Two years ago, legendary rockabilly singer Wanda Jackson announced her retirement from touring. She had suffered a stroke the year prior, and like many other people in their 80s, she had her share of run-of-the-mill aches and pains as well. After nearly 65 years out on the road, the decision to stop performing was a natural one. But while her body could no longer handle a rigorous travel schedule, her voice remained pristine, and the woman who once toured with Elvis Presley (and briefly dated him) began the process of putting together one last album as a parting gift to her fans.
“Right around the time I retired from performing and what I thought was the end of my career, I found myself back to writing songs with some of the great writers in Nashville,” Jackson, now 83, explains in a statement accompanying the record. “The songs you hear are truly my life story. This is the first time I have ever inserted so much of my personal life into my music. You’ll get a picture of my early life and have a peak into the closeness that my late husband Wendell and I had in our life together. I’m happy to share this with all of you. Your constant love and support has seen me through the ups and downs of my 64-year career. I love you all and God bless you.”
The result is Encore, an enjoyable eight-song collection that sees the Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer teaming up with Joan Jett — another iconic performer who made a career out of defying dated expectations about how female musicians should look and sound — to take one last victory lap before hanging it up for good. Jett produced the record (which is out today via her Blackheart Records) and also appears on three of its tracks, and while it’s clear she was passionate about helping one of her forebears put out one final artistic statement, her touch is a subtle one, giving Jackson room to do what she does best.
Jackson and Jett are also joined by the likes of Elle King, Angaleena Presley (no relation to Elvis) and Candi Carpenter on Encore. King lends backup vocals along with Jett on the revenge fantasy “Two Shots” — “If you’re thinking about leaving, it should be understood/You’ll be leaving from this city, in coffin made of wood,” Jackson sneers — while Presley and Carpenter show up on the feminist anthem “Good Girl Down,” which originally appeared on Presley’s 2017 album Wrangled. But though she’s rounded up an impressive collection of talented collaborators, Jackson remains front-and-center through it all.
Jackson enjoyed a bit of a late-career resurgence back in 2011 thanks to her Jack White-produced album The Party Ain’t Over, which saw her tackling covers of Amy Winehouse, Bob Dylan and Little Richard. But even though we’re a decade removed from that record and Encore stands as her 32nd and final studio LP, she sounds fully capable of keeping the party going for a few more years. Vocally, she’s still in fine form, and — perhaps more importantly — the attitude that set her apart from her peers in the 1950s is still there. On “Treat Me Like a Lady,” she defies all the stereotypes about genteel older ladies, singing, “High heels, high hair, cherry-red lips, low-cut dress hugging my hips. I know what you’re thinking, I can read your mind, but with a woman like me you better take your time.” Elsewhere, she covers Jett’s naughty “You Drive Me Wild,” which first appeared on The Runaways’ debut album in 1976 — a bit of a full-circle moment in which the elder stateswoman closes out her career by covering the first song a teenage Jett ever wrote.
Ultimately, Encore is a perfect footnote to Jackson’s legendary career and a reminder of her remarkable talent. To hear her so unconcerned with the types of songs someone her age is “supposed” to sing is refreshing; she never did give in to pressure to dress or act a certain way — or, even more significantly, to have a racially integrated band at a time when doing so caused her to lose out on some gigs — so why should she start now? There’s something to be sad for remaining true to yourself till the very end, and Jackson has never faltered there in over six decades. Even if we discount the excellent, infectious music, that alone makes her career one we can only hope will continue to be emulated by future generations long after she’s gone.
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