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Interview: Scott B. Bomar, co-author: “Wanda Jackson: Every Night is Saturday Night”

Legendary rockabilly and country music pioneer Wanda Jackson released her first-ever autobiography, Every Night Is A Saturday Night: A Country Girl’s Journey To The Rock N’ Roll Hall Of Fame, co-written by Scott B. Bomar. Wanda tells the story of being discovered by Country Music Hall of Famer Hank Thompson; why she refused to return to the Grand Ole Opry for more than fifty years; the challenges she and her integrated band, The Party Timers, faced when touring in a less racially tolerant era; personal memories of her relationship with Elvis; and how she ultimately found the love of her life. wandajackson.com

How did this project come about?

My understanding is that there were a couple of previous attempts at an autobiography that never fully materialized for one reason or another. I don’t know if the timing wasn’t right or what the circumstances were, but I think they were undertaken without a specific book publisher on board.

Fast forward a few years when Wanda’s granddaughter and manager, Jordan Simpson, met my father in Nashville. My dad, whose name is Woody Bomar, is a long-time Nashville music publisher, but he’s always been energized by younger folks who come to town with a real passion for the music business. So my father was introduced to Jordan by their mutual friend, Leslie Mitchell. He recognized that familiar fire in Jordan’s eyes, and they hit it off. At some point he mentioned that his son was an LA-based author and Wanda fan who worked at BMG, which was just getting into music-related book publishing.

Jordan and I had a few conversations about a book project and she talked about it with Wanda. Understandably, Wanda was perhaps a bit hesitant about going down that road again, but because a book publisher was involved from the start, I think she knew it was an entirely different proposition this time around. Once she decided to go for it, she was in one hundred percent. We had a great time working on the book together.

How did you come to know about Wanda and her music?

I guess I first became of aware of Wanda’s early Capitol recordings in the ‘90s when I was in college. I loved her classic records – both the rockabilly and the country stuff – but she wasn’t really recording during the era when I first learned about her. Honestly, I wasn’t even aware that she was still out there performing at the time.

In 2003 I was at the Americana Music Awards in Nashville. The ceremony was held in a banquet hall back then, and seats were assigned. I went to my table and sat down. The nice woman who was already seated next to me extended her hand and said, “Hi, I’m Wanda Jackson.” My eyes got wide. I said, “THE Wanda Jackson?!?!?!” She was there promoting her Heart Trouble album, which was brand new and was kind of her return to rockabilly in the US. I asked her to autograph my cocktail napkin, which is still hanging on the wall in my office! Then Scotty Moore sat down at the same table and the two of them started reminiscing about touring with Elvis in the mid-1950s. As a certified music geek I was in hog heaven.

What was your reaction when you were given the opportunity to write with her and help tell her story?

Excitement mixed with fear. I’ve always had a lot of respect for Wanda, but I wanted to make sure I served her well and helped her get her story told the way she wanted it told. I had to get inside Wanda’s head and understand her voice. I had to think like an 80-year-old woman reminiscing about her teenage feelings for Elvis! It was a challenge, but a very fun challenge.

What was your first impression of Wanda?

I mentioned the very first time I met her in 2003 at the Americana Awards, so I guess that was my very first impression. I remember when the lights went down after the meal and a fairly well-known Americana artist came out to perform, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Wanda leaned over to me and whispered, “In my day, we used to get dressed up to perform. This gal looks like she just got done cuttin’ the yard!” I thought that was hilarious and that’s when I knew I liked her. I mean, of course I liked her as an artist or an image or whatever, but that’s when I felt like I saw her personality and her humor and I knew I liked her as a person. When it came time to do the book I told her I’d never forgotten that line and convinced her it needed to go into the book.

It was 2016 when we did the deal to work on the memoir together. I flew to Oklahoma City for a week so we could start going through stories and photos and figure out how the book was going to come together. Wanda and her family met up with me at a restaurant the first night I got to town. At some point in the evening I had my phone sitting on the table and Wanda said, “Wow, that’s a fancy looking phone,” or something to that effect. I said, “Well, don’t get too attached to it because I’m taking it with me when I leave here in a couple of months.” Of course I was only going to be there for the week, but it’s a variation on a line by the Cousin Eddie character from Christmas Vacation. I never in a million years would have assumed Wanda would get the reference. She shot back, “Well, Cousin Eddie, we’ll miss you when you go.” We both cracked up. Once we discovered our mutual love for Christmas Vacation we were officially friends.

What stood out most out about her personality and who she is as a person?

The thing that stands out to me most about Wanda is that she defies expectations. You can’t put her in a box. She’s glamorous, but she’s down-to-earth. She’s a strong independent woman, but she’s also a traditionalist. She’s devout, but she’s a bit of a rebel. She’s country, she’s rock & roll, and she’s gospel. These aren’t different sides of her; they all are integral and interwoven aspects of who she is. No matter who you are or who you think Wanda Jackson is, I guarantee there’s something about her that’ll surprise you. She’s kind of her own category, so she doesn’t necessarily fit neatly into strict definitions that others might want to push her toward. She has a lot of integrity and she’s also a very kind person. Our relationship is professional, but getting to know Wanda and her family has been a personally enriching experience, too. I really like her.

What was it like collaborating with her on the book?

The way we approached the process was to just sit down and start talking at her dining room table. At first I was trying to get her to tell me the story of her life chronologically, but things that happened early in her life would remind her of stories that happened later. On the first day I would say things like, “Great. Let’s come back to that later,” but then we’d both forget what it was we meant to come back to! Finally we just decided to let the conversation go wherever the stories wanted to go. No rules. I came to see the book as a giant jigsaw puzzle. Wanda was providing every piece and all I had to do was arrange it. It turned out to be a lot of fun. Wanda always tells me I’m easy to talk to. I think she’s easy to listen to, so I guess we make a good team!

Which of her life stories did you most enjoy hearing/writing about?

One of my main areas of interest is the history of country music in Bakersfield, California. I had always known that Wanda had some sort of ties to that area when she was a kid, but I didn’t know the details until I had a chance to sit down with her to work on the book. I loved hearing about when she lived in that area. She was literally in grade school back then so it wasn’t like she was hanging out in the local honky-tonks. But she was responsible for taking Tommy Collins to Bakersfield for the first time when she was a teenager. Wanda and her family had already moved back to Oklahoma, but they had relatives in California. She and Tommy were dating and so he went with Wanda and her folks on their summer trip out West.

Tommy liked it so much he decided to stay. He moved in with Ferlin Husky, who had recently signed with Capitol Records. Ferlin got Tommy signed to Capitol, too, and played lead guitar on his first session. By the time the second session came around Ferlin’s career had taken off so he recommended a fellow Bakersfield musician for the gig. That was Buck Owens. Later, Tommy and Merle Haggard became close friends and Merle credited Tommy with helping him learn how to write great songs. There was a lot of musical momentum in Bakersfield in the 1950s, but Tommy was a key part of it. If there hadn’t been a Tommy Collins it might have turned out differently. And if there hadn’t been a Wanda Jackson, maybe Tommy Collins would have never made it to Bakersfield. That kind of stuff fascinates me!

What is your favorite Wanda song?

My favorite song Wanda recorded is “The Box it Came In.” It’s completely twisted. Vic McAplin wrote that particular song, but Wanda wrote a lot of great ones, too. She doesn’t get enough credit for her songwriting, which includes a lot of her rockabilly classics like “Mean Mean Man,” “Rock Your Baby,” “Cool Love,” and “Baby Loves Him.” She also wrote “Right or Wrong” and “In the Middle of a Heartache,” which were her most successful records as a solo artist. Not to mention “Kickin’ Our Hearts Around,” which was a Top 10 hit for Buck Owens. She was and is a true pioneer.

Scott B. Bomar is a Grammy-nominated writer who has authored or co-authored several books, including Southbound; An Illustrated History of Southern Rock and The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California Country. He co-hosts the podcast Songcraft: Conversations with great songwritersscottbbomar.com

 

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