42: Jackson

42: Jackson

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music


Story by Billy Edd Wheeler

Song written by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber

Recorded by Johnny and June Cash

“Jackson” was actually inspired by Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I was in my early thirties and was studying playwriting at Yale University as a graduate student in their school of drama. I couldn’t afford to go see the Broadway play by Edward Albee, but I somehow managed to get a copy of the script. The two main characters were so nasty in their arguments with each other. They just went at each other all the time. It made me think how men and women, couples, just seem to do that naturally. Usually it’s fairly good-natured, but in Virginia Woolf it was subterranean and evil. So with that thought in mind, I sat down to write “Jackson.”

When I left Yale, I drifted down to New York, and by a great stroke of fortune, got a chance to meet Norman Gimbel, who wrote “Killing Me Softly with His Song” and tons of other hits. He also won an Oscar for his song “It Goes Like It Goes” that was in the movie Norma Rae. He introduced me to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller on Broadway and Jerry helped me a little with “Jackson.” Most of it was editorial. I already had the melody and the lyric. But Jerry is a great lyricist, and he said, “Billy Edd, your first four verses suck. You’ve gotta throw them away. Just start the song with “We got married in a fever / hotter than a pepper sprout.”

I said, “Jerry, that’s the climax of the song. I can’t start with that,” and he said, “Sure you can. Just write some stronger verses to go with it and then you can end with that, too.” So I did.

When I was searching for a town to use for the title, I tried a lot of different cities. I tried “going to Nashville,” but it was just too soft, so I came up with Jackson. Jackson is in Mississippi, but there’s also a fairly large town in Tennessee named Jackson, too. I just liked the sound of it; it had a nice snap to it.

A little while later, I had an album out on Kapp Records, and I recorded “Jackson.” Jerry and Mike produced the album. I had a lot of songs on that album that were eventually covered by bigger artists, which was wonderful, because I would have starved if I had to live on my royalties.

Johnny’s brother-in-law took it to Johnny Cash and said, “I think this is something you and June could do,” so they started playing the song in their live shows. This was really unusual. Most of the time, an artist records a song and then starts playing it on tour, but in his case, it was just the opposite. It was like he was testing it out before he decided to record it. There are many circuitous routes to how artists get songs and how they get recorded.

I met Johnny Cash at Carnegie Hall in the 1960s. They were having a New York folk festival, and I was invited to be a part of it. I was not a headliner, of course. Johnny was. Because I was in the show, I got to hang out backstage and I met Johnny and June. This was before they were even married. They were just performing together. Johnny said, “You know, Billy Edd, whenever I’m doing a show and I think the audience is getting sleepy, or they are drifting away from me, I whistle for June. She comes out and we do ‘Jackson,’ and it brings them right back. We’re going to record that one of these days.”

They did record it and Johnny and June won a Grammy for that song. It’s been covered a lot since then, too. Later, Nancy Sinatra recorded “Jackson” with Lee Hazlewood. They were doing an album of covers of some big country songs. She did a little echo thing at the end where she says, “Jackson, Jackson...” so that’s an example of how well the name worked.

The most recent version was Gretchen Wilson and Charlie Daniels. They do some really great bantering together at the end of their version. Charlie says, “You know where Jackson is? I’m not talking about Jackson, Mississippi. I’m talking about Tennessee.” Then he says, “Will you lend me the car keys, give me a few bucks for gas?” and she says, “If you take me with you,” and Charlie says, just as the song is fading out, “Ohhh, I guess so. . . .” They did a wonderful job with it. It really cooks. But I guess Johnny’s version will always be my favorite because Johnny and June were the ones who made it a valuable copyright.


We got married in a fever

Hotter than a pepper sprout

We’ve been talkin’ ’bout Jackson

Ever since the fire went out

I’m goin’ to Jackson, I’m gonna mess around

Yeah, I’m goin’ to Jackson, look out Jackson town

Well, go on down to Jackson

Go ahead and wreck your health

Go play your hand you big-talkin’ man

Make a big fool of yourself

Yeah, go to Jackson, go comb your hair

Honey, I’m gonna snowball Jackson, see if I care

When I breeze into that city

People gonna stoop and bow

All them women gonna make me

Teach ’em what they don’t know how

I’m goin’ to Jackson, you turn loosen my coat

’Cause I’m goin’ to Jackson

“Goodbye,” that’s a-all she wrote

But they’ll laugh at you in Jackson

And I’ll be dancin’ on a pony keg

They’ll lead you ‘round town like a scalded hound

With your tail tucked between your legs

Yeah, go to Jackson, you big-talkin’ man

And I’ll be waitin’ in Jackson, behind my Jaypan fan

Well now, we got married in a fever

Hotter than a pepper sprout

We’ve been talkin’ ’bou-out Jackson

Ever since the fire went out

I’m goin’ to Jackson, and that’s a fact

Yeah, we’re goin’ to Jackson, ain’t never comin’ back

Well, we got married in a fever

Hotter than a pepper sprout

And we’ve been talkin’ ’bout Jackson

Ever since the fire went out (fade out)

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