Strumming a guitar, decked in high heels and a homemade fringe dress, Wanda Jackson had no idea she was on the cusp of making history. She realized something was afoot when she and tour mate Elvis Presley started packing out auditoriums and coliseums across the country.
“I knew I was in on something big. I just didn’t realize how big,” says Jackson, who followed Elvis’ counsel to tap into the rockabilly craze, recording country songs on one side of an album and rockabilly, a melding of country Western and rhythm and blues, on the other.
“We didn’t know how long it would last—people thought the kids would get over it,” Jackson says. But the kids never got over it, and Jackson was able to “ride the coat tails” of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins right into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Songs like “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad,” “Fujiyama Mama” and “Let’s Have a Party,” cemented her position as one of the 20th century’s first powerhouse female performers.
Jackson, known as The Queen of Rockabilly, is one of the featured artists in “Women Who Rock,” on display at the Musical Instrument Museum through April 21, 2014.
Starting with Billie Holiday and Maybelle Carter and running through contemporary musicians including Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Carrie Underwood, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame traveling exhibit tells the story of more than 70 women in popular music. Noteworthy because of its historical breadth, “Women Who Rock” makes its only Southwest stop at the MIM.
“I don’t believe there’s been an exhibition looking at women’s roles in popular music from the early 20th century through today,” says MIM’s curator Cullen Strawn.
“It’s framed in terms of rock and roll, but it’s broader than that,” he says.
“When you take it all in as a guest, you’re getting exposure to country, soul, gospel, disco, R&B, hip hop, rock and roll — and what has gone on in parallel with rock and roll,” says Strawn, referencing the cultural changes that occurred in conjunction with the evolution of popular music, including the feminist movement, the birth control pill, and the legalization of abortion.
These issues aren’t the focus of the exhibit, but their undercurrents flow unmistakably through it, providing an instructive look at art’s influence on culture and the impact of musical pioneers like Jackson.
Millenials may not immediately recognize Jackson’s music, but they’ll be fascinated by her influence on contemporary artists like Adele, who credits Jackson’s melding of country with rock and blues as the inspiration for “Rolling in the Deep.”
Jackson, who opened for Adele on the West Coast leg of her 2011 tour, says she’s not sure why the British singer-songwriter would say that, but seeing “Women Who Rock,” makes it clear how current generations riff on the improvisations of those who have gone before.
Those not interested in cultural history will find the dresses, instruments and ephemera of the featured artists individually intriguing — and since the exhibit can be seen separately from the museum for $10, it makes for a good girl activity during the holidays.
A “Women Who Rock” concert series occurs in conjunction with the exhibit. Details, performers and ticket information can be found at MIM.org.
IF YOU GO
What: Women Who Rock exhibition
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays, and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. the first Friday of each month through April 21, 2014
Where: Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix.
Cost: $7 with paid museum admission of $18 for adults, $14 for teens ages 13-19, and $10 for children ages 4-12. Or $10 for Women Who Rock only.
Information: (480) 478-6000 or MIM.org