All Jacked Up
o single Grammy award is more notorious than the trophy for Best New Artist, which tends to have a strike rate of about 50%. The award often presages a fine career for women who win it (Sade, Mariah Carey, Sheryl Crow, and it would appear, Alicia Keys and Norah Jones), but generally isn’t such a hot indicator for men and groups (Marc Cohn, Arrested Development, Hootie & the Blowfish, Christopher Cross). Frankly, that’s not a promising sign for the 2005 winners, Maroon5 (four words: Hootie 2: Electric Boogaloo, and before those words unleash a torrent of hating, let me state clearly into the microphone that I like “This Love” and “She Will Be Loved” just as much as “Only Wanna Be With You” and “Let Her Cry,” which is a fair amount). My issue with their victory isn’t so much that they themselves won, but who didn’t—and I’m not talking about Kanye West, deserving though he was. Maroon5’s win was yet another victory for the middle of the road (which is generally the case when men and groups win, oddly enough), while a win for Gretchen Wilson would’ve been, yeah, a win for all the redneck women, but also for the up-by-your-own-bootstrappers, for the blue-collar/red-state nation, and, oh yeah, a win for excellent female country singer-songwriters.
Her debut, Here For the Party, was excellent, to be sure (one of my top 5 albums of 2004), but All Jacked Up is where Wilson shows she’s not just a one-shot—and show it she does. She co-wrote 7 of the album’s 12 tracks (including a “hidden” cover of Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning, Heartache”; more on that shortly) and has an album-spanning co-production credit (alongside Mark Wright and John Rich, and yes, he’s the Rich of Big & Rich), but more importantly shows a further breadth of talent on Jacked than she did on her debut.
Plenty of evidence to back up that claim can be found in “Good Morning, Heartache.” Tacked on at album’s end (at Wilson’s behest, as she felt it didn’t fit the flow of the album), it is, as Wilson herself introduces the track, “Four players, one microphone, one voice, one take.” There was no additional mixing, no cut-and-paste Pro-Tooling of this one; this “Heartache” is all the way live, with Wilson’s voice accompanied by only guitar, bass, drums, and a fiddle. And damned if she doesn’t pretty much nail it. Her voice isn’t up to Holiday’s standards, certainly (she’s likely tell you that herself), but it’s much prettier and clearer unadorned than you’d expect. This is the finest evidence yet that there’s so much more to Gretchen Wilson than rowdy beer-drinkin’ songs.
Lest you forget, however, she’s awfully good with rowdy beer-drinkin’ songs. The title track (and opener) of Jacked might sound like “Redneck Woman II” at first, but further listens prove that not to be the case—yeah, it’s a fun song, glorying in getting “all jacked up” but also providing a warning: “Don’t start no stuff when you’re all jacked up.” It’s also got a great fiddle lick and a Charlie Daniels feel to it. It’s followed by a superb answer song to Brian Wilson’s classic “California Girls” (with the same title) featuring the chorus “Ain’t you glad we ain’t all California girls / Ain’t you glad there’s still a few of us left that know how to rock your world / Ain’t afraid to eat fried chicken and dirty dance to Merle / Ain’t you glad we ain’t all California girls.” Well, damned right we are. Any more questions about Gretchen’s country cred? Sure, she could be faking it, but one listen tells you she’s not.
“Full Time Job” gives it up for the mothers in the house, while “Not Bad For A Bartender” is this album’s “Pocahontas Proud,” telling you how far Wilson’s come (and you know what? It is impressive). “One Bud Wiser” is obvious, sure, but it’s also clever, and how come no one’s come up with it before? The purposefully non-denominational (religion or otherwise) “Politically Uncorrect” features Ol’ Hag himself, and is better for it (who better to lend a voice to it?).
The album’s highlight is the ballad eight tracks in, “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today.” 35 years ago, this might’ve been Tammy Wynette’s, all string-laden and aching; Wilson’s arrangement is of course different (more subtle than Tammy’s would’ve been, for one), but her vocal performance is no less impressive, reminiscent of her last album’s “When I Think About Cheatin’.” This song’s an instant classic, one you’ll hear 20 years from now, and likely beyond. Just like its singer, who clearly has the chops, as a songwriter and a singer, to stick around for the long haul. At this point, Wilson looks like the most important new artist to hit country music since the Dixie Chicks (they’ll be back, don’t worry), and in her own way, she’s just as savvy as they’re not. All Jacked Up doesn’t let up—or let down—from start to finish, and shows that for Gretchen Wilson, well, she’s just getting started, y’all. She’ll make up for losing that Best New Artist Grammy in due time, trust.