When Wanda Jackson announced she was retiring after releasing her 32nd studio album, rock ‘n’ roll was saying goodbye to a true pioneer and original. Then, it’s fitting that her swansong, Encore, is produced by another rock innovator, Joan Jett (along with longtime Jett collaborator Kenny Laguna). It’s a lean, tight album (it clocks in at less than 25 minutes) and a fabulous capper to a groundbreaking career. But it would be a mistake to assume that because Jackson was leaving after Encore that it’s a rote album resting on her legendary laurels. Far from it – it’s a lively, energetic LP with some of the most potent music of her long career.
Encore comes after a career resurgence that started with 2011’s The Party Ain’t Over (produced by Jack White) and 2012’s Unfinished Business (helmed by Justin Townes Earle). Finding a late-career renaissance similar to Loretta Lynn, Nancy Sinatra, or Marianne Faithfull, Jackson, Queen of Rockabilly, proved that she was still capable of putting out explosive performances despite her advanced age. For Encore, she finds kindred kinship with Jett and Laguna, who make sure to keep the spotlight firmly on Jackson’s tight, pinched, buzzsaw voice that slices through the speakers. On the faster moments, she displays fantastic nimbleness, and on the ballads, she showcases a stunning vulnerability.
The album is a mix of originals and covers, with contributions by Jett. Encore’s single “It Keeps Right On a-Hurtin'” was a big country hit for Johnny Tillotson. Zeroing in on Jackson’s unique and distinct voice, the song is a great showcase of her ability to convey heartache and loss. Though her voice is noticeable aged, its well-deep tone still carries an incredible amount of charisma. The production is simple, a swinging beat, honky-tonk pianos, and angelic backup vocals (that never threaten to overpower Jackson’s voice).
The inclusion of an electric guitar gives the song a modern burnish even though its arrangement feels nostalgic and somewhat sepia-toned. The Tillotson original is smooth as satin with syrupy strings, humming background singers, and Tillotson’s singing is a buttery croon. In Jackson’s hands, the song takes on a churchy urgency, particularly since the production and arrangement emphasize the raw roughness of the rock guitar and Jackson’s gritty vocals. There’s deep spirituality and gravitas that booms through the song.
At other moments on Encore, Jackson polishes her crown as the Empress of Rockabilly on the trio of barnstormers that start the record. The first track, “Big Baby”, is a stomping, rocking number Jackson performs with an ageless enthusiasm. “Two Shots” is a driving song, moving briskly, with spirited, sassy lyrics (and support from Jett and the song’s composer Elle King, a musical disciple of Jackson’s). “You Drive Me Wild” is the kind of bluesy, dirty rock song that Jackson excels at – it sports a sensual and sexy vocal performance that belies her age – though time has tightened her voice, it seems as if this song managed to erase the effects of aging. She turns in a supple vocal (listen to the carnal way she purrs, “Don’t hold off, I need your lovin’/I’m getting’ so hot, I’m cookin’ like an oven”).
As someone Jackson has influenced, Joan Jett doesn’t allow her muse’s overpowering legend to intimidate her. She also doesn’t work to make her into a plaster saint or two-dimensional icon. Instead, she finds the urgency and power in Jackson’s talent. What makes Encore work as a fresh-sounding record and eschews moldy nostalgia is that Jett finds modern rock in rockabilly, lacing the LP with crashing guitar guitars and rock and roll bass. By not treading Jackson like a Legend (capital L), Jett and Laguna were able to capture Jackson as a vital and dynamic artist, who despite the announcement of retiring, sounds like she could go on forever.