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Wanda Jackson on Why She Had to Retire From Touring

“I wanted to work right up until the point that I couldn’t. That point has been reached,” says the “Queen of Rockabilly”

Wanda Jackson

Wanda Jackson talks about her decision to retire from touring and the status of her album with Joan Jett.

Ramon De La Rocha/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

There are precious few American entertainers who have been touring longer than Wanda Jackson. In 1955, 64 years ago, the pioneering country-rockabilly singer was on the road with Elvis Presley, who encouraged the then 18-year-old to move toward rock & roll.

Last week, however, Jackson called a halt to her touring career, announcing that she would be retiring from performing due to “health and safety.”

“It upset me,” Jackson, 81, tells Rolling Stone of her decision from her home in Oklahoma City. “But it had to be done.” The entertainer suffered an undisclosed stroke in 2018 and has been struggling with a series of physical ailments over the past several years.

Despite her decreasing health, Jackson is vibrant, energized and excited about her future endeavors, which include an album of original material produced by Joan Jett, as well as a follow-up memoir she’s currently writing. And she remains committed to trying to make the occasional one-off performance, health permitting. Still, she is shocked that the road will, for the first time since she was a child, no longer be a part of her life again.

“I just don’t know what I’m going to do now,” she says.

You cited your health as the reason for your retirement. How are you doing?
I’m doing pretty well, but it’s pretty up and down these days. Today, I’m fine.

How did it feel to share the news?
I knew it was coming, and it probably may have been easier for me this way, because I just had to do it. Travel these days is so complicated and hard. Singing and entertaining and travel were the things I loved most in the world. So, I do feel fortunate that I had 60-something years of touring, and that I’ve been every place that I care about being. I’ve got fans all over the world, and I’m still in good enough health that I can enjoy those things. But I felt like the time was right to go ahead and make that announcement. I’ll still do any special things that I can, If I’m called on.

It was easier for you to come to this decision because you felt like you really had no other choice?
I never have wanted to have these last touring dates, where you announce it and then go on a long tour. I just didn’t ever want that. For one thing, it would be too sad. It would be hard on me to go to all these places I had been all my life. I wanted to work right up until the point that I couldn’t. That point has been reached.

Do you remember the last show you played?
Well, I haven’t performed since August of last year. I had a stroke. It didn’t leave any physical damage, because I got to the hospital in time. The only difference I can tell would be that I have a little bit of difficulty thinking of the right word sometimes, looking for it, to describe something. I’ll know the word, but just can’t get it. But it hasn’t been too bad.

Was your stroke the main health reason you’ve needed to stop traveling?
For about two and a half or three years, I’ve been in and out of hospitals. One thing and then another. I went in with pneumonia, they sent me home after a week, and I did rehab. Within a week I was back with double pneumonia. So I’ve just been out of commission. I had a knee replacement and then wound up catching that superbug, MRSA. That one really knocked me for a loop. It was very hard on me. But I was still working at that point, when I could. And my granddaughter was traveling with me, and she just got a job with Maren Morris. She will be her personal assistant. That was such a good job, she had to take that. So all of this has just fit together beautifully.   

What are you going to miss the most about touring?
Being out onstage with my audience, the ones that love me and know my songs, and sing along with me. My audiences have been, for several years now, mainly young people, twenties and thirties. There’s still a lot of excitement and a lot of fun, and I definitely will miss that. My husband used to travel with me, my father before him, so we got to do all these wonderful things together. It was like a honeymoon, year-round. Anybody would love that.

Have you had to tour these past few years for financial reasons, or were you just performing because, like you said, it was the thing you loved doing most in the world?
It’s actually both. You can’t hardly separate those, of course. We needed cash flow, let’s face it. I’ve always toured. I’ve never made a dime doing anything but singing. And so, that’s why it’s such a shock to me. Now, when I call somebody for an appointment, regardless of what time they can see me, I go, “I’ll be there.” It’s always been, “Well, I’ll have to let you know.”

“Jerry Lee and I are about the only two of the original rock & rollers. The rest of them have passed on.”

Jerry Lee Lewis also recently suffered a stroke.
I guess his was worse because he didn’t get to the hospital in time. He’s had a lot of rehab to go through. I feel sorry for him, but he’s coming along OK. I talked to his sister a few days ago. She said, “Yeah, he’s coming along. He will just be a while.”

Jerry Lee and I are about the only two of the original rock & rollers. The rest of them have passed on. I told him, “We’ve got to stay well, keep our rock & roll fans from…” Anyways, people like Jerry Lee, that’s what I’m doing this new book on, people that I’ve met and any of the stories behind them, anything funny or important, that type of book. I had to laugh, because I opened for him in Paris three or so years ago. I already was having trouble doing stairs, so we get to the theater, it’s this old restored place, and naturally all the dressing rooms were upstairs. My husband told them, “She can’t get up there.” So they cleaned out some manager’s little bitty, postage-stamp size room, but that’s all I needed. Somebody put a sign on the door: “Wanda Jackson’s Dressing Room.” Well, maybe 30 minutes later, we heard someone saying, “Jerry Lee can’t do those stairs.” Ten minutes later there was a tapping on my door, and there was Jerry Lee: “Wanda, can I share a dressing room with you?” I said, “Well, sure, come on in.” We’re both from the old school. We come to our jobs dressed because you never know what your facilities are going to be.

Last summer it was reported that you were working on an album with Joan Jett. What’s the status of that?
It’s a work in progress. I have five songs recorded. I’m wanting them to go ahead and put out an EP, but they don’t want to do that, so we just got to find the time when we can get together and get the tracks made. There’s a lot that goes into it. I’m hoping to get that finished sometime this year.

I read that you had been writing songs with artists like Angaleena Presley for the album?
It’s first time in a long time that I’ve written songs. I never have written with other people, so that was a new experience, but I really see the advantage of doing that. It turned out great. I just need to get my voice back. After not singing for a while, it’s hard to get your breath and your singing worked out.

Is there anything you’re looking forward to getting to do now that you know you won’t be traveling anymore?
That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I’ve always said that I have a revolving door installed in my house, because I’ve just been in and out so much. I’ve never had time to have a garden, or even cooking. Things like that. It’s just been a totally different life from anybody else. I’ve had to have women live in and work and take care of my home and my children.

It must be such a strange thing to get used to.
It’s going to be. If I ever find a hobby or something, I’ll let you know.

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