Before Elvis, Cordell Jackson Rock-and-Rolled 'Em in Memphis

Something of a novelty, she has appeared on 'Letterman' and MTV

WEARING a pink ballroom gown and neatlycoifed hair, Cordell Jackson hardly looks the type to wail on an electric guitar.But the 68-year-old live wire has her own ideas about music and how to crank out songs "that'll really burn ya." Mrs. Jackson is believed to be the first female rock music songwriter and recording engineer, earning her the unofficial title of "first woman of rock-and-roll." "I was rockinRed River Valley' before Elvis was born!" she proclaimed in her Southern twang during a recent interview. Born in Pontotoc, Miss., Jackson grew up in a musical household. Her father was a violinist who occasionally let her play in his band, the Pontotoc Ridge Runners. She remembers at age 12 when people would tell her, "Girls don't play guitar." She would answer "Well I do!" (In addition to guitar, she learned mandolin, piano, harmonica, and banjo.) She started writing rock-and-roll songs in the late 1940s, after moving to Memphis. In 1956 she started her own record label called Moon Records, now in its 30th year. While raising a family, she penned hundreds of songs. "Football Widow, a wife's view of football - was a radio favorite in Memphis at the beginning of football seasons. In the 1960s and '70s, she worked with local artists, dipping into gospel and releasing a compilation album of her '50s rock recordings. In 1983 she came out with an instru mental LP on Moon Records called "Knockin' Sixty." But not until recently has this rocking grandmother turned up her amp and stepped onstage, making cameo appearances at such places as the Lone Star in New York City. A proper southern lady, but hardly bashful, Jackson totes a repertoire that includes songs like "The Blues Chaser,Hound Dog-it Blues,Rock and Roll Eyes," and "You Got a Burr in Your Saddle." She's appeared on the David Letterman Show, MTV, and earned a place on Spin Magazine's list of "Guitar gods." 'She's authentic and definitely has the feeling of early rock-and-roll. She breaks the stereotype of the male rockabilly performer," says Dr. David Evans, professor of music at Memphis State University. As a woman, she's been a pioneer in songwriting and producing who has only recently gained notoriety and fame, he adds. "This is just an accident," said Jackson after her 24th performance, an enthusiastic gig at the Black Mountain Festival in North Carolina. "This is all so new to me." "I absolutely feel no different," she says about her relatively new fame. ve always been the kind of person who had her feet solid on the ground." Much of Jackson's popularity is due to young people's interest in her as a pioneer and a novelty. Daring to defy the notion that older folks don't like loud rock-and-roll music, she's everyone's hip grandma. After each song, she breaths a definitive "Thank you" into the microphone. She promises an autograph to anyone who wants one. She delights in embellishing her persona. There's even a Cordell Jackson International Fan Club. "Rock-and-roll is the happiest music. It gives you life," says Jackson. She often finds herself giving advice to young people. "If they go into the music business, just keep the lyrics clean. Start early, work hard, and don't look back." On stage, Jackson's speedy strumming causes her to break two picks, delighting her young audience all the more. "She's gonna set that party dress on fire," exclaimed one young man during a set. "I like to burn the drummer out," explains Jackson later. Her drummer and son, Dana, has the challenge of keeping up with her speed. But Jackson defends: "That's my thing. My whole act is kinda spasmodic." "Makin' mistakes doesn't bother me at all," she continues. The people in the audience "enrich me, so I enrich them. I just give my love, my total self. If they get my mistakes, they get all of it." In addition to music, Jackson has ventured into other fields. She helped make a film about missing children and continues to create message-oriented music for a contemporary Christian program called "Let's Keep Family Together America," which airs in Memphis and Pontotoc. Jackson says she's currently working on a movie script and another video, but will not reveal details. "Most of my interest is to make a better world, and I believe one person can make that difference. I'm doing what I know how to do and leave God to do the rest," she says. As for getting her career going later in life, Jackson says slowing down isn't an option. "I like to think my elevator goes right to the top."

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