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 cherry 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.’”

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