Friday, August 24, 2012

"Jackson" by Billy Edd Wheeler


 
ARTIST: Billy Edd Wheeler, Johnny Cash and June Carter, and many others
SONG: "Jackson"
WRITERS: Billy Edd Wheeler, Jerry Leiber
ALBUM: A New Bag of Songs on Kapp Records
YEAR: 1963
SITE: Billy Edd Wheeler
BUY: Country Essentials - Billy Edd Wheeler and Carryin' On With Johnny Cash & June Carter - Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash

This song needs no introduction, but it sure as hell deserves our attention. It was a privilege to talk to the writer who has brought us so many great musical works, but this one in particular that transcends genre and time frame. Without further ado, here is my conversation with Billy Edd Wheeler about "Jackson."  

BA: Hello, Mr. Wheeler!  What a thrill it is to have you in the series. Thank you for giving me a bit of your time.

BEW: Glad to do it.

BA: You wrote one of the most iconic songs to hit the airwaves in the last fifty years. Did you ever imagine that "Jackson" would be so widely lauded?

BEW: No, of course not. Even with superstars, you never know what will be enduring.

BA: In my research, I read about the process you went through in shaping the song’s arc. Would you mind telling me a bit about your original draft, and how your friend Jerry Leiber contributed to it?

BEW: I was working on this in Jerry’s Broadway office, and his first response to the song was that the first verses sucked . . . though, that was not a term in vogue back then. He said, "Throw them away and start with your fourth verse, 'We got married in a fever hotter than a pepper sprout.' Then write some better verses, and end the song with that same opening verse." So I did. As I remember, he did not contribute any actual lyrics. His contribution was editorial, which was important, and it led to a better song. For this, he took 25% of the writer’s share. Jerry was a quick study. When I was writing “High Flyin’ Bird,” I had a line that went, “Lord look at me here, tired as can be here." Jerry said, “Rooted like a tree here,” instantaneously, as he passed by. It was a great line, and it improved the song, and he didn’t take any credit for it.

BA: Now, you tracked this song for your own album, A Big Bag of Songs, with Joan Sommer singing the female character's part in 1963. Did you do so with the intention of having anyone else pick it up - like Johnny Cash and June Carter - or were you merely putting a song on a record?

BEW: I was merely putting a song on a record. But the album was not A Big Bag of Songs, it was A New Bag of Songs, Kapp KL, 1351 1963. A Big Bag of Songs was issued by David Thrussel, head of The Omni Recording Corporation, down in Australia just a few years ago.  David is not an honorable man. He promised me a flat fee of $1,000.00, which was never paid. He was also supposed to pay Roger Deitz, a contributing columnist for Sing Out! Magazine, a fee for writing the liner notes. I was so impressed with Roger’s notes, I advanced him the fee, confident I would be reimbursed by David. It never happened. But it’s a nice package of twenty-eight songs, taken from various Kapp albums, plus tracks from albums first issued by RCA and United Artists. So, what the hell. Am I going Down Under to try and collect a couple thousand bucks? Not. And, by the way, A New Bag of Songs did not do well. But soon after its release, I had a minor hit single with “Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back,” (#2 Country and #50 Pop on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1965). So, the album was re-packaged and released as: Memories of America/Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back.

BA: Ah. My apologies for the mix-up. The albums got a bit confusing to me, and now I understand why. 

Your recording of “Jackson” has the following words in the first verse that the woman sings alone:
“Well you go on my sweet daddy
Go ahead and wreck your health
Play your hand like a lover man
Make a big fool of yourself”

By the time the song was recorded by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood, as well as Johnny and June (both in 1967), the words had changed some:
“Well, go on down to Jackson
Go ahead and wreck your health
Go play your hand you big-talkin' man
Make a big fool of yourself”

Did you have a hand in those changes?

BEW: No, but I like those changes. Songs often get changed as different artists do them, often for the better. I don’t mind minor changes. I like it when artists make the song their own. But in the case of my song, “High Flyin’ Bird,” Richie Havens changes the story line, and it doesn’t make sense. Instead of: 
“I used to have an old man, and he worked in the mine 
He never saw the sunlight but, oh Lord, he kept on trying” 

Richie sings: 
“Well I had me a woman, and she lived down by the mine 
She never saw the sunlight, but she kept on trying” 

Go figure.

BA: I can't think of a song that's been recorded by such a diverse array of musicians. Everyone from Miss Piggy to INXS has taken a whack at it. Do you have a favorite cover?

BEW: Charlie Daniels and Gretchen Wilson do a great version of it, on his album, Deuces. And he sets the record straight during their banter during the fade at the end. He says: 
“I ain’t talking ‘bout Jackson, Mississippi,
I’m talking about Jackson, Tennessee.” 

Actually, I didn’t have a specific Jackson in mind. I just liked the sharp consonant sound, as opposed to soft-sounding words like Nashville.

BA: I'd love to hear about this song's conceptual origins . . . did you really write it after reading the script for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

BEW: Yes. The way that couple dig at each other becomes mean spirited and nasty, even tragic, in Albee’s play. But it’s natural for couples, married or not, to spar good-naturedly. Otherwise, life would be boring. In “Jackson,” the couple fusses back and forth, but there are subtle touches that let you know they are still in love. For instance, she says, “Go on to Jackson, but comb your hair.” Here they are trying to one-up each other, and in the midst of it she’s wanting him to look good when he runs off to town to kick up his heels. I thought immediately of making it a duet, though I’ve read comments by Jerry Leiber that he did not want it to be a duet. I don’t remember any such conversation. Just think about it. How could it be anything but a duet? In Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather,” he sings the man’s lyric and answers with the woman’s reply. And you know who’s speaking. A beautiful song. But I think that would not work so well with “Jackson.”

BA: Do you feel like your own playwright side shows through in this writing, given that you set such a believable stage for these two characters to exist within?

BEW: Probably. I’ve written a lot of story songs, like “Rev. Mr. Black,” and “Long Arm of the Law,” that have strong characters in them. They would lend themselves as good fodder for plays or novels.

BA: What musicians were you a fan of back when you wrote "Jackson"?

BEW: Chet Atkins is at the top of the list. And of course, Johnny & June. But I was a fan of a large variety of pickers and singers back then. Barbara Streisand, Righteous Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, Duane Eddy, The Kingston Trio, Loretta Lynn, Charlie Pride, etc.

BA: There is no question that this song has a huge place in music history–but I’m curious–do you feel like if you released this song today for the first time, that it would have such an impact? I’d like to hear your thoughts on the industry now, as compared to then, and how you think this work fits into it.

BEW: If Keith Urban and Taylor Swift did it with a hot track, sure, it would be a hit in my opinion. It’s snappy and hip enough. How could it miss? But most of my other songs . . . no way. My story songs of old could not make it today. They take too long in developing. Today, songs deal in sound bytes. Set up a short verse and get to the pay-off, the hook, as quickly as possible. Looking back, if Johnny and June had not done it, or a duet by stars like Elvis and Petula Clark, I don’t think it would have become a standard. Country today is rock and roll. BTW: Florence & the Machine did a duet of “Jackson” recently, with Josh Homme, frontman for Queens of the Stone Age, and they did it differently from anyone else . . . starting it out slowly, a capella, and ending it almost mournfully, singing, “Ever since the fire went out . . . ever since the fire went out . . ." lower and lower in volume, adding a thoughtful dimension to it.

BA: What’s your favorite song right this minute?

BEW: I’ve been so busy painting pictures and finishing a Broadway-styled children’s musical, I haven’t listened to the radio much. Fairly recently, I liked the song where she says, “Are you gonna kiss me, or not? Are we gonna do this or what?” Couple years ago Zac Brown knocked me out with his “Toes.” Great opening lines. But the song is deeper than “Got my toes in the water, ass in the sand . . .” and it’s really well written . . . the need to get away from concrete cities and the grind, and it has a terrific refrain.

BA: Thanks again, Sir. It has been an absolute pleasure to speak with you about your music.

BEW: My pleasure. I tend to ramble, but I like to set the record straight.

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