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Born again
Rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson is back

Wanda Jackson was a growling teen rockabilly queen back in the late 1950s, straddling the line between country and rock and roll by thrashing through the rave-up "Letís Have a Party" while also putting her Okie twang and straight-ahead style on the memorable country weeper "Silver Threads and Golden Needles." Now, some 47 years after Elvis Presley encouraged her to rock it up, sheís put together her first new US release in decades.

When she reached Los Angeles to record Heart Trouble (CMH), she was amazed, not only by the top-shelf studio gadgetry but by the presence of Elvis Costello (who joined her for a duet on "Crying Time"), rockabilly killer and long-time Jackson champion Rosie Flores, Blaster Dave Alvin, former Stray Cat Lee Rocker, and Poison Ivy and Lux Interior of the Cramps. "Itís kind of different because I havenít recorded original things for 20 years," she says. "But to have folks from Nashville like James Intveld write for me and to have all these musicians wanting to do this with me, itís a heady thing."

Sheís speaking on the telephone from her apartment in Hallstahammar, her base in Sweden during what have become annual European summer swings. It was a Scandinavian promoter who lured Jackson back to country and rockabilly in 1984, 13 years after she and her husband had become born-again Christians and she had started to concentrate on the commercial backwater of gospel recordings. "During that time, it appeared to everybody in America that I had dropped off the face of the earth, though I was doing gospel concerts all over the place."

She says the offer to record a rockabilly disc posed a problem because she had no intention of going back to roaring through "Thereís a Riot Goiní On" or the silly, hiccupping rockabilly novelty "Fujiyama Mama," a flop for her in the US but a hit across the Pacific that prompted a Japanese tour in 1958. And yet, "The fact remains that God had changed our direction in music for the simple reason that my testimony of becoming a Christian could be related to people in Europe. I didnít know it at that time, but after a year or two, we realized what was happening." She believes that those who attend her shows will always get a little religion. "I donít keep it real heavy, Iím not preaching. I just tell them what happened to me." The tinge of gospel on Heart Trouble is Intveldís contribution, "Walk with Me." But Jackson says her favorite cut is "What Gives You the Right (To Do Me Wrong)," a Flores song that balances her unadorned country vocals with some rockabilly backbone. She hasnít usually balanced the two as much as switched between them.

Jackson was signed to her first record deal, while she was still in high school, at the urging of then country mega-star Hank Thompson, who like her lived in Oklahoma City. In 1956, she was touring as part of a package with Elvis, and he encouraged her to throw a little rock into the mix. Her singles, which featured such notable country musicians as Buck Owens, pedal-steel player Ralph Mooney, and fast-fingered guitarist Joe Maphis, often had a rockabilly tune on one side and a country track on the other. Heart Trouble also has a split personality, reworking "Riot" and "Party" but backing off with the gospel cut and Owensís "Crying Time."

Jacksonís clear and powerful voice has gotten a little rougher and less assured, but little else has changed. The wildest cut is "Funnel of Love," where Poison Ivy uses demonic, rumbling guitar reverb and a piercing solo to make the song positively scary. Heart Trouble producer John Wooler (Willie Nelson, Pops Staples) says he didnít want to do "another straight-ahead Wanda Jackson record" like the ones sheís been cutting with European rockabilly bands over the years. "I tried to put together a rhythm section that is more interesting." That section included Larry Taylor, a long-time LA blues man who has recorded with Tom Waits, and drummer Stephen Hodges (Fabulous Thunderbirds and Waits). Wooler says that some of the star interest began when Attractions drummer Pete Thomas dropped in on the sessions. Thomas noted that Elvis and the band had been watching Wanda Jackson footage from the old days while on their most recent tour. One thing led to another, and a few days later, Wooler says, "Elvis called me, and we arranged a time when heíd be in Los Angeles for the session."

The duet on "Crying Time" is fine, though it wonít eclipse the classic versions, including Owensís original or Ray Charlesís remake. The Cramps play on two tracks; Alvinís on six and Rockerís on one. Flores, who jump-started Jacksonís stateside revival by asking her to play on and then tour behind his 1995 disc, Rockabilly Filly (Hightone), is on two cuts. "Everyone really enjoyed the sessions, which is not always the case," Wooler points out. "The musicians who came on board were happy to work with Wanda. That helped make her feel comfortable and confident and helped her give her best."

Issue Date: October 24 - 30, 2003
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