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Wanda Jackson

“Unfinished Business”

Sugar Hill Records

She was Elvis Presley’s first serious girlfriend and she still wears the cheap ring he gave her when she was still a teenager.

Bob Dylan called her an “atomic fireball” and Adele said her hit “Rollin’ in the Deep” wouldn’t exist without the influence of Jackson’s rockabilly.

Now you can add to her long list of fans not just Jack White — who produced her 2011 comeback album — but Justin Townes Earle, who makes his production debut here.

Unlike the hip, White-produced “The Party Ain’t Over,” Earle walks the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer through a set of old country, blues and rockabilly songs that recall her feisty early years.

Naturally, at age 75, Jackson’s voice isn’t what it used to be, but it is deeper and wiser and it suits the heartbreakers here as well as it does the flirty come-ons.

Earle, with his nicotine-stained tenor, joins Jackson for a winter/spring duet on the old rockabilly song, “Am I Even a Memory.” And Jackson covers Earle’s “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome,” a country weeper that sounds old enough to have been written by Hank Snow or Stonewall Jackson.

Townes Van Zandt gets some praise with a Pentecostal revival take on “Two Hands” and Steve Earle’s “Graveyard Shift” gets an early Sun Studios rock 'n' roll vibe.

 

Kevin Deal

“There Goes the Neighborhood”

Blind Fellow Records

Lots of great country music has been made by artists who still have a day job. On Kevin Deal’s music website, there’s a link to his masonry business.

But you don’t need to know that to detect the authenticity of these songs. From the opening cut, you can tell the Texas stonemason didn’t make this stuff up in a fancy hotel on the road.

And he’s not afraid to wear his faith on his sleeve, even if it is a little battered.

"There is a path of evil / There is a path that’s good / Hey, which one will you be on / When it’s there goes the neighborhood?” he sings in the front porch picking title cut.

In “Cosmic Accident,” over a pedal steel and upright bass, he considers the fate of the world.

“I’m riding this planet through the galaxy / On a path it seems to know,” he sings, his rough tenor dipping into Guy Clark territory.

In “Just Another Poet,” it’s Neil Young his faith is in, and he hopes for the best in the twangy “Finish Well.” And when he sings “Amazing Grace,” it sounds like a man who came to it the hard way.

 

The Walkaways

“Romance and Medicine”

self-released

After their 2008 debut, The Walkaways laid low for a few years. The album got a few flattering notices, but by then their brand of alt-country had fallen out of fashion.

Too bad.

The rocking, electric guitars over the pedal steel and piano recall alt-country’s early heyday of Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown. There’s some Springsteen in there, too, and some Mott the Hoople, Derek and the Dominos, Dylan, Lynryd Skynyrd and about 100 other Southern fried rockers.

The five-member Washington, D.C.-based band is fronted by lead singer Todd Daniel, whose wounded tenor sounds tailor-made for these tales of despair and redemption.

“Cemetery hours, break before the dawn / Something is devoured and something passes on,” he sings in the hard-driving “Leap Years.”

The band’s piano player, Mark Bower, is also a fine singer.

“The factory has been closed down so long / I couldn’t tell you what it made,” Bower sings in “Local Honey,” a bluegrassy song that mixes banjo and electric guitar.

So maybe “Romance and Medicine” doesn’t push alt-country into the future much, but it sure remembers how fun it used to be.

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