"Always have to push," beefs the 73-year-old rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson to producer Jack White, just before launching into her version of Amy Winehouse's "I'm No Good." And push White does on The Party Ain't Over, which finds Jackson applying her brassy snarl to a wide swath of styles ranging from country to calypso. The results, not surprisingly, vary widely, but there are a lot more hits than misses.
The Oklahoma-born Jackson was 17 when she started recording in 1954, straddling the line between traditional country and nascent rockabilly. Her tight skirts and high heels pushed her decidedly toward the latter camp, scandalizing the country establishment but gaining the attention of such like-minded souls as Elvis Presley, with whom she enjoyed a brief, and subsequently much-mythologized, fling. (See Jackson's 2006 album I Remember Elvis for details.) She was nearly barred from her Opry debut for attempting to take the stage with bare shoulders, at the last minute grabbing what would be the first in a long line of fringed jackets.
As with his similar efforts on Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose, White is mindful of Jackson's past but not in thrall to it, crafting arrangements that are traditional without being slavish. At times, he pushes too hard. On the opening "Shakin' All Over," he slathers Jackson's voice in stuttering reverb, but you can still hear the strain as she reaches for her classic "Fujiyama Mama" growl.
With a few exceptions, the album works best when Jackson — and White — stray farthest from their roots. A soulful version of the Kitty Wells standard "Dust on the Bible," one of several songs first released as a single on White's Third Man imprint, bolsters Jackson's thinning voice without smothering it, and serves as a reminder of the nearly two decades when Jackson put aside her pop career to sing the gospel. She sprints through Bob Dylan's "Thunder on the Mountain" and lends a hard-worn weariness to Jimmie Rodgers's "Blue Yodel #6."
That Jackson still has it in her is not a shock; she's always sounded too tough to die. But it's a pleasant surprise to hear White turning his guitar to so many different styles, revealing a tuneful precision that would be out of step with the White Stripes' studied primitivism. It's Jackson's name on the cover, but it's as much White's album as hers.