Rockabilly guitarist Cordell Jackson was the first woman to produce, engineer, engineer and promote music on her own label, Moon Records. She was born in 1923 and died in 2004. At the time of her death, her label was the longest running record label in Memphis, Tennessee.
Jackson was interviewed by Diane Lowery for ROCKRGRL Magazine in the May/June 1998 issue. Cordell had just become well-known for a Budweiser commercial she had done with Brian Setzer where she showed him up. She certainly was one of a kind. Enjoy this article from the archives:
A simple guitar and amp is all Cordell Jackson needs to blaze her way through her self-penned rockabilly instrumentals. Her sound is raw, emotive, and an excellent example of what shredding means. She shows incredible digital dexterity as she bends the strings in wild personal expression.
Not only is Jackson a red-hot guitar player but she is also a prolific songwriter, star of commercials and videos, and owner of Moon Records, a classic Memphis rockabilly label. She is also the first female recording engineer and producer on record. Recently she put out her first CD, Live in Chicago (Bughouse), which captures what she does best. Although she’s 74, she has never allowed the music-industry to limit her opportunities or to pigeon-hole what she does.
“I have done everything I have ever thought of as long as it wasn’t immoral, fattening, or illegal,” Jackson says. “That expresses what my life’s been. It’s got to be right-can’t be anything wrong with it. That follows me all the way through. A long time ago, I was told little girls don’t play guitars. And yet I would steal the show wherever I played. In the Bible, God says to conform not, and He doesn’t want you to conform but to one thing, and that’s His love. That’s it. I don’t conform to the world about anything.”
Jackson was born in Pontotoc, Mississippi, in 1923. The daughter of a trained violinist, she grew up listening to her father practice with other musicians. Her father’s band, the Pontotoc Ridge Runners, played the classics as well as the popular music of the day, such as “Turkey in the Straw” and “Corinna, Corinna.” When she was twelve, she asked her father for a guitar.
“My dad wouldn’t buy an instrument unless he knew it was the best to buy,” she says. “So my parents ordered the guitar from the Spiegal-Maystern catalog for $159.99. The monthly payment was $8.13, so I picked a little cotton to help pay for a couple of the notes on it. It was a top-of-the-line guitar from Kay, called a Supreme. It was orchestra size, so it was almost as big as I was, and it had pearl and ivory, an arch back, and F-holes. I couldn’t go anywhere with it that my guitar wasn’t the best in the land.”
Jackson taught herself how to play the Supreme, developing a style that was unique and a precursor to the western swing and rockabilly riffs of the 1950s. She also learned other instruments, including piano, mandolin, stand-up bass, and banjo, before she was out of her teens. Although she says she didn’t master the other instruments as well as the guitar, she approached them all with creative enthusiasm.
“I would lay the bass down on the floor, pull off my shoes, and play it with my feet,” she says, chuckling. “Then I had the guitar with a little brace for a harmonica, so I could play the bass, blow the harmonica, and strum the guitar all at the same time. Of course, I never pulled that out in public, but I could do it at home, and my family would all laugh at me.
“When it comes to my style, though, I don’t think anybody plays it but me,” she continues. “Recently, I ran into a girl I went to high school with and I asked her what she remembered most about my guitar playing. She said, ‘Well, you just played it like blue blazes!’ She still remembers that from fifty years ago. My dad caught me one day playing that Tin Pan Alley song ‘Red River Valley,’ and I was ripping it up. He got all over me: ‘That’s not how the music goes!’ When he left, that’s when I’d cut loose on everything, and man, I entertained them. But I wasn’t playing like that for any purpose. I was just doing what I feel. That’s how simple it is.”
Jackson practiced her ax chops on popular music, but she also wrote songs. Over the last fifty years, she’s published more than 100 songs and has another 400 that she’s held on to or is working on. Prolific though she may be, Jackson doesn’t pour tunes out at the drop of a hat.
“Sometimes the songs are just given to me out of the clear blue sky, and I just sit down and write,” she says. “Sometimes I have an idea, and I’ll hang around it for a while. Finally, the hook line comes, and once I have that I can make up something to go with it. But you have to determine how many people are going to relate to the song. Recently, I went through some of my songs, and some of them are good songs, nothing wrong with them. But who would relate to them? That’s where the learning process comes in.”
Jackson left home after high school graduation for Memphis, where her dream was to make records and be on the radio. She saved her money and eventually got a cutting lathe to record local talent. The cutting lathe had a diamond needle that was placed on a plastic surface and would record whatever was being performed. That purchase put her in the record books as the first female recording engineer.
“Everybody seems to think Sam Phillips [of Sun Studios] opened up the world here in Memphis, but he didn’t,” Jackson explains. “He didn’t arrive in town until 1950. When I got the machine, I got an affidavit from the man who went with me to buy it and the woman who sold it to me, and that was 1947. The first record I cut on that machine was Ernest Tubbs’s “It’s Been So Long Darling,” and that was a number one hit in 1947, so that marks the year and proves when that was cut.”
“I cut a lot of demos in 1949 and 1950 at Memphis Recording Service, which became Sun Studios,” she continues. “That’s how the Memphis scene developed. If anyone had recording equipment before me, no one has stepped forward to say so.”
In 1956, Jackson established Moon Records in Memphis and maintained a strong output of popular rockabilly records. Jackson recorded Earl Patterson (“Nightmare Hope”), Joe Wallace (“Leopard Man”), and Allen Page and the Big Four (“Dateless Night”). She also recorded herself on the first single she released-albeit playing stand-up bass instead of guitar-called “Rock and Roll Christmas/Beboppers’ Christmas.”
“It’s funny, you go into a record store today, and see if you can find a card filing that says ‘Rockabilly,’ says Jackson. “You can’t. It’s all mixed in with rock ‘n’ roll. After all these years, it’s still denied a place. Yet why does everybody in the world collect it and give good money for those records? Because it’s good stuff. Rockabilly has more feel in it than any music ever produced.”
Although Jackson initially had difficulty getting people to respect her songwriting, no one doubted her skills as a producer, engineer, and as a guitar player. “When I started producing, it was tough — it still is tough,” she says. “Do you realize how few women producers there are right now? But I’ve had bad and good times-everybody does. I’ve always accepted what was immediate and just barreled on to where I was going. I didn’t let my tires spin in a rut because somebody put too much water in the mud.”
In the last thirty years, she has continued to put out records. In 1985, Jackson started performing live for the first time and gained an underground following. This led to meeting a rep from an advertising agency who caught one of her shows and hired her to challenge Stray Cat, Brian Setzer to a guitar-playing duel in a commercial for Budweiser. She has also done a couple of music videos, appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman” and in the movie, The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag .”
Several friends of Jackson offered to put out a solo record, which became Live in Chicago. On the CD, she flies through the notes of a rip-roaring set of instrumentals like there’s no tomorrow. The hot rockabilly opener “Memphis Moon Rock,” her appreciative ode “Johnny Cash Train,” and the sizzling “Antsy” showcase Jackson’s incredible talent. In addition, she sings charmingly on a few cuts, including the sweet-toned, country-tinged “So Easy.”
In 1992, Jackson was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution and, in the same year, was named a “Legendary Guitarist” by the Hard Rock Cafe Archives. At age 74, Jackson has not let time slow her down, whether it is performing, writing, engineering, or producing.