Overlooked No More: Cordell Jackson, Elder Stateswoman of Rock ’n’ Roll

Overlooked No More: Cordell Jackson, Elder Stateswoman of Rock ’n’ Roll

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

When Cordell Jackson’s long and mostly obscure musical career intersected briefly with American pop culture in the early 1990s (coinciding with her appearance in a popular beer commercial, in which she showed the guitarist Brian Setzer a few tricks), it was almost as if she had stepped out of a dream: grandma, resplendent in a shiny ball gown and bouffant, peering through her old lady glasses while ferociously rocking out on a bright red electric guitar, amp cranked up to 10.

Even if we had never seen or heard Jackson before, she seemed to reside in the dusty bric-a-brac of our country’s collective unconscious: one of rock ’n’ roll’s forgotten pioneers, Cordell Jackson had been making music for more than half a century.

Cordell Miller was born on July 15, 1923, to William and Stella Miller in Pontotoc, Miss., a small city once known as a hide-out for Jesse James’s gang of outlaws in the 19th century. She took an early interest in music-making, learning to play banjo, piano, upright bass and harmonica.

By age 12, she was sitting in with her father’s string band, the Pontotoc Ridge Runners. “When I picked up the guitar, I could see it in their eyes: ‘Little girls don’t play guitar,’” she later recalled. “I looked right at ’em and said, ‘I do.’”

Jackson always claimed that she had been rocking out well before the men who would make rock ‘n’ roll famous. “If what I’m doing now is rock ‘n’ roll or rockabilly or whatever,” she told the newspaper The Tulsa World in 1992, “then I was doing it when Elvis was a 1-year-old. That’s just a fact.”

Or, as she told Cornfed magazine: “Whatever song it was, I always creamed it, so to speak. I play fast. I have always gyrated it up.”

In 1943, she married William Jackson, moved to Memphis and began trying to scratch her way into the male-dominated music scene. She eventually befriended and recorded demos with the producer Sam Phillips, who would go on to start Sun Records. But she grew impatient with Phillips, who saw her gender as an obstacle, and created Moon Records, becoming one of the first women in America to record and produce their own music (some say the first) and securing her place in history.

“Cordell was immune to being told ‘no.’” It was almost like that was her art,” the country singer and songwriter Laura Cantrell said by phone. “A lot of artists are told ‘no’ — that what we want to do is not possible, but Cordell was absolutely determined to be an artist. That was not typical for a woman, especially in the South.”

Recording sessions for Moon Records were held in Jackson’s living room, where she engineered, produced and released music by regional artists like Allen Page, Earl Patterson and Johnny Tate. Though Jackson initially hewed mostly to the production end of things, she would eventually release some of her own performances, including 1958’s “Rock and Roll Christmas” and “Beboppers’ Christmas.”

But neither she nor her roster of artists hit the big time, and the 1960s and ’70s saw Jackson moving through a peripatetic series of other kinds of work: at a printing company; as an interior decorator with a real estate agency; as a D.J. on the all-female Memphis station WHER; running a junk shop. It wasn’t until the early 1980s, when she happened to cross paths with the musician, performance artist and filmmaker Tav Falco, that things really changed for her.

The two first met at a Western Sizzlin steakhouse in Memphis, at a benefit for Don Ezell, the longtime gofer at Sun Records. “Every guitar player in Memphis was there,” Falco said in a video interview. That included Jackson, who approached him after hearing his band, the Panther Burns (featuring Alex Chilton), cover one of her originals, “Dateless Night.” The two became fast friends. He invited her to appear on bills with him and his band, and she accepted, despite the fact that, at almost 60, she had yet to play her first professional live gig.

This marked the beginning of the startling second act of Jackson’s musical career, as she became — among a certain set — an elder stateswoman of grungy thrash guitar. During a 1988 appearance on the WFMU radio show “The Hound,” Jackson plugged in her guitar and let it rip; the result sounds less like a performance than a wild animal turned loose in the studio. In an interview, Jim Marshall, the show’s host, described Jackson’s playing as “some of the most vicious, nasty rock ’n’ roll guitar I’ve ever heard in my life.”

She headlined at colorful, now-vanished rock clubs in New York City, like CBGB, the Lone Star and the Lakeside Lounge, as well as at Maxwell’s, in Hoboken, N.J. She mostly played solo, but occasionally local musicians backed her up, including the Brooklyn band the A-Bones. “There were no rehearsals,” Miriam Linna, the band’s drummer, recalled in an interview. “It was just, ‘Let’s go!’”

Susan M. Clarke, editor and publisher of Cornfed magazine, added: “I can’t imagine anyone knew what to do with her. I’m surprised they didn’t have her committed.”

Offstage, Jackson was down to earth but proper, and deeply religious. She did not curse, and she did not drink “anything but milk or water,” she told Roctober magazine in 1993. Falco recalled her saying that doctors had put her on “an all-meat diet,” and Kenn Goodman — whose Pravda Records released her album “Live in Chicago” in 1997 — said in an interview that whenever Jackson traveled (always in her yellow Cadillac; she disliked planes), it was with “her own steak, her own milk, and giant jugs of tap water from Memphis,” because she didn’t trust any other kind.

Nancy Apple, a close friend and acolyte, said that when Jackson went grocery shopping, “she would wear white old-lady gloves — not for fashion; she’d just always say, ‘I don’t want to touch all that money!’” When she got home, Jackson would take any bills she received as change, wash them in the sink and hang them from clothespins to dry.

Eccentricities aside, it was what Jackson did onstage that was truly astonishing. Watching archival footage of her performances is a jolting experience. Speaking from the stage at a 1995 concert in Memphis, Jackson described her music as “anywhere from a barnyard disaster to classical.”

There was an unbridled ferocity to Jackson’s playing, almost as though she were fighting with her guitar to give her what she wanted. Her compositions — most of them instrumentals — may not be terribly unusual, but what she did with them, in her urgent, raw and unapologetically abrasive way, was. Jackson didn’t just break guitar strings when she played. She broke picks.

Intonation didn’t seem to matter a whit to her. Neither did keeping time: In one interview, she said, “I’ve found that the faster I play, the more accurate I become.” Form and melody, too, seemed mostly beside the point. Instead, it was all attitude, attack, rhythm, speed and noise.

She “was comfortable in her own skin,” said Marcus Natale, a bassist who worked with her — she didn’t put on airs, made no concessions, and seems to have never been anything less (or more) than exactly who she was, her performances a testament to the exhilarating power of ragged, unmanicured music.

“This is not a masterpiece,” she wrote on the sleeve of one of her records, “but it could be so bad you’ll like it.”

Jackson died of pancreatic cancer on Oct. 14, 2004, in Memphis. She was 81.

In her music, and in everything she set her mind to, Jackson was nothing if not determined. “I’ve never been confused about what I was supposed to do while I was down here,” she said in 1999. “If I think of it, I do it.”

Howard Fishman is a musician and composer and the author of “To Anyone Who Ever Asks: The Life, Music, and Mystery of Connie Converse.”