In Her ‘Encore,’ Wanda Jackson Continues to Innovate: ‘This Album Is Like My Memoirs, Practically’
Truth be told, Wanda Jackson says, she's always needed a little bit of a push to try new things.
Containing some of the most autobiographical and revealing songs of her career — not to mention, her first-ever co-writing sessions with other songwriters — the rockabilly legend's latest album, Encore, falls squarely into the "new things" category. And, true to form, "I was talked into doing it," Jackson shares during a recent interview.
"All my life, I've had to be pushed by somebody," she says. "And my sweet little granddaughter, Jordan ... just came up with the idea of 'Why don't you write with some of the Nashville writers?'"
"Well, I can't take all the credit. That woman will not do anything she does not want to do," counters Jordan Breanne Simpson, Jackson's granddaughter, with a laugh. A musician herself and longtime member of the Nashville country music community, Simpson had been working and traveling as part of her grandmother's management team for about a year when she first broached the idea of setting up some writing sessions.
"I think, basically, for me, the goal was to get my grandmother back in the creative mindset and remind her that she still had it in her to write songs," Simpson continues. "She's done a lot of cover albums, and they're beautiful. But I was just thinking, 'If this is her last record, it needs to be special. It needs to be a part of her' ... Her voice and her inner self and her life, she deserves to share that with the world in the form of song."
Once she got the green light from Jackson, Simpson began assembling a team of collaborators who she hoped would help her grandmother unlock some of that "inner self." She shot for the moon, inviting — and booking — some of her all-time favorite songwriters, including Lori McKenna, as well as modern-day kindred souls, such as Angaleena Presley.
"It was rewarding to work with these fantastic writers, to see how they came up with their ideas," Jackson remembers. "During our visits with these people, I'd just be talking a lot and someone would say, 'Hold on, there's an idea for a song right there' ... A lot of the [songs] came out of my mouth unchanged."
As an example, Jackson points to the eighth and final track on Encore, "That's What Love Is." It's an intimate and disarmingly old-fashioned ballad that she co-wrote with her granddaughter as well as McKenna and another Nashville songwriting titan, Luke Laird.
"We were at the end of having lunch with the writers. We didn't go out — we sat in the room and ate, talked, and I was telling them how sweet my husband was: how he woke me up in the morning, what our relationship was like," Jackson remembers. "I think [McKenna] said, 'Well, hey, there's our song right there.'"
Jackson's love story with her husband of 56 years, Wendell Goodman — who died in 2017 — is a centerpiece of Encore. More than any of her other projects, the record is infused with her memories of their life together, and her grief after his death.
"That's what being in love is: It's falling more in love all the time, and that's the way it was with me," Jackson says, before pausing to reflect.
"And it went on from there, [inspiring] the songs," she continues. "I was telling the story of a hard little time we had one night, and so the song "We Gotta Stop" came about. You can hear our love story in these songs."
Jackson began working on Encore before Goodman's death, but he didn't live long enough to see the finished product.
"It was very hard when I lost him," the singer says. "He was still alive when I was dabbling in songwriting, and getting started. He was so happy about it, and then he died before it came to fruition. But maybe he knows good things are happening. I hope so."
Simpson remembers how delighted her grandfather was that Jackson was writing songs about her life early on in the album-making process. "Oh, we would write the songs and take the worktape back to the hotel room to play for my granddad and mom. And we were all just sitting in the room crying, you know? I feel like it created so many special moments for our family," she details.
A lot of life — and a lot of loss — unfolded for Jackson and her family over the course of the creation of Encore. The singer's previous manager, Jon Hensley, unexpectedly died in the summer of 2015, at just 31 years old, right before Jackson officially signed the deal to make Encore in partnership with Joan Jett's Blackheart Records. It was Hensley who orchestrated that deal; he was among the earliest champions of Jackson's new album, and worked tirelessly to fulfill a vision of seeing it co-produced by rock icon Jett and her longtime collaborator, producer Kenny Laguna.
"So there's definitely been a lot of heartbreak, but also a lot of beautiful moments and ways to capture all of that in this project — to honor [Goodman and Hensley] by seeing it to fruition," notes Simpson. To say that Jackson's granddaughter took over Hensley's role as architect of the project is in some ways an oversimplification: She saw his vision through, but augmented Encore with her own insights, drawing both from her role as the artist's granddaughter as well as a keen awareness of Jackson's cultural role as a rock 'n' roll cornerstone.
Particularly, Simpson says, she wanted to emphasize her grandmother's impact on rock music's female stars: how she helped create and carve out a place for them onstage, not just as the long-skirted "girl singers" swaying in the background of a country & western show, but standing in the spotlight as their authentic selves. Simpson brought in Angaleena Presley, Candi Carpenter and Elle King, members of country and rock's younger generation, as a way to bring "powerful, relevant females to the table with Wanda to show her that she is that still, and that they exist because of her."
Also central to the album — out Friday (Aug. 20) — are Jackson's three collaborations with Jett. Each is a meeting between two voices that not only dominated rock 'n' roll during their respective eras, but helped create it.
"They bring to the table what they have done for music," Simpson says bluntly, when asked to describe the magic that happens when Jett and Jackson walk into a studio together. "I think a lot of people don't realize it, but without Wanda Jackson in the '50s and without Joan Jett in the '80s and '90s, women would not be able to do what they do now onstage."
The undiluted potency of rock 'n' roll's women is, for Simpson, at the heart of Encore. "We were very grateful to have the men along the way — you know, Kenny Laguna and [engineer] Thom Panunzio, and everyone at Blackheart. But I feel like the female-centric part of this record is really the binding agent to it," she explains.
Not that Jackson has ever seen herself as a monolithic musical figure. She thinks about her career in straightforward, simple terms: She's always done what she wanted to do, dressed how she wanted to dress, released music the way she wanted to release it.
"It was all just authentically her. Which I think is more beautiful than creating something on purpose," Simpson reflects.
Jackson's talent for being authentically, intuitively herself — to powerful effect — isn't limited to her songwriting, either; it comes across in the way she interprets material written by other people, too. For Encore, she selected a song of Jett's, "You Drive Me Wild," to cover.
"I just thought it was very well done," the singer explains of why she chose that particular song. But as it happens, "You Drive Me Wild" was more than just a good song.
"I found out it was her first song to ever write!" Jackson continues. That fact made it an especially fitting addition to Encore, an album full of songwriting firsts for Jackson herself.
"I told [Jett], 'Well, you started off with a good one,'" Jackson says.
When asked to parse out exactly what it is she admires so much about Jett's songwriting, Jackson says it all comes down to a simplicity that she's always prized, whether she's singing country or rock, old cover songs or original material so personal that — like many tracks on Encore — it's "like my memoirs, practically."
"I like [the songs] for their simplicity," she muses. "Rockabilly songs are very simple — just a little piece of life that you sing about for three minutes."