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'
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
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
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.