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Still a vital force in rockabilly, Jackson shows why

LEXINGTON -- How fitting that Wanda Jackson, pioneering rock 'n' roll singer and rockabilly originator, should play at a shrine to American ingenuity like the National Heritage Museum. But, as the ``Queen of Rockabilly" proved during a satisfying set before a near-full house Saturday night, the sprightly 68-year-old isn't any fossilized museum piece or solemn statue.

Statues don't play custom-made guitars, joust warmly with adoring audiences, or release vital new albums that summon the spirit of Sun Records. Nearly 50 years to the day after she recorded her signature smash single, ``Let's Have a Party," in 1956, Jackson is still doing all of these things.

Maybe that's why, as absurd as it sounds, she still isn't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: You can't etch an epitaph while the story's still being written.

Dressed smartly in black slacks and a red, flapper-style fringed blouse that set off her forest of jet-black hair, and superbly backed by the similarly dapper Lustre Kings, a crack rockabilly outfit from Albany, N.Y., Jackson was forced to demonstrate that feisty spirit early. It looked like trouble when her wiry, Dolly-Parton-meets-Minnie-Mouse-at-the sock-hop voice -- which over five decades has sung alongside Elvises Presley and Costello -- threatened to desert her on ``Mean Mean Man," only the second song of her 60-minute set.

She wrestled with the dips and swoops of the melody, and somehow (perhaps with the aid of a cup of hot tea) found that polecat pitch. She tamed the voice just in time to unleash it again on the greased-up ``Good Rockin' Tonight" and a clutch of other Presley classics she commemorates on her latest CD, ``I Remember Elvis."

Unlike so many curled-lip pretenders to the throne, Jackson toured with Presley. She also dated him (``I still have the ring, girls," she said ) and as a fledgling country singer was encouraged by him to try her hand at this newfangled thing called rock 'n' roll. She took his words to heart.

Strumming a pink acoustic guitar, Jackson rendered ``Heartbreak Hotel," the wild flame of the song lowered to a sexy smolder, and ``I Forgot to Remember to Forget," with a restored second verse the King had originally omitted. They were burnished gemstones, simple yet brilliant. Behind her, the Lustre Kings swung with impeccable, effortless elan, buffing the bedrock melodies until they were shiny and smooth.

Jackson's charming asides, playful wit, and comedian's timing suggested what her own compositions brought home. The diminutive singer is one sharp cookie , not merely a n ingenue interpreter of other people's material, but a songwriter too, equally at home with gospel, pop, and country.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame may not yet have made room for her, but Jackson's American roots music proved a perfect fit for the history on display here. Amid all the gleaming bronze plaques of men that lined the museum walls, the sparkler from Oklahoma outshone them all.

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