The Original Riot Grrl gives us one last kick in the ass on her way out the door
Wanda Jackson has received many titles throughout her career, such as “The First Lady of Rockabilly” or, “The Original Riot Grrl.” If there is one thing that she continues to prove, is that feistiness isn’t something that dies with youth, it’s eternal.
Although Jackson announced her retirement in 2019, it can be hard to quit something that you’ve done all your life, so with this album, she’s giving us a final Encore.
Encouraged by her granddaughter, Jordan Simpson, Jackson began writing with some of Nashville’s foremost songwriters; Lori McKenna, Angaleena Presley, Candi Carpenter, Elle King, and Luke Laird. According to a recent interview, many of the songs came about through Wanda telling her life stories, “During our visits with these people, I’d just be talking a lot and someone would say, ‘Hold on, there’s an idea for a song right there’ … A lot of the [songs] came out of my mouth unchanged.”
Artist: Wanda Jackson
Label: Big Machine
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Encore was co-produced by Jackson’s long-time collaborator, Kenny Laguna, and the renowned Joan Jett for Big Machine/Blackheart Records. With Jett as the progeny of Jackson’s devil-may-care attitude in ‘50s, the album carries the familiar rockabilly Wanda Jackson sound, with a Joan Jett edge.
Jackson has maintained that nasally rasp that she became famous for with “Fujiyama Mama” and “Let’s Have A Party,” but it is now tinged with witty wisdom of a southern grandma. She has been defying the standards of the industry since she signed to Decca records when she was just in high school. Bending the gender in lyrics, wanting to show her shoulders on stage at the Grand Ole Opry, and not performing at venues that wouldn’t accept the skin color of her pianist, Big Al-Downing, she’s always been a force to be reckoned with. Today, at the age of 83, she continues to challenge expectations by singing about her life in “high heels, high hair, cherry-red lips, low-cut dress hugging my hips.”
Opening the album with a traditional Rockabilly bang, “Big Baby,” instantly draws the listener in to Jackson’s new album. Featuring a steady 12-bar-blues rhythm section, the sound is one that is expected of Jackson, but by the end of the song, you’re completely blown away by the keys.
According to Jackson, one of the “cutest songs” she’s ever recorded in her career is “Two Shots (feat. Elle King & Joan Jett).” The cleverly written and wildly unexpected song showcases her tongue-in-cheek sass while she plots out how to make her man stay: murder. With Elle King and Joan Jett joining in on the chorus, her group of gal-pals fully support the idea: “One, two shots to your heart / Give you a three, four second head start / Till you’re five, six feet underground / So reconsider babe, and put that suitcase down.”
AUDIO: Wanda Jackson feat. Elle King and Joan Jett “Two Shots”
Following with the flirty “You Drive Me Wild,” Jackson shows us her penchant for raunch hasn’t gone away. The song was the first one that Joan Jett ever wrote, making it a perfect fit for Encore, which features some of Jackson’s own songwriting firsts as well. Jett’s version the song with the Runaways is more Glam-Rock, while Jackson’s Country-Rock version of “You Drive Me Wild” gives the song a whole new life with keys and a pedal-steel guitar.
Jackson co-wrote “Good Girl Down” with Angaleena Presley and Vanessa Olivarez for Presley’s 2017 album Wrangled. Never quite fitting the mold of the male-dominated music industry, and not willing to conform, the song was borne out of Jackson and Presley’s shared experience on Music Row. With lyrics such as “It’s a man’s world, and I’m a lady / And they’ll never appreciate me,” the song turns into an ever-topical anthem for female empowerment.
Following a song that says you “You can’t get a good girl down” with lyrics that begin, “I cry myself to sleep each night / Wishing I could hold you tight,” makes for an uncomfortable transition. However, “It Keeps Right On A Hurtin’” is a timeless tune from 1962 that has been covered by many legends, including Jackson’s one-time beau, Elvis Presley. Slowing the album down with a honky-tonk staple, “It Keeps Right On A Hurtin’” is a nod to the past; it reminds us of what music sounded like when she began her career, and shows us just how far she’s come.
Revealing her more vulnerable side, “We Gotta Stop” takes on the feeling of an old soul tune. Lead by an arpeggiating guitar, Jackson sings of how jealousy can tear down an otherwise stable relationship, “brick by brick, stone by stone.” Co-written with Will Hoge, and again with Olivarez and Presley, this is one of the songs that came through Wanda telling stories from her past.
Swiftly moving back into rock ‘n’ roll, “Treat Me Like A Lady (feat. Joan Jett)” celebrates the complexities of being a woman. Each verse has a sexy groove laid down by Jett’s guitar as Jackson lists the qualities she demands in a man: “I like a real strong man with a tender touch,” while the bridge slows to an ad libitum strum as she demurely croons: “Hold me closely every night / treat me like a lady.” The opposition between sassy and tender is reminiscent of her 1956 country hit “I Gotta Know,” where she jumps between quick Rockabilly rim shots and weepy country steel guitars as she tries to navigate her partner’s intentions.
The album is brought to a close on a sentimental note with “That’s What Love is (feat. Joan Jett).” The earnest love song changes the pace of an otherwise rowdy album, paying a tribute to her departed husband of 56 years, who passed in 2017. The piano-based country ballad showcases Jackson’s voice and all of its romanticism, fondly remembering domestic bliss: “coffee in your hand, and in your heart, a song / that’s what love is.” Being the last song on (possibly) her final album, “That’s What Love Is” ties off her seven-decade career with a delicate reminder to not take love for granted.
This album is not only an “Encore,” it is an essential addition to her discography that solidifies her ‘cornerstone’ position in musical history. By collaborating with other women in the industry, including the legendary Joan Jett, Wanda Jackson passes the torch on to future generations of women in music, empowering them to create their own success on their own terms.