From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. To read my new interview with Wanda Jackson, click here.
Wanda Jackson “Unfinished Business” (Sugar Hill Records)
After proving, with Jack White’s help, that “The Party Ain’t Over,” Wanda Jackson affirms that she has “Unfinished Business” — and plenty still to offer the contemporary music scene — with her new album.
To make her 31st studio album, the Queen of Rockabilly, who turns 75 Saturday, teamed with another respected young musician/producer: alt-country singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, the son of wildcard Texas singer-songwriter Steve Earle. Released less than two years apart, the Maud native’s two latest albums sound so markedly different while feeling so equally authentic and entertaining that they almost represent the yin and yang of her long-running, genre-hopping career.
“The Party Ain’t Over” celebrated Jackson’s rock ‘n’ roll trailblazing with belting horns, blistering electric guitars and White’s showy production values while making forays into neo-soul, funk and calypso. Earle’s stripped-down production style pushes the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s distinctive, still-powerhouse vocals well out in front of a solid live band, while the track listing digs into her country, rockabilly and gospel roots.
“Unfinished Business” opens with a bit of the raucous vibe of “The Party Ain’t Over” — which interestingly enough closed with an unadorned version Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #6 — and a rollicking rendition of Texas bluesman Freddie King’s “Tore Down.” But by the second track, Jackson is dancing a honky-tonk two-step with a cover of the elder Earle’s “Graveyard Shift,” then crooning a lovely old-school country duet with the younger Earle on Greg Garing’s brokenhearted ballad “Am I Even a Memory?” Justin Townes Earle, 30, penned “What Do You Do when You’re Lonesome,” but it sounds so classically country that fans of fiddles and steel guitars will swear the song must be at least twice as old as its author.
Jackson typically features at least one gospel song on her albums, and this time, the longtime Oklahoma City resident infuses Townes Van Zandt’s toe-tapping “Two Hands” with fervent joy. She gets her R&B groove on with a hip-shaking cover of “It’s All Over Now” that hews much closer to Bobby Womack’s original than the Rolling Stones’ jangly chart-topping version. Jackson shows off the feisty attitude and unmistakable growl that established her as the First Lady of Rock ‘n’ Roll with classic rock cuts “Old Weakness (Coming on Strong)” and “Pushover.”
“Unfinished Business” closes with a prettily wistful cover of “California Stars,” which features lyrics by fellow Oklahoman Woody Guthrie and was previously featured on Wilco and Billy Bragg’s 1998 Guthrie tribute “Mermaid Avenue.”