February 2004

Wanda Jackson - Heart Trouble
CMH CD 8708
Released: 2003

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

When I was writing a review of some Wanda Jackson reissues a little over a year ago, I was delighted to read that Ms. Jackson was still performing. She’s been carrying the rockabilly torch high in concerts here and in Europe, where she has remained popular through the years. Younger singers, such as Rosie Flores and Pam Tillis, have named her as an influence and it was a guest appearance on Flores’ 1995 release Rockabilly Filly that led Jackson to return to secular music after years as a gospel artist.

Heart Trouble is Jackson’s first US recording in nearly 20 years, and at age 65 her voice still sounds appealingly girlish. The harsh lighting on the cover photo highlights every line and crease on her face (she looks more elegant in other current photos in the CD booklet), but the shot serves to reinforce the air of experience and authority that Jackson carries through the performances on the disc. A large part of Heart Trouble’s appeal lies in the contrast between Jackson’s still-young-sounding voice and the depth of feeling that a lifetime’s singing allows her to express.

Producer John Wooler and engineer Oz Fritz used analog equipment and vintage microphones to record Heart Trouble and the older technology gives the disc a warm, vivid sound reminiscent of the sides Jackson recorded in the '50s and '60s. At the same time, Wooler surrounded Jackson with younger musicians who, while they were certainly influenced by her, brought a more current feel to the disc. Poison Ivy, of the Cramps, adds a wonderfully loopy fuzz guitar line and a funny, campy backup vocal (with fellow Cramp Lux Interior) to "Funnel of Love" that makes it clear this CD isn’t going to be a retread of Jackson’s past.

Most of the tracks on Heart Trouble follow a more traditional path than "Funnel of Love," but they all sound fresh and alive. Dave Alvin, who guests on six tracks, sounds as excited to be playing this kind of music as he did more than 20 years ago with the Blasters. He’s gained such a strong reputation as a songwriter that I sometimes forget what a great guitarist he is. The full, rich tone of Smokey Hormel’s guitar opens the disc on the title tune and his feel for Jackson’s country and rockabilly sound is every bit as convincing as Alvin’s. Jackson’s duet with Elvis Costello on "Crying Time" is reason enough to buy the disc, but it’s John McFee’s pedal steel on that track that brings it home.

McFee plays pedal steel on a couple of other tracks and adds some beautiful dobro work to "Anytime You Wanna Fool Around," a song co-written by the Mavericks’ Jaime Hanna. Of all the great musicians on this disc, however, it’s Larry Taylor on bass that stands out. He’s on 11 of Heart Trouble’s 16 tracks, and his big, warm tone and unerring sense of time hold everything together. Drummer Stephen Hodges, who has played with Taylor in Tom Waits’ band, nearly matches him for understatement and graceful playing.

Heart Trouble gives Ms. Jackson a chance to revisit some tunes from her past ("Let’s Have a Party," "Riot In Cellblock #9") and to interpret songs by younger writers. She also brings wit and verve to a few country and rockabilly gems, such as the Louvin Brothers’ "Cash on the Barrelhead" and Carl Perkins’ "Rockabilly Fever." There’s quite a bit of Wanda Jackson’s music available now, including two Bear Family box sets and reissues of her work on Capitol Records. It’s to Woller’s credit that he wasn’t content to let Jackson merely re-create her past glories. He’s chosen musicians who are familiar with her work but are willing to throw her some new challenges. Heart Trouble sounds like the work of a singer who is revitalized and ready to jump back into the game.