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Wicked Wanda still fanning the rockabilly flames

Wanda Jackson

Wanda Jackson

Country Music

BILLY KENNEDY

WANDA JACKSON is a veteran rockabilly, traditional country and gospel singer who has influenced some of Nashville’s biggest names, with a rich pedigree in music that dates back more than 50 years.

The Oklahoma-born singer celebrates her 75th birthday next weekend and she plans to celebrate with the release of a new album, appropriately titled Unfinished Business.

Wanda’s biggest hits on the Capitol label from the early 1960s include Right or Wrong and the rockabilly up-tempo In The Middle of a Heartache.

Back in the 1950s as an aspiring country star, Wanda toured with Elvis Presley and it was he, with her country singer father, who encouraged her to veer her vocal talents towards rockabilly, which was all the rage then.

Through the decades this rockabilly queen and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer has influenced a legion of female singers in almost every conceivable genre. Indeed, Wanda acted as a musical mentor to Pam Tillis and Rosie Flores on their upward path to fame in Nashville and, even though she is now in her mid-70s, she can still hit the high notes with a rockabilly belter or resonantly move down-tempo with a tear-jerkin’ honky tonk parody.

In Unfinished Business, Wanda’s 31st studio album, she teams up with the up-coming performer and producer Justin Townes Earle, with tracks that extend across a wide spectrum – rockabilly, country, gospel and even a bit of pop.

This is considered by Nashville reviewers as the most traditional album Wanda has done in years and, for her legion of fans, both in the States and on this side of the Atlantic, it should be a collector’s item.

Wanda was one of the few female rockabilly singers to achieve widespread global success in the 1950s. Throughout her career, her country-rockabilly appeal extended far beyond America, with No 1 chart-toppers in Germany and Japan.

She has always had a very traditional country pedigree.

Twice nominated for a Grammy, she was a big attraction in Las Vegas from the 1950s to the 1970s.

In 1970, Wanda and her husband Wendell Goodman became born-again Christians, a development which she says saved her marriage. It was to lead to the recording of six best-selling gospel albums.

That same year, I had the pleasure of hearing her perform at a memorable concert in the Ulster Hall in Belfast, along with Buck Owens and the Buckaroos and cowboy singing and movie star Tex Ritter. It was a vintage show at a time when shows like that were becoming scarcer in a troubled Belfast.

n I’m in East Tennessee this weekend for the annual Fall Homecoming at the Museum of Appalachia outside Knoxville.

This musical and cultural festival, in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains, has a line-up of more than 200 singers and musicians from traditional country, bluegrass and folk genres.

Among the festival headliners are Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver group, who topped the bill at the Ulster-American Folk Park bluegrass festival in Omagh several years ago.

The Appalachian Homecoming attracts people from every state in America, enjoying a dawn to dusk programme on six stages.

I have attended the Homecoming every year since 1994 and find the music and the welcoming Southern-style atmosphere exhilarating. A place at the author’s table provides a good platform for my books on the 18th century Scots-Irish (Ulster-Scots) migration to America.

While in the Smokies’ region this weekend, I have a lecture at Maryville, the town where Ulster-Scots luminary Sam Houston (of east Antrim roots) lived before he moved to become governor of Texas in the 1840s.

n English banjo player JOHN DOWLING returns to Northern Ireland for another teaching weekend, at the Spectrum Centre on the Shankill Road in Belfast.

John, a Cornish man, will give banjo tuition, the unique Earl Scruggs’ two-finger style, on November 2-3.

The cost of enrolment is £35 which will include a free commemorative t-shirt. Banjos can be hired for the weekend for just £20 from banjohire@dangem.co.uk. Registration must be made with info@spectrumcentre or telephone 028 90 5045 55.

This event is supported by the National Lottery and the Arts Council for Northern Ireland.

John Dowling won first place at the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award in 2000 with his band the Black Cat Theory, and he went on to become the first European ever to win first place at the USA bluegrass banjo championship at Winfield, Kansas in 2002.

He has also featured as a master class tutor in a BBC1 reality series Play It Again along with Mark Knopfler, Jools Holland and Courtney Pine.

n The Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame will soon have a permanent home in the Music City Center, a new convention building under construction in downtown Nashville.

Although the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame was established in 1970 and now includes 184 members (all legendary figures), it never existed as a physical place where visitors could view memorabilia and media displays.

The space in the convention centre will feature songwriting artefacts and touch screens that will allow visitors to access sound, video and other digital information about the history of the Nashville songwriting community.

n The second annual Johnny Cash music festival in Arkansas has raised $200,000 to help fund the restoration of his boyhood home in Dyess, Arkansas, and to support a scholarship fund established in his name.

Johnny’s daughter, Rosanne Cash, hosted the event at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, with performances by Dierks Bentley and his old buddy Willie Nelson.

Plans are under way for next year’s event which marks the 10th anniversary of Cash’s death.

 

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