Flattery doesn’t impress Millie Jackson. When the journalist who’s called her for a phone interview leads with how great it is to talk with one of the quickest wits in the history of R&B, the septuagenarian southern soul singer interrupts, “Hey, I’m wearing pants! I’m in pants, OK? You know why I said that? Because you’re trying to blow this hot air under my skirt.”
Then she punctuates her in-character outburst with a satisfied belly laugh.
Any artist who projects such pugnacious warmth after spending close to half a century in the record business is bound to have developed some serious self-preservation skills. Jackson learned to dig in her heels early and often, taking on record men who’d speed up her vocal tracks to make her sound chirpier and more girlish — when her vocal range really possessed a duskiness and depth that rivaled that of Motown heavyweight Gladys Knight.
Jackson parodies how her single “My Man is a Sweet Man” sounded with shrill squeaking. “It’s a whole half a step higher than I sang it,” she laughs. “Then I started producing myself. Case closed.”
Except it wasn’t that simple. Jackson’s label once issued a new album of hers without acknowledging her production work in the liner notes; all credit went to her male co-producer, Brad Shapiro. When she vowed to let him actually shoulder the whole job the next time around, without the benefit of her arrangement ideas, her label acquiesced and subsequent printed LP jackets that recognized her producing role in the credits.
By the mid ’70s, Jackson had staked out her own idiosyncratic musical territory. She made concept albums like Caught Up, which narrated a love triangle first from the vantage point of the other woman, then the wife’s perspective. The opening track, “If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want To Be Right),” flowed directly into an off-the-cuff, six-minute, spoken vamp that lamented everything that came with loving a married man, including being left alone during the holidays.
Real-talking, unglamourized raps about modern black women’s experiences became a regular part of her repertoire — and this was several years before the Sugarhill Gang recorded “Rappers Delight.” R&B radio DJs may not have been keen on her storytelling suites and the funky, foul-mouthed direction she was taking her material — they wanted tracks that weren’t too raunchy for the FCC and had clear endings — but the working folk in her fan base thrilled to her frank, funny commentary on the messiness of social trends, sexual needs and adult relationships.
Jackson knew her audience and how to speak to it. Footage of a 1990 concert at Harlem’s Apollo Theater shows her flaunting her defiance for a delighted crowd. “I’m Millie Jackson,” she declared, “and y’all know I do what-the-fuck I want.”
She also played up the fact that her set list included songs she’d stolen from white sources like Phil Collins and Merle Haggard. After performing her soul version of Haggard’s trying-to-keep-the-marriage-together ballad “If You’re Not Back In Love By Monday” — an exquisitely gritty, emotionally perceptive rendition with slightly altered lyrics — she burlesqued the twang in Haggard’s original and got every member of her sizable band to yell “Yeehaw!” on cue.
It was, she sensed, an occasion for some knowing, liberty-taking trash talk. “I didn’t realize until tonight that black folks was so into country music,” she began, zeroing in on an audibly disbelieving fan in the front row. “That’s a country song, darlin’. That was Merle Haggard. I stole it and redid it, and this is what it turned out to be. Merle say, ‘Goddamn, the bitch just fucked up my song.’ I thought I funked it up, but he thought I fucked it up.”
While moments like that made for playful and provocative theater, they packed more punch because Jackson could clearly identify with and bring something to the songs she’d chosen to remake. The interpretation part of it was no joke.
Through the ’70s and into the next decade, she translated plenty of hardcore country and AC country-pop tunes into streetwise R&B. About once an album, she’d stake her claim to a tune that had previously been a hit for the likes of Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Anne Murray, Don Gibson, Red Lane or Merle Haggard. In 1981, Jackson went all in on genre-bending with Just a Li’l Bit Country, recording the album in Nashville and preparing to tour behind it with a stage setup that even featured corn stalks and hay bales. But a change of leadership at her label resulted in the project getting precious little promotion
Jackson’s bold-faced borrowing from country hasn’t received much attention in accounts of her career, which is why she was pleased when U.K. label Ace Records wanted to collect a bunch of her country cuts for an album titled On the Country Soul Side last year. She contributed one new recording to the set — an audacious adaptation of the hyper-masculine, recent country hit “Redneck Crazy.” In her hands, it became the simmering, seething R&B ballad “Black Bitch Crazy.”
Lest there be any question, Jackson still announces her sources when she’s engaging in reverse appropriation. In a murky YouTube video filmed within the last couple of years, you can hear her set up the song she’s about to sing: “This was a country song, and it was entitled ‘Redneck Crazy.’ And I said to myself, ‘Self, you like this song, but a sister can’t sing about redneck crazy.’ So I chaaanged the words.”
Jackson spoke with Wondering Sound about what all that word-changing and twang-tweaking has meant to her music.
It caught my attention when I heard that a U.K. label was releasing an album collecting all the country material you’ve recorded. Where would you say that ranks among all the things you’ve been known for over the course of your career?
The thing is, see, I’m a country girl in the first place. When I grew up, all we heard was country. And if we wanted to hear some R&B or blues, we had to wait ’til the middle of the night, and put our hands on the radio as an antenna to hope we could pick up [the R&B show sponsored by] Randy’s Record [Shop] in Nashville.
On radio station WLAC?
Yeah. So country is really my groove. But people don’t even know, because I take the country songs, because they’re the only ones left now with any real meaning, and I redo them more R&B. Most people don’t even know that “Back In Love By Monday” was a Merle Haggard tune.
That’s partly because you transformed it completely.
The new single that I have, “Black Bitch Crazy,” I listen to [country radio station] KIX all the time when I’m driving. That’s the only time I even listen to radio. This guy comes on — the song was originally called “Redneck Crazy” — and he’s talking ’bout how “I’m gonna ride through you neighborhood as fast as I can and park my Silverado up on your lawn.” And I’m going, “OK. This sounds like Millie.” Then he got to the part where he said, “‘Cause I’m about to get my pissed-off on.” I said, “Oh, hell yeah. That’s a Millie record. Now, how can I redo this? I can’t be singing ‘Redneck Crazy.’” So I changed it to “Black Bitch Crazy.”
You changed the vehicle mentioned in the song, too.
Yeah. From a Silverado. I ain’t gonna be driving no truck. [laughs] From a Silverado to an El Dorado. The rest of it is me.
So you felt like the character Tyler Farr was playing in that song had a connection to the kind of vengeful, ex-lover characters that you played on your concept albums.
Yeah. And it’s really not ex. It’s cheating, because he said he wish he knew how long it’s been going on: “I know you been getting some on the side.” It ain’t an ex-lover. It’s one [who's] cheating now.
When you heard country on the radio as a kid, do you remember who or what you heard that really got your attention?
Well, there was, like I said, Merle Haggard and all of the early, early country folk.
Did you claim it as your music?
It was all I could hear, so it was mine! [laughs]
How did moving to New Jersey in your teens change your musical worldview?
Well, when I got to New Jersey, I had already heard [R&B] songs. My dad used to order records from Randy’s Record [Shop] that were soul and blues. So we could buy soul and blues records, but if you listened to the radio, it was only country.
But you had more radio station options when you moved to the city.
Yeah, definitely. And that country still got me. I mean, heck, I did Kenny Rogers’s “Sweet Music Man,” you know. I went to see him. They invited me to Carnegie Hall to see him, his manager did. And when it was over, I went backstage and [Kenny] said, “If I had known you was in the audience, I would not have sang ‘Sweet Music Man.’” I thought that was one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever gotten…And he sent me a checkbook holder for canceled checks with a gold check on the top of it. You take the top off and you put the canceled checks inside, then the lid has this gold check from Kenny Rogers to me for a million dollars.
Had you been listening to him for a while? What did you like about him?
Oh yeah. Love him. His voice in general…He has a unique sound. I like people that you don’t have to say, “Who’s that?” I don’t care if it was ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ and Kenny Rogers singing, you would know it was Kenny Rogers singing it.
I’ve read all kinds of scholarly takes on the exchange between country, blues, R&B and soul. But I’m interested in your take on the relationship between them.
To me, right now R&B is really not R&B. They done messed it up. They done took it away. And now the white folks have taken it, you know. When Justin Timberlake got Best R&B Song at the Grammys, I’m going, “What? Excuse me! Have y’all ever heard of Charlie Wilson?” I was quite pissed by that. And I also heard it through the grapevine that Robin Thicke is calling himself the King of R&B now. Once again, it’s like when they decide to do our music, they don’t wanna share it with us. They wanna take it. I think now they’re doing R&B and we’re urban soul or something. They moved us again: “You can’t have that — we’re taking this over.”
It seems to me that when you’ve done country material, you’ve done it partly out of choosing songs you connect with, and partly because you like the idea of staking your claim to those songs. On the live album you did in ’78, you introduced “Sweet Music Man” by saying, “This is a tune I stole from Kenny Rogers.” And in the performance you filmed at the Apollo in 1990, you introduced a Phil Collins song and a Haggard song in a similar way, saying you were stealing them back.
I also did [Dolly Parton's] “Here You Come Again. But that was personal. I did that one because there was this guy I was dating, and we just kept breaking up and going back, breaking up and going back. So that one was for him. That had nothing to do with country or R&B. That was just saying, “Here you come again” [laughs].
More of an inside joke.
But you forget my most famous one.
Which one are you talking about?
“Anybody That Don’t Like Millie Jackson” [laughs].
That’s the funniest one for sure. You’ve also been known to add a punch line to a song with your performance. Right after you sang “If You’re Not Back in Love By Monday” your way, you made a big show of switching to Haggard’s way, laying the twang on thick and getting your whole band to shout “Yeehaw!”
Well, the main thing I like about country is the stories. They have stories. I mean, they’re riding in a pickup truck, they’re stopping off, they’re on the muddy roads, the dirt roads doing something, and it’s always a story behind it. But R&B music, to me, has changed so much until now, you know, it’s, “I feel like dancing. Let me groove.” So it’s nothing but a groove now, you know. There’s no story. And if you’ve got a slow song, it’s like, “Let me see how many runs I can make in this one note.”
You said that when “If You’re Not Back In Love By Monday” became a hit for you, your audience didn’t necessarily know that that was a song Haggard had already had a hit with. Did that ultimately seem to matter to your fans?
No. Because No. 1, they just liked the lyrics. And that’s why I did it — because I liked the lyrics.
How did you album Just a Li’l Bit Country get made?
We’re not gonna discuss that album [laughs]. Just put it over in the failures side and forget about it.
You did come to Nashville to cut that, didn’t you?
Yeah. Most of my stuff, I always did the strings in Nashville and the mixing. But Just a Li’l Bit Country, my fans didn’t see the Just a Lil’ Bit. They only heard the country and thought that I had gone country. They weren’t interested. And since like I said before, they didn’t realize they were buying country when they bought those others, they didn’t hear Just a Lil’ Bit. And I did it because I had had success with country. The head of Polygram, they all agreed and we were doing a big promotional thing behind the country record. I was supposed to do a Grand Ole Opry hayride contest and all of that. And [the label head] left the company two weeks before my album was released. And there they were: “OK, now what we gonna do with this?” The new person had no idea what to do with an album that the other guy and I worked out. So they just let it ride: “You do two albums a year. Are you ready to start the second one?”
You did eventually perform on the Grand Ole Opry at least once, didn’t you?
Yeah. Two years later. With B.B. King. And I can’t even fault the Grand Ole Opry, because all the people in Nashville were behind the album and they wanted to push the album. Like the studio where I recorded at all the time in Nashville, everybody was so excited and wanted to push Just a Li’l Bit Country, but Polygram wouldn’t let ‘em do it: “She’s an R&B artist.” They would not push my record.
On that album, you completely reinvented classic country songs “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” with your performances and amped-up, danceable arrangements. It doesn’t even sound anything like what Ray Charles did with “I Can’t Stop Living You.”
Actually, I was ahead of my time. That’s just the way I’ve always been. I don’t wanna do what everybody else is doing.
You’ve done a lot with your album covers. What were you after in the cover image on Just a Li’l Country?
I always say covers should say what the music is about. So OK, Just a Li’l Bit Country, I got a horse and was standing there holding the horse.
You also have on a gown and there’s a handsome man in a tuxedo with you.
I had on what the country women was wearing back then. That outfit that I had on at that time, you see how my hair is, that was like a Loretta Lynn ‘do. That was the [look of a] female country star then…The dress was like country royalty — with my white horse.
You kind of burlesqued the country feel of that time in “Anybody That Don’t Like Millie Jackson.” You cut it as a honky-tonk shuffle with a fiddle solo and steel guitar licks, and really laid it on thick in your vocal performance. In the middle of it, you made a comment about “people not thinking black folks could sing no mess like this.”
[Laughs] That’s because I did it like country, your typical country, rather than the way I usually sing a country song and turn it into R&B.
Who were you addressing that track to?
Anybody that was listening. It didn’t matter. I did the Merv Griffin Show, and [Hall of Fame, African-American country singer] Charley Pride was on the show. It was when I had “Back In Love By Monday” out. It was so funny…When I finished [singing it], Charley Pride came up to me and he said, “Did you see how I was looking at you? I said to myself, ‘I know that song! I know I know that song!’ Just as you finished, I said, ‘Aw, hell. That’s Merle’s song.’” I sang the whole song before he figured out it was Merle’s song.
Have you performed primarily to black audiences throughout your career? Has it varied?
Mostly, primarily. Not just black, but primarily middle income to low. I used to call myself the Poor People’s Queen. When I go to Europe, you know, my audience is 60 to 80 percent white…They appreciate soul music. A lot of the artists right now that we as Americans think are dead or don’t exist are touring like crazy in Europe. But we have short memories.
Did you pay much attention to your peers in soul and R&B who were also recording country material, from Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music on?
No. In fact, that was the whole idea. Since Ray Charles did the crossover on “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” I figured I would be able to crossover too from doing Just a Li’l Bit Country. And I didn’t want to do it like Ray Charles did it either. When I redo a song, I don’t want it done like anybody else did it.
Now, Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again” was the closest thing I think I’ve ever done to the original song. But if I do a man’s song, I’m gonna change something, if it ain’t nothing but [shifting the gender of the lyrics] from the man’s version to the female version. It means something’s gonna change. I don’t sing too many female songs. Because I want it to be changed, so it would be mine instead of yours.