In early 2017, Wanda Jackson showed up late to a scheduled writing session in Nashville with Angaleena Presley and Vanessa Olivarez. Jackson, then in her late Seventies, explained to her new co-writers that she’d fallen while getting off the plane from her native Oklahoma City and showed them some of the bruising on her legs and face. Presley showered the rockabilly legend with gratitude for making the trip despite her injuries, when, as Presley recalls, “the most shit-eating grin I’d ever seen billowed across her legendary face.”
“She looked me square in the eyes with the confidence of a lioness and said, ‘You can’t get a good girl down.’”
That phrase ended up becoming the title of a new song. First recorded by Presley, “Good Girl Down” is one of several originals co-written by Wanda Jackson on Encore, her latest, and, according to Jackson, last studio album. Jackson, who formally retired from touring in 2019, is proud of her latest statement and at peace with its sense of finality.
“[This record] seems special to me, because it’s probably the last one I’ll do,” says the pioneering rock & roll legend, now 83. “I feel like it’s a good ending to my story.”
Encore also represents a milestone in Jackson’s 67-year-recording career, which began when she earned a Top Ten country hit with “You Can’t Have My Love” as a 16-year-old. Joan Jett, one of Jackson’s many inheritors, produced Encore and lent Jackson her band the Blackhearts. The result is an album that both rocks and shines a spotlight on an under-acknowledged legacy of Jackson as a songwriter. Although best known as the dynamic, ferocious singer of foundational rock and pop singles like “Let’s Have a Party,” Jackson consistently earned writing credits throughout her career on songs like “In the Middle of a Heartache” and “Right or Wrong.”
“Wanda played hardball,” says Presley of the experience of writing with her on “Good Girl Down.” “She wouldn’t accept just any line that we threw out. She knew exactly how to wait for the ones that moved the needle. She contributed some real zingers and she made subtle yet striking melodic contributions.”
Jackson co-wrote half of Encore’s eight tracks, which add a personal mark to her final recorded statement. The originals Jackson helped compose on Encore, she says, are “taken right from the pages of my life.”
“Treat Me Like a Lady” is based in part on advice her father used to give the young singer. “We Gotta Stop” is a reflection on a rough patch of jealousy in her marriage. But Jackson’s favorite is the moving album closer “That’s What Love Is,” a tender ballad that pays tribute to her 56-year marriage to Wendell Goodman, who died in 2017.
The tune is an intimate glimpse at lifelong partnership: “There’s dishes in the sink, right or wrong/And that honey-do list isn’t getting done,” Jackson sings, “But that doesn’t change a thing, I’ll be lying in your arm/That’s what love is.”
“It’s kind of touching, isn’t it? Like, ‘I shouldn’t even be listening to this,’” Jackson says, discussing the line about the ‘honey-do list,’ a phrase she and Goodman would often use. “It’s the story of the little things, the way Wendell woke me up every morning, on the road, or at home. He’d open the blinds, turn the TV on, make a cup of coffee. [The song] tells all that. It’s about the strength of our very love, which was very deep.”
Jackson is still grieving the loss of her lifelong companion. “Since he left me, I feel like a half a pair of scissors,” she says. “I don’t know what to do with myself.”
Although Jackson largely faded in and out of the public consciousness after the mid-Seventies, over the past decade-plus the singer has enjoyed an overdue late-career resurgence, with an increasing acknowledgement of her role in crafting and sculpting the sounds, styles and attitudes of early rock & roll. Over the years, artists ranging from Adele to the Cramps (who teamed up with Jackson on a 2003 rendition of her song “Funnel of Love”) to Margo Price cite her as an influence; her two records immediately preceding Encore were produced by Jack White and Justin Townes Earle. When it came to writing with the legend for Encore, everyone from left-field rootsy songwriters like Presley and Will Hoge to Nashville A-listers like Lori McKenna and Luke Laird jumped at the opportunity.
“I couldn’t believe that these young people today know as much as they do about my career,” Jackson says. “It always throws me.”
The singer was planning on enjoying her time off when she announced her retirement from touring in the spring of 2019. Less than a year later, of course, every musician in the country had momentarily joined Jackson in retiring from the road when the pandemic hit. She has been largely homebound since the spring of 2020 and has successfully avoided Covid despite several younger family members who were infected. “God was watching over me,” she says.
Will the Encore songs ever be performed live? Jackson says she would entertain the idea of a one-off television performance (“Something where it’s not a one-nighter and all that rigmarole,” she says). A company has also expressed interest in a film about her life. But apart from that, she’s sticking to retirement.
“The main thing,” she says, ”is to have a good product out there to kind of call it quits on.”
After six decades of performing, she’s grateful for her long-earned relaxation.
“I guess I’m a bit lazy by nature, so, I’m enjoying not having these schedules that I have to meet all the time, and not being in public so much,” Jackson says. “There’s just not a whole lot that I haven’t already done.”