charisma. Both insisted that their creative voices would be heard from a very young age, relying on a sort of preternatural conviction that women in music (and life) are so often villainized for expressing.

The pair initially had thought of creating an all-star “Wanda and Friends”- type album, but when they found inspiration to create something wholly new, it just made sense to let Jackson shine, front and center.

“I think [Jett] decided that if we’re going to do this as an all-original album, let’s do it for you. You know? Just you,” says Jackson, who spoke with Billboard at her house in Oklahoma City.

Jackson and Jett’s pairing has been in the works for years. The idea came from Jackson’s late publicist Jon Hensley, who had also helped conceive of the legendary singer-songwriter’s albums with Jack White and Justin Townes Earle. But those albums were filled with other people’s songs, a blend of classics and new material written for Jackson.

For this project, Jackson co-wrote several of the tracks — a welcome diversion, as health problems forced the singer to cut down her touring schedule (she fully retired from the road in 2019). Despite the fact that Jackson wrote many of her most memorable singles, including “Right or Wrong” and “Mean Mean Man,” this project marked the first time she had worked with other writers. Her granddaughter and manager Jordan Simpson connected her with country stalwarts like Angaleena Presley, Luke Laird, Will Hoge and Lori McKenna — writers whose work postdates most of Jackson’s recreational listening.

“She’ll say, ‘These writers wrote that song. Have you heard it?’ and I’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t know if I have,’” Jackson said with a grin. “And she’ll say, ‘Well it’s been No. 1 for about five weeks!’”

Music Row and assembly-line song production was in its infancy when Jackson penned her pioneering compositions. As a result, heading into the writers’ room was a new experience for the 83-year-old. Jackson, who insists that she doesn’t think of herself as a songwriter, spent a few hours chatting and working with the other writers and came away with half of the album’s songs.

“She was wonderful to write with,” Jackson says of McKenna. “So easy! My goodness. Just kind of flowed out of her.” Jackson, McKenna, Laird and Simpson co-wrote the album’s first single, the sweet ballad “That’s What Love Is,” which features Jett and was inspired by the singer’s husband Wendell Goodman. Goodman, whom Jackson married in 1961, died in 2017.

“We were talking about my wonderful husband,” Jackson says. “Just how sweet he was, and how good he was to make the way for me — always thinking ahead. I loved him so much. Always will.”

Jett, who sings on three songs and plays guitar throughout, and her frequent collaborator Kenny Laguna produced the concise album, which includes just eight tracks. Jackson says, though, that they and the label put her in the driver’s seat — another position she’s not used to being given instead of fighting for.

“They allowed me to be in on choosing things,” said Jackson. “I don’t know if other people got to back in the day, but I didn’t. They would send me a sheet of photos from a photo shoot, and I would mark the ones “Do not use,” and that was the end of it — they’d go from there. I felt good that I got to have a little hand in it for once.” Other than “You Drive Me Wild,” Encore’s only cover is Johnny Tillotson’s “It Keeps Right On a-Hurtin’,” a warm, unfussy take on the classic.

Fittingly given Jett’s involvement, Encore draws more from Jackson’s rock bona fides than her longer catalog of country records. Jackson was, after all, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (largely thanks to campaigning by Elvis Costello) in 2009. There’s still a twangy undertone, though, in both the Music Row genesis of the songs and the lilt of the production. Angeleena Presley and Candi Carpenter join Jackson on “Good Girl Down,” a roadhouse-ready ode to self-assurance that draws almost equally from rock and country — making it a perfect fit with the singer’s rockabilly legacy.

Though rock made up just a small percentage of her early recordings, it is the genre in which Jackson has gotten her flowers, belated though they might be. “I have to admit, it seems like they’ve given me an awful lot of credit,” says Jackson. “Everyone says, ‘No, we didn’t give you too much recognition — it was so hard.’ Well, it was, in retrospect. But everything’s relative.”

Jackson has received fewer accolades within country music. She has not been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, although her rockabilly innovations had just as much of an impact on country as they did on rock. More than that, Jackson is country — both in where she’s from and the music that made her famous.

“I do things for them, they had a luncheon for me at one time,” she says of the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. “They’re still using my video.  But I just never was a big star. I mean, I’m bigger now than I’ve ever been.”

“[Being inducted] would make me feel more like a vital part of this industry,” Jackson adds. “That I had my purpose and I fulfilled it. I got those clothes changed,” she added, alluding to the flashier, sexier attire that she helped make accessible for women in country. “And got a little growlin’ and what have you in there.”

For a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, at least, Jackson’s day to day is pretty low key. She still lives in the same house where she and her family have been for decades. Her daughter helps her out, and every morning as she’s getting ready, she puts on a CD or two — mostly country, like Vince Gill, Ray Charles or The Chicks. Occasionally, she’ll see the clips of her ‘50s and ‘60s performances on YouTube, like the one on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

What does she think as she watches, 60 years later? “Pretty cute chick. She sings decent enough, she looks pretty good. Yeah, she’ll probably be a star.”

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