“I don’t need any guide, I already know the way,” sings Wanda Jackson in her cover of “Thunder on the Mountain.” But one wonders if Jackson didn’t crack a smile at the utterance of Dylan’s words. After all, Jack White, who has somewhat of a penchant for reviving the careers of aging starlets (like Loretta Lynn’s in 2004), was unequivocally the driving force behind Jackson’s most recent release: The Party Ain’t Over. White not only chose the songs for the album but also gathered up a troupe of talented musicians in his Nashville studio to give Jackson’s voice the backing support it deserves. The resulting effort nicely showcases Jackson’s talents and solidifies her place in history.
The so-called Queen of Rockabilly doesn’t exactly have the pipes that she had when she briefly dated Elvis Presley in 1955. Now 73, she struggles slightly to come up big on spirited tunes like “Rip It Up” and “Shakin’ All Over,” in which some strange tinny elements, calling to mind both Nicki Minaj and Alvin and the Chipmunks, work their way into Jackson’s voice. Yet the White-led backing band make sure that these tunes are still a pleasure to hear, thanks to high-energy guitar riffs and a horns section that is strong (albeit sort of cheesy) throughout the album.
Jackson’s voice seems to settle down a bit as the album progresses. “Busted”—on which she conjures the talky-country style of Johnny Cash, comes off nicely, as does the tropical-rhythm-drenched “Rum and Coca Cola.” The genius of White’s song choices is truly evident on Jackson’s interpretation of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good,” where Jackson’s aged and gruff voice is brilliant, giving us an idea of what Winehouse might sound like singing her hit after another decade or so of self-abuse.
Most songs on the album feature somewhere between 8 and 12 musicians, and sometimes the bevy of backing talent, including a few of White’s friends from The Raconteurs and My Morning Jacket, overshadows Jackson. Perhaps the strongest section of the album is its last three songs. On “Dust on the Bible,” Jackson returns with gusto to the gospel work she explored in the 1970s and proselytizes beautifully over a delightfully funky horn line. “Teach Me Tonight” and “Blue Yodel #6,” an acoustic version of a Jimmie Rodgers classic, are also both wonderfully done, with Jackson showing she still has considerable chops, especially with stripped-down backing.
The Party Ain’t Over is not nearly on the level of Van Lear Rose, White’s widely acclaimed 2004 collaboration with then-70-year-old Loretta Lynn. Nonetheless, White has paid fitting tribute to another one of his idols, making it much more likely that a few more people will take the time to appreciate her body of work.
– Mark Waterman, host of Intentionally Crude, Tuesdays 7-8pm