Honey Bop 

Latest album by rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson, who plays Nashville this week, proves she's still got it

Latest album by rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson, who plays Nashville this week, proves she's still got it

Wanda Jackson

Heart Trouble (CMH)

Playing The Mercy Lounge April 3

There's no question that rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson deserves a toast—and greater recognition for her achievements. The question, however, is how best to honor her? That dilemma pumps through Heart Trouble, a recent album featuring a host of acolytes paying tribute to Jackson by joining her on her best-known songs, like-minded covers and, thankfully, a few originals.

It's a reverent and often resonant collection, and collaborators Elvis Costello, The Cramps and Rosie Flores clearly enjoy sharing the mic with their hero. But focusing on her classic material invites an inevitable comparison: How do the new versions stack up against the originals? Better than might be expected, considering that Jackson, now 66, recut a handful of tunes she first recorded in her teens and early 20s. But what's most striking about the new album is how strong the new material is.

For those who don't know her, Jackson often has been called the greatest female rockabilly singer of all time, but that sells her short, among other things limiting her by gender. Singles like "Let's Have a Party," "Mean Mean Man" and "Fujiyama Mama"—all from the late '50s and early '60s—are as primal as rock 'n' roll gets; galvanized by her reedy growl, these records rank with the most unhinged work of Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis.

Jackson faced immense obstacles back in the '50s, as did all pioneering female rockers. If the carnal stage moves of a poor Southern boy like Elvis Presley stirred controversy, just imagine the reaction to a gorgeous teenage woman shimmying in a tight, bare-shouldered cocktail dress.

Jackson grew up accompanying her parents, who loved dancing to Western swing and hillbilly boogie, to shows in Oklahoma, Los Angeles and Bakersfield. She began singing professionally at age 13 on KPLR in Oklahoma City; she enjoyed her first country hit, a duet with singer Billy Gray, in 1954. A fateful tour through Texas with Elvis introduced her to rock 'n' roll. Having once idolized hillbilly boogie singers like Rose Maddox and Charline Arthur, Jackson immediately connected with rock's powerful pull, taking to it with more bite than any female singer before her. By 1956, she was recording rockabilly backed by guitarists like Joe Maphis and Buck Owens.

By 1961, though, Jackson had settled down, marrying her husband Wendell Goodman and returning to country music. Her country hits of the '60s, especially the torch song "Right or Wrong," rank with the most memorable Nashville Sound hits of the era, but they don't stand above the rest in the same way her rockabilly ravers do. In 1971, she and her husband became born-again Christians, and Jackson devoted the next 14 years to recording gospel songs and touring in Baptist churches. But the rockabilly revival and cowpunk movement of the '80s made her a celebrated pop figure once more. New reissues sold well, and her vintage recordings began to receive the acclaim they long had deserved. Jackson began performing rock 'n' roll again, too, mostly in Europe.

In 1995, she gained new attention when Rosie Flores invited her to sing a pair of duets on the Rockabilly Filly album. Flores and Jackson then teamed up for a short American tour, and the strong response convinced Jackson to devote more time to performing in the States. A 2002 documentary, Welcome to the Club, aired nationally on PBS, brought another wave of recognition.

Heart Trouble marks the first new studio recordings she's released in the U.S. in 15 years. As is often the practice when working with a veteran performer who's been out of the public eye for a while, producer John Wooler had Jackson rerecord several of her classic hits, often as duets. She doesn't generate the heat she did in her youth, and her energy isn't as frantic or as forceful as it was 45 years ago. But her growl remains a singular accessory, and there's still a playful edge in her voice. The recordings work because Wooler shapes the arrangements to fit how Jackson has changed. Pianist Neil Larson jazzes up "Let's Have a Party," while guitarist Randy Jacobs adds a baritone solo to "Mean Mean Man" that keeps it from sounding too retro. And the Cramps' psychobilly style on "Funnel of Love" gives Jackson a backdrop unlike anything she's previously recorded.

The album's best songs, though, dispense with reviving old material and let Jackson show new sides of herself. A duet with Elvis Costello on "Crying Time," the old Buck Owens hit, is the album's centerpiece, a moody piece of classic country that brings out the best in both singers. Costello's grown as an interpreter of classic country, and his emotional reach and idiosyncratic phrasing work well against Jackson's down-home torchiness. Just as good is the jaunty shuffle, "Woman Walk Out the Door," performed as a duet with Flores, who co-wrote it. Jackson also sounds great on a couple of songs written by Nashvillian Paul Kennerley, and she brings a believer's commitment to a soulful rendition of "Walk With Me," a gospel number written by California roots-rocker James Intveld.

The original songs on the album all wear better over repeated plays than Jackson's remakes of her classics. As the best of Heart Trouble attests, she deserves a chance to move beyond paying homage to herself. Jackson is more than a historical figure; she's an artist who still has something to say.

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