Wanda Jackson & Pam Tillis: Rockin’ the Country: Women at the Fore

Wanda Jackson & Pam Tillis: Rockin' the Country: Women at the Fore


Popularly known as the “Queen of Rockabilly,” Wanda Jackson was born in Maud, Oklahoma, in October, 1937. Her family moved to California in 1941 and back to Oklahoma when she was 12 years old. After winning a local contest, she was awarded a 15-minute daily radio show on KLPR. While still in high school, Hank Thompson was so impressed that he invited her to perform onstage with him and his band. A duet from this collaboration, “You Can’t Have My Love,” became a hit for Decca, and she soon signed with them. After graduating from school, Jackson packed her bags for the road, with her father as support and manager.

She broke the mold of the typical female frontwoman “window dressing” (in Jackson’s words) by daring to sing men’s lyrics from a woman’s perspective, play guitar, and fashionably strut in jeans or homemade fringe dresses. Elvis Presley, whom Wanda toured with and dated in 1955-56, helped her evolve as an artist by suggesting she expand from her country/gospel roots and start joining in the rock ‘n’ roll craze. A cover of Elvis’ “Let’s Have A Party,” often referred to as her signature song, started things rolling as she blazed her way through a male-dominated genre. She managed to keep a foot in both country and rockabilly by releasing a single in each style.

With the start of the ’60s, she leaned more towards her country roots, with “Right Or Wrong” and “In the Middle of a Heartache.” In 1961, Jackson married IBM programmer Wendell Goodman, who left his job to become her manager. Ten years later, both became devoted Christians, and throughout the ’70s Jackson released only gospel albums (Praise the Lord, Now I Have Everything), and played at church Everything meetings and revivals.

Jackson has been inducted into the Rockabilly, Oklahoma Country Music, Oklahoma Music, International, International Gospel Music, and the German Country Music Halls of Fame, has been nominated twice for a Grammy award, and was on the 2004 nominee ballot for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The next year, she received her “top thrill,” the National Endowment of the Arts award. In 2006, Jackson released I Remember Elvis, and throughout 2007 she will be touring the U.S. and Europe, where she remains extremely popular.


Pam Tillis sang “Tom Dooley” on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry at the ripe old age of eight. Although she was born in l957 in Florida, she grew up in Nashville because she had both the fortune and the misfortune to have a famous father in the music business. Like others in similar situations, she made efforts to demonstrate the prerequisite independence at an early age. Described as “a bit wild” as a teenager, she barely survived a near-fatal auto crash at 16. She later pursued her musical interests at the University of Tennessee, where she sang with a country rock band as well as a folk duo. Approaching 20, she dropped out of school and began working at her father’s publishing company while continuing to write songs.

Her first commercial success was a song recorded by Barbara Fairchild, “I’ll Meet You on the Other Side of the Morning.” After forming her own band, she relocated to San Francisco where they played mostly light rock in small cafes. By 1979 she had returned to Nashville to raise her son and sing backup for her father. She also started performing at the famous Bluebird Café along with Ashley Cleveland and others in songwriter showcases.

The early ’80s saw Tillis take a flyer with Los Angeles and pop music. Failing to attract an audience, she returned to Nashville where her songwriting began to connect with other performers such as Juice Newton, Conway Twitty, Janie Fricke, Ricky Van Shelton, and Suzy Bogguss. She also took on the role of Mary Magdalene in a Tennessee Repertory production of Jesus Christ Superstar to critical acclaim, which would later lead to a Broadway stint in the long-running Smokey Joe’s Café musical tribute to Lieber and Stoller.

By the early ’90s, her recording career began to flourish with the release of her initial album for Artista, Put Yourself in My Place. The following five albums included three Platinum and two Gold records. A personal tribute album to her father, Mel Tillis, It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis, rose to number four on USA Today’s Top Ten country records of 2002, and garnered critical acclaim. Her newest album, Rhinestoned, (See On the Record, page 24) is on her own Stellar Cat label. E


Elmore: What are you listening to right now?

Wanda Jackson: A pretty big variety, not a whole lot of them are current. I listen when I’m doing my makeup and when we’re driving. Martina McBride’s Timeless, man it is so good. I ordered a compilation of country hits from TV.

Pam Tillis: Some bluegrass, Lonesome River Band, and I like some friends of mine, Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, just good roots music, and Darrell Scott, Tim O’Brien and Carrie Rodriguez.

: What was the first record you ever bought?

WJ: Probably like Hank Williams, if I had to guess, “Lovesick Blues” or something like that.

PT: “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones. I always loved the Stones. That was the first single, but for the first album, I joined a record club, and I got Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy, James Gang Rides Again, and Yes’ Fragile. I didn’t buy a lot of country music because Daddy brought a lot of that home. We listened to a lot of John Cash, the Everly Brothers and Kenny Rogers & The First Edition because of the cut “Ruby.” Brenda Lee was a family friend.

: Where do you buy your music?

WJ: We have CDs out the gazoo, we have to build on another room. I get them from bands we work with, and at Best Buy.

PT: I’ve certainly spent a lot of money at Tower, and now I buy a lot of music at Borders or Barnes & Noble.

: What’s your favorite album of all time?

WJ: Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, hands down.

PT: Al Green, the one that has “Let’s Stay Together” on it, which has been repackaged, Love & Happiness.

: What was the first instrument you played?

PT: I started out on piano.

WJ: Guitar. Then I took about three years of piano, and I can play, but I use it for writing songs, for learning songs, but I don’t play it all that much.

: What brought you to the instrument you now play?

WJ: My Dad was a musician, he played violin, fi ddle, and guitar, and he sang. He had a band and my parents met at a dance. He put a guitar in my hands when I was about six. He had a lot of Jimmie Rodgers records.

PT: I wish I played better guitar, but I play enough to write and get a good feel and direct the band a little bit, but I don’t fancy myself a fabulous guitarist; it’s utilitarian guitar.

: What musician influenced you most?

WJ: Musician or singer? A lot of singers are not musicians. I don’t consider myself much of a musician. A lot of singers can’t even tell you what key they do the song in, they don’t know but point to a key on the piano. Jimmie Rodgers, and I learned from the Maddox Brothers & Rose, because she’s real feisty and wore flashy clothes and played a big ol’ bass fiddle. Hank Williams, Hank Thompson.

PT: Of course, growing up in the house with Dad, it wasn’t a conscious thing, it wasn’t “I think I’ll study my Dad.” He wasn’t the kind of person who would explain everything and break it down, he did it by example…and a darned good one. The first people who made a huge impression on me, as a female wannabe writer and singer were Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt—they were my heroes. And I heard Emmylou Harris at an impressionable age…of course I’ve gotten older and she hasn’t…. And Dolly Parton—the singer/songwriter, I just thought she was fantastic. I remember learning to play “Tennessee Mountain Home” on my guitar.

: What was the song or event that made you realize you wanted to be in music?

WJ: My parents were living in California and took me to dances where I would stand in front of the band. They didn’t have to worry about me leaving if the music was playing. I decided then and there I would be a girl singer. All the girls in the band yodeled. So in my mind I thought I had to learn to yodel.

PT: I can’t ever remember not wanting to do it. I had a kindergarten teacher who told me I used to make up songs in there, a new song every week.

: Who would you like in your rock and roll heaven band?

WJ: (Laughs.) I’ve worked with so many bands, and so many are so great. Just skip that question. Charlie McCoy, Jerry Lee Lewis on the piano. It’s hypothetical. I don’t see the point on spending time and energy on something hypothetical.

PT: Definitely Ray Charles on the keyboard, George Harrison on guitar, Levon Helm on drums…I’m sorry I’m giving myself away, I’m a closet rocker…. Man! There are so many great…Chet Atkins, but that’d be a real weird band. I’d have to have one rock group and one country group. For guitar players, I love James Burton, Joni Mitchell on acoustic guitar. and I adore John Hughey on steel. I’m touring with a Nashville band, the Players, and obviously they’re on my wish list.

: What’s your desert island CD?

WJ: (No answer.)

PT: I’ll go really left turn, I’d like to have something you could listen to over and over again and never hear it the same. Mozart or Beethoven or Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

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