By Al Kaufman
Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and whatever new band he happens to be in this week) seems to have a thing for older rebel women. First he resurrected the career of country maverick Loretta Lynn with Van Lear Rose. Now he takes on the lesser known — but more renegade — rockabilly queen, Wanda Jackson.
For many years, Jackson served as nothing more than a footnote to musical history. She was a girlfriend of Elvis Presley who had a huge hit in Japan with “Fujiama Mama,” and some minor success in the U.S. with her country/rockabilly blend. But, because her style was not easy to pigeonhole, especially since she was a female singer, she never got the notoriety she deserved. Her career slowed to a halt and she found God and started singing gospel music. Then Americana singer Rosie Flores got her idol Jackson to start performing again in the mid ’90s, and Bloodshot Records put out a tribute album, Hard Headed Woman: A Celebration of Wanda Jackson, with unclassifiable talents like Flores, Neko Case, and Kelly Hogan covering some of her best rockabilly cuts, and suddenly it was cool to be Wanda Jackson again. She cut records with everyone from Elvis Costello to The Cramps. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. She went from has-been to royalty; the Queen of Rockabilly.
Now 73, Jackson’s voice isn’t what it was back in her heyday, but, like Loretta Lynn’s, age has given it a raspier quality. It’s a quality that says, “I’ve seen and done a lot of things.” It works particularly well on the straight ahead rockabilly numbers, such as the Johnny Kidd classic “Shakin’ All Over,”the Little Richard hit “Rip It Up,” and Eddie Cochran’s “Nervous Breakdown.” For the more current stuff, she has the perfect nasally growl for Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good,” although as a born again Christian, she changed some of the lyrics. “Thinking of you in the final throes” became “Thinking of you, but no one knows.” She also speeds up Bob Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain” and, instead of thinking about Alicia Keys, she thinks about Jerry Lee.
Jack White’s stamp is all over this CD. The Raconteurs play on many of the cuts, and White’s riveting guitar, which has always had a sort of throwback sound, is forefront. Bursts of horns explode throughout, most notably on the carnival-sounding “Busted,” a song first made famous by Johnny Cash. But White also makes sure to include some calypso with “Rum and Coca Cola,” and country gospel with “Dust on the Bible.” Jackson’s voice is up to the task, and, thanks to her voice and White’s guitar, the album has a uniform sound no matter from what genre or era the songs come. As he did with Loretta Lynn, Jack White will bring Jackson’s style to a whole new generation of music lovers. It’s nice to see her getting some of the credit she deserves.
The Party Ain’t Over will be released Tuesday, January 25.