Gretchen Wilson leaves little to chance on "All Jacked Up," consolidating the massive fan base she garnered after last year's stunning debut, "Here for the Party," with a mostly formulaic follow-up. And why not? The best thing Wilson has going for her is a bio that exudes hardscrabble integrity and country-western bona fides.
Born into poverty to a too-young mother and a dad who left when she was a toddler, by her early teens she was living on her own and tending a backwoods bar on the outskirts of Pocahontas, Ill. Even if she wanted to turn her back on anthems such as "Redneck Woman," which helped sell 4 million copies of "Party," removing brass from an attitude is even tougher than scouring dirt from fingernails or scraping wet clumps of sod off a boot heel.
So Wilson once again teams up with writer-producer John Rich, whose rollicking band Big & Rich was her closest competitor for the title of best new country artist in 2004. And just like her first record, she and Rich lead off with a rockin' title track that's a besotted tall tale of drinking, flirting and -- upping the ante a little this time -- brawling with a jealous woman and bashing out the window of her locked truck. Likewise, "California Girls" is this year's "Redneck Woman," with shout-outs to George Jones and Merle Haggard instead of Lynyrd Skynyrd and George Strait, sideswipes at "Hollywood types" in their "size zeros" instead of Barbie dolls and celebrating eating chicken and dirty dancing instead of drinking beer and wearing Wal-Mart lingerie.
Wilson is both clever and credible invoking her cultural talismans and puncturing sophisticated airs. Calling motherhood a "Full Time Job" is hardly a novel concept, but it's a tonic to hear a singer fling herself into the subject with the fervor others reserve for love songs, to empathize rather than preach. "Skoal Ring" takes the tongue-in-cheek approach to a new level, as Wilson waxes about the sex appeal of a mouthful of chaw. In case you still don't get her drift, she brings on Haggard, the original Okie From Muskogee, for a vocal duet on the reactionary "Politically Uncorrect."
Like "Here for the Party," "All Jacked Up" leads off with a bang and suffers from haphazard quality the rest of the way. The chorus of "Skoal Ring" is too reminiscent of "Games People Play," "One Bud Wiser" is a horrible pun even by country standards, and "Raining on Me" and "He Ain't Even Cold Yet" fail at pathos. You get the impression that Wilson is too much of a survivor to indulge in much pity. The best songs invariably bear her own lyrics and emotional experience, including the "no brag, just fact" acknowledgment of her stardom on "Not Bad for a Bartender."
If you click off "All Jacked Up" after the 11 songs listed on the liner notes, you'll miss a pleasant bonus: Wilson's tender, self-assured take on the Billie Holiday song "Good Morning Heartache." Not surprisingly, it was one of Wilson's favorite things to sing while growing up, and the memory stirs something in this emotionally tactile performer that the other would-be weepers can't touch.