It's always heartening to witness legendary artists come back in a big way, and I don't mean in that Santana this-is-selling-well-but-really-it-sucks-and-why-is-Rob-Thomas-here kind of way. I'm thinking more of Johnny Cash with his back-to-basics American recordings, Dolly Parton's neo-bluegrass albums for Sugar Hill, and now original rockabilly hellcat Wanda Jackson with her first studio album in 15 years, Heart Trouble. With Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley gone and Cash's health waning, Jackson, at 65, is one of the few '50s country/rock fusionists remaining who still tours on a regular basis and sounds just about as good as she did back in the day. While not as widely known as many of her male contemporaries, Jackson recorded some wild rockabilly sides for Capitol in the late '50s and early '60s, including "Mean Mean Man", "Let's Have a Party", and "Fujiyama Mama", and scored both rockabilly and country hits in the U.S. and abroad. She has never stopped recording and performing, although she spent time in the '70s working primarily as a gospel artist. Jackson was coaxed back onto the rockabilly circuit in the mid-'80s, when the music experienced a resurgence in Europe, and since then, her old hits have been assembled for several compilations, including Ace's Queen of Rockabilly and Rhino's Rockin' in the Country. Jackson released a live album of country and rockabilly favorites, Live and Still Kickin', on DCN earlier this year.
Heart Trouble marks a triumphant return to the studio for Jackson, even though it uses the same gimmicks as lesser "comeback" albums: a prominent producer (John Wooler, whose credits include Willie Nelson and members of the Buena Vista Social Club), all-star guest musicians (Rosie Flores, Dave Alvin, Elvis Costello, the Cramps, Lee Rocker, Siedah Garrett, Smokey Hormel, etc.), and a safe mixture of old and new songs that is likely to offend no one. What makes Jackson's album work is the inspired pairings -- of singer and song, and of artist and collaborators. The younger artists Jackson works with on Heart Trouble aren't baby-faced chart-toppers chosen for their ability to draw publicity, but seasoned musicians whose sounds owe a debt to Jackson's pioneering work. The Cramps' Poison Ivy, a fierce rockabilly lady in her own right, makes the new recording of "Funnel of Love" sound like a dirty backwoods boogie with her trashy guitar sounds, while Blasters veteran Dave Alvin adds a more polished touch to the new country track "It Happens Every Time" and cover of Carl Perkins' "Rockabilly Fever". Rosie Flores, who invited Jackson to perform on her 1995 Rockabilly Filly album, contributes the girl-power anthem "Woman Walk out the Door" and adds her sweet vocals to it (but, alas, none of her trademark rockabilly guitar licks).
Flores did Jackson a great service by penning songs for her that match the quality of the classics, as did Allan Miller and the Mavericks' Jaime Hanna, who contributed the frisky, wordplay-ful original "Any Time You Wanna Fool Around". Jackson's choice of covers is right on the money, too, with "Cash on the Barrelhead" and Buck Owens's classic "Crying Time" (a duet with Elvis Costello) providing a perfect match for her classic country phrasing. The remakes of Jackson's old hits "Funnel of Love", "Mean Mean Man", "Riot in Cell Block No. 9", "Hard Headed Woman", and "Let's Have a Party", while fun, naturally don't match up to her older recordings of them, although the aforementioned Crampsified version of "Funnel" comes darn close. Still, to hear Jackson, now a grandmother, capture most of the snarls and hiccups she did in the old days is a real treat. Unlike many a smokin', drinkin' rocker, she's taken good care of her voice (are you listening Stevie Nicks?) and still has pretty impressive pipes. Thankfully, she's using them in the right way on this release, which is in every way a winner.