When the Roadshow Revival returns to the Ventura County Fairgrounds for this year’s installment of its annual tribute to the music of Johnny Cash, this time around the event gets personal — and a little bit feminine. Not only is Cash’s stepdaughter, Carlene Carter, a featured performer, but headlining the event will be the Queen of Rockabilly herself, Wanda Jackson.
For Jackson, having two formidable female artists headlining Saturday’s festival is a legacy of her musical beginnings. Along with the likes of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, she was at the fore of the emergence of rock and roll and forged a formidable path for other female artists to follow.
Having first established herself as a country music artist, it was with Presley’s encouragement that Jackson embraced rock-and-roll. Presley was quick to note the changing musical landscape and encouraged Jackson to join him in taking the music to America’s youth. Despite the obvious resistance, she followed the king, heart-first.
“The disc jockeys had to stop breaking Elvis’s records, eventually, because the voice of the public demanded they play him,” recalled Jackson of the social landscape surrounding the birth of rock and roll.
“But they would not accept a teenage girl standing on stage in silly fringes singing this rock and roll,” she added. “It’s almost as though they had a meeting to stop me. When you look at my discography, you’ll see that I would have a country song on one side and rock and roll on the other side. That was so I could continue to keep my airplay up.”
Not only did Presley help establish Jackson’s rock-and-roll career, he also lent continual support. It was while touring with Presley in the mid-1950s that Jackson was introduced to Johnny Cash. Like Cash, Jackson was a part of Presley’s touring road show, where she was quick to learn that she was in the presence of two future greats.
“Every time Johnny went on [stage], Elvis would watch him,” recalled Jackson. “He came and got me a few times and we stood there in the wings.
“I said to Elvis ‘I don’t see that much in Johnny. Looks to me like he’s just trying to copy you.’ And Elvis said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, you’re wrong there. Johnny Cash is going to be the biggest thing that ever hit country music.’ ”
The Cash connection of this year’s festival is further strengthened by the presence of Carlene Carter. The daughter of June Carter and her first husband, Carl Smith, Carter has a formidable music legacy of her own. She has released 12 albums and graced the upper echelons of the Billboard country music chart numerous times.
In being a latter-day prodigy of The Carter Family, Cash’s influence was never too far away during her musical beginnings.
“He was a huge influence on me.” Carter recalled. “I spent a large majority of my childhood traveling with the Johnny Cash Show. I started my career singing with them on the road. He taught me a lot of songs when I was first starting out that I probably never would have discovered.
“But it’s hard to separate the Johnny Cash legacy from him being my stepdad. But at the same time, that kind of goes hand in hand.”
For the Carter and Cash families, music was and is their lifestyle. It was a part of their day-to -day lives. In the late 1980s, Carter joined her mother in The Carter Sisters after establishing her own musical presence with the release of her eponymous debut album in the late 1970s.
Her most recent record, Stronger, a 2008 release that documents a tumultuous emotional journey, came after a 12-year break between recordings. She promises that her next recorded venture is not too far away and will be just as personal — an homage to The Carter Family.
“I have always worn my heritage like a nice comfortable coat,” Carter explained. “Whenever I have performed, I have celebrated their music. This will be my tribute to them.”
As Carter and Jackson move forward, the former with her album of Carter Family songs and the latter with a Justin Townes Earle-produced follow-up to her album with Jack White, both are acutely aware of the significance the past plays in the future.
“We Americans are always looking for the next big thing, and ready to drop the old and embrace the new,” Jackson observed. “People in other parts of the world aren’t so fast to let go of their history. We can learn something from that.”.
The Roadshow Revival: A tribute to the music of Johnny Cash, Saturday, June 16, 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. Two stages of live music, hot-rod show and pin-up pageant. For tickets and more information, visit www.roadshowrevival.com.