My first real experience with Wanda Jackson’s music was a live show at Columbus, Ohio’s late-great punk rock night club, Crazy Mama’s in the early 1990s. Tiny, dark and dirty, Mama’s, was more of a dance club than a live show venue, and in some ways, the last place you’d expect to see a woman, then in her 50s, who spent much of her career as a country and gospel singer. Wanda took the stage and in short order rocked my socks off, dismissing any thoughts that I might have had about whether or not she belonged. She was the Queen and she belonged anywhere she wanted to be.
What the performance really brought home to me was something that my (already beloved) stack of Jackson records couldn’t: In a genre that is already an unlikely marriage of hillbilly music with jump blues, Wanda Jackson adds a layer of complexity to Rockabilly music that puts her on equal footing with the greats like Cash, The Big E and, the Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis.
The tense incongruity between the Wanda Jackson’s obvious class and clarion piety, versus the greasy delinquent trappings of rockabilly music and venues is what makes her a true great, but sadly the records she has had released since I saw her at Crazy Mama’s have somehow managed to overlook this friction. 2003’s “Heart Trouble” had some bright spots but thanks to a bevy of famous guest-fans like The Cramps and Elvis Costello, the album was, at times, cartoonish in character. The recent Jack White produced “The Party Ain’t Over” was gimmicky and suffered from… um… let’s be polite and call it over-collaboration. The producers’ love for Wanda in both of these projects was undoubtable, but no one seemed to understand that it was that simple dichotomy between dark and light that make Wanda great.
Enter Justin Towne Earle: A producer who clearly gets it, and who has succeeded in distilling down the Wanda Jackson Experience to its core element.
“Unfinished Business” is a tribute to Wanda’s entire career, from baudy rock ‘n roller to angelic gospel star, celebrating that friction between good girl and bad girl that. Songs like “Tore Down,” “Down Past the Bottom,” “Pushover,” and a cover version of the R&B classic “It’s All Over Now” are rip roarin’ rockabilly at its finest and delivered in a lusty fashion. These saucy tunes are counterbalanced by carefully chosen cover material like the spiritual rocker “Two Hands” and the Woody Guthrie penned/Wilco scored folk-a-ma-jigger “California Stars.”
Even the ancillary aspects of the record show an understanding of this basic element of tension with the video for “Tore Down” with its salacious knife wielding mamas and Ron Jeremy cameo to the gushing praise liner notes written by macabre-mister supreme and notable rockabilly enthusiast Stephen King.
So, while I won’t shine you on and say that the songs have the hypnotic power of her classic material like “Funnel Of Love” or “Lost Weekend,” “Unfinished Business” is now THE Wanda Jackson record.