In 1960, she had a hit with “Let’s Have a Party,” and now more than a half-century later, Wanda Jackson, the Queen of Rockabilly and Elvis Presley’s onetime tour partner, still reigns. After producing album after album in the ’60s and ’70s, then lying low for two decades, she’s come back strong in the new millennium with a series of albums including the Jack White-produced “The Party Ain’t Over” and a new album, “Unfinished Business,” produced by Justin Townes Earle.
It includes covers of such songs as Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now,” Townes Van Zandt’s “Two Hands,” Steve Earle’s “The Graveyard Shift” and “California Stars,” the Woody Guthrie song finished by Wilco for “Mermaid Avenue.”
Prior to her show at Altar Bar at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, the 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee talked with us from her home in Oklahoma City.
So, you still call Oklahoma City home?
Yeah, never moved to Nashville.
That’s where we’ve always lived, and our family is there, and we were both from there. We had two children and they were young when I was on tour, it was Wendell [Goodman, her husband and manager] and I, so their mother and daddy were gone a pretty good percentage of their young lives. We chose this to make our living, so we had to do it, but we were surrounded by family. His mother and daddy were five minutes away. Mine were about eight minutes away, so they had cousins and uncles and aunts around.
Why did you call this album ‘Unfinished Business’?
Everyone seemed to like the title. It’s a very common phrase people use. To me it means: Don’t count me out, I’m not through yet. I have unfinished business yet to do.
I thought it had to do with songs you felt like you needed to do.
I don’t know, but some of them were songs I liked real well and wanted to do, so I guess it would have do with that also.
What’s the difference between working with Justin and Jack?
Uh, I guess, the difference between night and day. [laughs] Big difference in style, but not in performance. I think they both have produced very good records for me, and I’m quite proud. I learn something usually from all of my producers. With Justin, he is very comfortable in the studio and sitting at the board. This is his first time to produce a record other than his own, so it was a new experience for him, and maybe I made it easy for him. He’s very laid back, very cool, like, ‘Well, let’s take a little break and have some coffee and think about this and listen to it again.’ So we took our time and I had the musicians right there in the studio with me.
For some reason we felt like we needed to have another album out. A lot of artists these days, they wait two, three years. But the reason they can do it is they take songs out of their album and they become singles and usually hit records. I’m kind of in a different league there. I feel like I need to keep the momentum going that I stirred up by working with Jack.
So he was a lot more intense of a producer then?
I guess more focused. When we were working there was not a lot of laughing and joking going on. It was: We’re here to get this record done and get the performance out of me.
One of the songs you do is ‘It’s All Over Now.’ You had Bobby Womack and the Rolling Stones to contend with on that one
Yeah, well. I start at the top. We eliminate them from the top.
What did it mean to you to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
It meant the world to me. I didn’t really ever expect to be in the Rock Hall, because I wasn’t ever a superstar, I was on the fringes all the time, and I fell between the cracks along the way. So I never expected it to happen, but when they put me in the category of early influences, then I thought ‘OK, now, this is right.’ In the last few years, I’ve had so many of the girl artists that are big stars now tell me that I inspired them, that they sang my songs. I thought that was the perfect category. In fact, even some guys told me I inspired them, people like Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen, and Cyndi Lauper has told how I influenced her.
Who influenced you?
There’s been several along the way, because I started so young. In the beginning it was Jimmie Rodgers. On the first song that I learned to sing and play the guitar along with was a Jimmie Rodgers song and he inspired me to learn to yodel, and that served me real well in the past. I still do a yodel on my set list, and my audience today just loves it, because you don’t hear it much anymore and it kind of fascinates them.
Then Hank Williams. To any country artist, I think he influenced almost everyone. Hank Thompson became my real favorite, and I had the benefit of working with him and his band. He lived in Oklahoma City for a while and heard me and began letting me sing when he was in town and on a TV show he got. He was my first mentor.
The next influence was Elvis Presley, as I worked with and got to watch him night after night on our tours, and he was the one who inspired me to start doing this kind of music in the first place when I didn’t think I could. He had the confidence in me that I could, so I promised him I would try and once I tried I said I think I found a home. Because I really love singing the early rock songs like his and mine.
How difficult was it for you as a woman to break into that scene?
It was very difficult because the radio disc jockeys, that was our main way of getting our exposure. They were having a hard time accepting Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and the guys. If you have read anything about it, they were breaking their records and giving them a hard time and the press was giving them a hard time, saying their music was straight out of hell. Then when a women came along in a fringe outfit and a glamorous look, singing this kind of music, they were not going accept that and help me. That’s why I never had a real hit back in the ’50s and in the beginning. I had some success with my rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s actually paying off more now for me than it ever did back then.