Wanda Jackson and Justin Townes Earle on Their 'Unfinished Business'

Queen of Rockabilly and first-time producer discuss Sixties-inspired new album

Wanda Jackson and Justin Townes Earle.
Courtesy of Wanda Jackson Enterprises
Wanda Jackson and Justin Townes Earle.
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Two weeks shy of her 75th birthday, Wanda Jackson has lost count of how many albums she's released in her 58-year career. The Queen of Rockabilly and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee reckons Unfinished Business, which lands this week, is her 31st. In contrast, the record marks singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle's debut as a producer for another artist. "I kinda figured that I'd get to produce some, you know, new indie-rock band from Ohio, but my first job ended up being Wanda Jackson," Earle tells Rolling Stone.

The 30-year-old up-and-comer had some big shoes to fill. Unfinished Business is Jackson's follow-up to last year's Jack White-produced romper The Party Ain't Over — a bombastic effort that ultimately put Jackson in bigger halls and performing for newer, younger faces. The singer even landed a stint opening for Adele, who told Jackson that without her greasy classic "Funnel of Love," there would have been no "Rolling in the Deep." "When she told me that, it just sent chills over me," Jackson says. "I thought 'Boy, if I helped give the world that song, that's all right!'"

However, Jackson's revitalized fame also left her at a crossroads. "[Jack White] pushed me into the 21st century," Jackson says of their collaboration. "I didn't know where to go after that." Earle offered the solution when he proposed to Jackson that they record an update of the country, blues, rockabilly and gospel cocktail of her early-Sixties Decca Records releases. "Once he said that, I said, 'Yeah, I think that's right on,'" Jackson recalls.

"[The Party Ain't Over] was a Jack White record with Wanda Jackson singing, and I made a Wanda Jackson record," Earle explains. "I had gone through a lot of her more recent records from over the last 15 or 20 years; nobody understood what was going on here. It seemed like everybody always had a really big idea for Wanda."

Earle adds that Wanda taught him not to work with preconceived notions. "I heard stories about what Wanda was gonna be like in the studio, and I found that she was the exact opposite," he says, explaining that he'd expected her to be nervous. He discovered that getting a great performance was a matter of making Jackson — who came of age in the era of Colonel Tom Parker-style recording subordination — feel comfortable expressing herself. It worked; Jackson and Earle cut the majority of the record in two weeks, and Jackson praises Earle now as "just cuddly and sweet and quiet. I'd say he's a cuddly bear."

Unfinished Business is a rootsy, 10-song covers LP with tracks ranging from a sock-hop-ready run through Freddie King's "Tore Down" and a Brill Building-worthy rendition of Etta James' "Pushover" to a playful take on Bobby and Shirley Womack's "It's All Over Now." On the more tender side, Earle duets with Jackson on the throwback country weeper "Am I Even a Memory," a song penned by contemporary alt-country artist Greg Garing. "I kinda wanted to give her a more indie-friendly duet, as opposed to a classic country duet," Earle says.

Another of the record's standouts is "The Graveyard Shift," a bluesy country shuffle originally written and recorded by Earle's father, Steve Earle. It marks the first time that Earle has recorded one of his father's songs. "As soon as I'd gotten the job to do this record, 'Graveyard Shift' just popped in my mind," the younger Earle explains. "I think it was just because, you know, [Wanda] is in extra innings now… She's here, it's midnight and Wanda's sittin' there cool as a cucumber. She still has the spirit and the will to do it. It was an inspiring thing to be around."

Beyond Unfinished Business, Jackson's revival may soon extend to the silver screen: she reveals that a biopic based on her life is currently in the early stages of development. If she were to cast it, she would want to be played by Angelina Jolie and have George Clooney play her husband and longtime manager, Wendell Goodman. "That way you're assured of a big box office," she says – and the Queen hasn't been wrong yet.