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Guitar Granny // Cordell Jackson Was Playing Rockabilly When Elvis Was a Babe
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Guitar Granny // Cordell Jackson Was Playing Rockabilly When Elvis Was a Babe

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The music is rough and basic - a small handful of blues

chords quickened to a rockabilly tempo. The kind of rhythm-guitar

work learned in the first session of Garage Rock 101. Nothing

new at all. And that's one reason Cordell Jackson is a pop

musician of note.

At 68, the grandmother of 11 makes her living writing, recording

and performing music around the country. These days she's

mostly on the road, thanks to a rip-snorting Budweiser TV

commercial that showcases her string-bending skills.

You know the spot. A shaggy blond rocker (Brian Setzer of

the Stray Cats) is sound-checking onstage when he hears

a crotchety admonition - "Crunch that last chord! Here,

I'll show ya."

Then Jackson is onstage, lashing out licks from her vintage

Hagstrom Condor guitar. Can Setzer - who is a friend and

admirer of Jackson's - hold a candle? "Not!" Jackson crows

halfway through her solo.

"People are amazed she can play like that," says Budweiser

marketing man Tim Schoen, who says Jackson's commercial

has been one of the brewery's most popular ever. "They've

gotten confirmation that she's authentic - a real, 68-year-old

rock 'n' roller, and they love it."

So in a lick - or two, as it were - the bespectacled, full-skirted

Jackson has parlayed her kitschy appeal into pop notoriety.

A late '80s video for her surf-style instrumental "The

Split" has been featured on MTV and VH-1. Spin magazine,

a taste-of-the-moment arbiter, named her as one of the Top

20 guitarists of all time - ahead of Carlos Santana and

Eddie Van Halen.

Don't be quick to dismiss this Memphis resident as a novelty

act: The Smithsonian Institution doesn't. They've had a

recording crew out to her Moon Records office, and recently

- when we spoke by phone - another Smithsonian crew was

there, to film a woman some say was a midwife to rock 'n'

roll.

Q. What's this about the Smithsonian?

A. As I understand it, there will be a rock 'n' roll or

rockabilly section in the Smithsonian; you'll go in, pick

a person, punch a button and you'll hear what they have

to say. The interview consisted of the search for the roots

of rock 'n' roll. The only thing I could tell them was my

life; people who hear the interview will have to make the

judgement calls.

They're looking for the origins of rock 'n' roll. I believe

they have actually found it.

If what I'm doing now is rock 'n' roll or rockabilly or

whatever, then I was doing it when Elvis was a 1-year-old.

That's just a fact.

Q. What you play: Is it rock 'n' roll or rockabilly?

A. I don't have a preference for what you call what I play:

I just play what God gave me; what I developed. That's what

I'm leaving up to the Smithsonian to determine. They can

put me where they will.

Q. What's your background?

A. I was born and raised in Pontotoc, Miss., about 98 miles

from Memphis. My father was an accomplished violinist who

had a band all my life. I was raised on the classics of

all kinds of music. I knew what a fine instrument was and

what it was supposed to sound like. And what good musicians

were supposed to play. But there's always been an off-spring

in everything I go at. If I have seen something done, I

don't want to do it. I want to do things nobody else has

conceived. It's a matter of nerve.

Q. How did you start playing rock or rockabilly?

A. I would play when Daddy wasn't around. I'd just whip

up on it - fast. That was my feeling.

So I was playing guitar at home. On stage? Not very often.

After high school, I came up to Memphis and was working

at an airplane factory: I played upright bass in the Fisher

Aircraft band for about five years. Right after that, I

wanted to have a record for the radio stations here. That's

when I bought my very first recording equipment.

In 1947 - it is documented - I cut my first record. At that

point I had not started writing my own music. In '48, I

started writing my first song. I started my own recording

company in '56 and have been recording ever since - just

developing little rhythm patterns and recording songs since

then.

I'm believed to be the first female engineer to produce

music in America.

Q. So you've had Moon Records all these years - and just

now started playing out?

A. I never planned to be an artist. About '86, somebody

came in and said, "Somebody has to hear you." I had been

recording on the tail ends of tape. You don't want it to

go to waste, you know. So this person listened and said,

"I hear some Jimi Hendrix." I said, "I'm a whole lot

older than Jimi Hendrix," and the rest is history.

Q. Memphis in the mid-'50s was where rock 'n' roll was happening.

Just look at what Sun Records cranked out. Did you know

those guys? Jerry Lee Lewis?

A. I was singing over the same microphones they were when

I was making my demo. They'd be going out the door and I'd

be walking in.

Jerry Lee came out the studio door the day he cut "Crazy

Arms" - he came out the door, ran into me, and physically

had to catch me. I've joked that it was the first and only

time I was ever in his crazy arms.

Q. Elvis Presley?

A. I'd been in Elvis' presence, but never did try to talk

to him. So many people wanted him for this and that. I was

filled with such compassion for that boy that I bothered

to pray for him.

Q. So he was a tragic figure?

A. Yes. I thought he sang with as much soul as ever I heard

a person sing. He was crying out for something.

Q. All those early rockabilly and rock stars were men. It

must've been frustrating to not have a shot at the big time

simply because you're a woman.

A. It is still that way. Then, it was very much so. I think

women as a whole were blocked off in every facet of the

industry. When I started playing the guitar at the age of

12, both men and women adults would tell me little girls

don't play guitars.

Q. Now you're getting into your own limelight - but are

you still recording others for Moon Records?

A. Still recording. People like Earl Randle, who has about

130 songs out there that have been recorded by major artists

- including Bonnie Raitt and Etta James.

Q. Has the celebrityhood from the Bud ads changed your life?

A. It depends on what "changing your life" means. I'm

just doing what I've always done, but am getting better

paid for it and going to more different places as an artist.

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