Music

Wynonna Judd on Her Hardest and Most Enthusiastic Music

Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Hello, sister,” Wynonna Judd intones with disarming enthusiasm. It’s the same kind of unapologetic force anyone who’s heard her powerful voice in person would recognize, but instead of filling an arena it’s concentrated through my tinny cell-phone speaker.

Judd is calling from Mexico, where she performed with Brandi Carlile at the singer-songwriter’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend festival. The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir is in town, too, and has just asked her if she wants to go out to dinner.

“He has no idea that it’s my mom’s birthday,” Judd says, sounding far more appreciative of the distraction and camaraderie than saddened. “My life is so weird, sometimes I almost can’t believe it. It’s like a movie I’m watching from the outside.”

Wynonna and I are talking, by coincidence, on Naomi Judd’s first birthday since her death last April, the day before the iconic mother-daughter duo were scheduled to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. They were also slated to hit the road together for the first time in more than a decade later that fall — a trip Wynonna elected to proceed with, alongside an all-star cast of duet partners. The response to the tour has been so overwhelming that she’s added 15 more dates for 2023.

In the 1980s, the Kentucky-bred Judds revolutionized their genre, notching 14 No. 1 country songs and winning five Grammys. Wynonna’s rich, distinctive voice was supported by her mother’s blues-tinged Appalachian harmonies and the warm, spare, mostly acoustic production from Brent Maher. When Wynonna was compelled to go solo following her mother’s hepatitis C diagnosis in 1992, the younger Judd stretched outside of country to great effect (if you were alive in the ’90s, “No One Else On Earth” was probably stuck in your head at some point). More recently, she’s dabbled in Americana with her band the Big Noise and collaborated with the likes of Jason Isbell and Susan Tedeschi; now, she’s working on more new music.

“I’m coming up on the 40th anniversary of my career,” she says. “I marvel at the highs and the lows because they’re so high and they’re so low. My grandbaby was born ten days before my mother died. You tell me what’s goin’ on. This is nine months after she left, and I’m still grieving, and I’m still on tour. The fans have literally wrapped me in this blanket of absolute love and adoration, and I get so dizzy I have to sit down.”

Although she’s no stranger to the limelight (or the tabloids), it’s still been an odd and painful time for Judd to be experiencing something of a career renaissance. But she’s trying to take advantage as much as she can, for the therapy of it if nothing else.

“We’re going to be on the road for eternity,” she says. “As you get older, you realize you don’t have to ask people’s permission.” She laughs. “I want to get away with as much as possible. That’s the end of my interview.”

I’m a songwriter, and I think people often forget about the songwriters. I would say Paul Kennerley. He wrote “Cry Myself to Sleep” and “Young Love” — they’re so different, but they’re both so the epitome of the Judds.

All those guys that wrote songs for us also hung out with us — they weren’t just songwriters that handed us a tape. Yes, I said tape. Back in the day, we called that the Nashville handshake. We went to their houses and had dinner; we knew the kids’ names and the husbands’ and wives’ names. We all connected on such a deep level. The Judds are, to me, one of the great love stories of success in a way, because it was never just about statistics. It was about the soul. These songwriters knew us so well that it was like having an outfit handmade for you. You put it on and you just walk out going, Oh, hell yeah. That’s how a great song feels for me.

I don’t know if there is one. I’ve got it down, I think, because I work a lot. When I was in a studio for years and years and years, I worked really hard at not flying vocals, mostly because in 1984 we didn’t have the technology to do all that. So I had to sing every single note, and I think it made me stronger. It’s almost like the weight lifter who had to lift with buckets of sand; we just come from a different place of heaviness. That’s how we got the muscle. We did it differently.

Back when I was starting out, we had to sing the entire song every single time — you couldn’t go back and fix just the chorus or the bridge. Sometimes it was 20 times in a session that I’d be singing the whole song. So my muscle is still strong and I’m grateful for it. I mean, there are nights when I don’t feel as strong. Sometimes it just isn’t there, and you have to figure out another stance. So that’s what I do — I go out onstage, I find another stance, I sing it differently. But for the most part I can get there, because I’ve worked so hard at strengthening the vocals and continuing to use them every single day. Use it or lose it, that’s kind of where I’m at.

When Bonnie Raitt won all her Grammys for Nick of Time, and we all saw her go from zero to 100 … She’s been my shero since I was a teenager. That was a record that I was listening to religiously. It was my manual of how to operate, just because of the authenticity. The songs were so honest and real. I just felt like, Oh my God, I want to be that. I want to be like her because she is so believable. Meeting her early on was one of my happiest memories of my life.

Aretha. I have a picture with her, and she was like, “I love you and your mama.” I remember thinking, Can I get that in writing? If I had had a phone, I would have made her do it on-camera.

I think all the time about Mom and I at the 1984 Grammys. Everyone from Tina Turner to Elton John — all these greats — were fans. I felt like I had gotten into a party without an invitation, like I had won the lottery. I didn’t feel like I had earned it. I didn’t have years and years of playing shows or doing bar gigs and making it through all that. I felt so young and so overwhelmed. All these people that I grew up with … Johnny Cash comes to mind. He was a huge fan. And he became a mentor. So it was like, Oh, my goodness, this is about the best it’s ever gonna get.

“Rockin’ With the Rhythm of the Rain.” I think they’re just so infectious. Isn’t it the corniest? It’s the kind of corny where you’re like, I don’t know if I love this or not, but I can’t help but sing it because it’s in my head. [Starts singing.]

Brandi sang it last night — she was like, “I want you to do it,” because she loves that lower part. She was so into that, I’m telling you, it was like she was a Judd. It was so cute. She kissed me on my cheek. And I was like, “Yep, we’re bonded for life.”

My initial decision was no. I was going through such hell, it felt like I couldn’t see anything. I was blinded by the sadness. It was like trying to paint a picture with your eyes closed. How’s that picture gonna turn out? So I went to people that I really love and trust and got counsel. These people said things like, “I think it’s important for you to remember that the fans are there for you. I think it’s important to remember that the music is healing.” I just thought about it. Listening to my gut, my body, my mind, it felt like I could either stay stuck in this place I was in, or I could get up and move. I think it’s important to dance, I think it’s important to walk, I think it’s important to speak your heart. And I thought, Well, crap. That’s what I would be doing on tour.

When you’re depressed, for anyone reading this, the one thing they tell you to do is move. Move your body. Because it makes you feel better. Isn’t that simple! It’s not easy to do, because you want to stay in bed. Like right now, I’m walking around the room. Because it’s important for me to move and groove, as they say. So the tour became my move and groove.

No smoking, and please watch your drinking. Obviously, those are the two things that I’ve seen other artists struggle with. The highs are high and the lows are low, and that’s why sometimes we want to do stuff to sort of maintain that high. I get it, I understand it very much. Let’s put it this way: The times I did stay out late and I talked too much — which I have a propensity for — I’m now trying to listen more, not stay up late, and watch my voice. I would also say rest, rest, rest, rest. That is what’s helped me more than anything. This tour is kicking my butt. Twenty-six songs a night, three shows a week. That’s a lot of working out.

“Barracuda.” I sang that with Ann Wilson and I thought, This is outrageous. No, seriously, if you go on YouTube and listen to it, I am so intimidated by that woman. She sings flat footed, like she’s just standing there talking to you. Oh my goodness. Anything that Ann Wilson sings, especially those high ones … “Love Hurts” almost killed me. “Barracuda”? I just think those notes are from another planet.

Those rock songs, people have no idea. “Welcome to the Jungle”? That kicked my ass. Axl sings his butt off. Nobody realizes that because he seems like he’s screaming. He is screaming, but then he’s singing like a freakin’ jazz artist. And then he’s singing like it’s an aria.

“Love Can Build a Bridge,” because that’s when she appears on the screen . It’s definitely the heaviest — it was the last song we sang together onstage when we ended our tour as the Judds because Mom had to retire.

We now do a fan-club soundcheck — we invite a couple hundred fans, we do a Q&A. It’s really an opportunity for me to connect with them on an intimate level that’s not about ticket sales. It’s this wonderful fellowship; it’s turned into like a meeting — almost like a 12-step meeting, sometimes. I just feel so loved and so supported, and I get to talk and listen to their stories. It’s just this communal-love thing. Anyway, I’m onstage for this soundcheck, and right before we started, they were playing the video behind me on “Love Can Build a Bridge” and I heard my mother by herself singing the harmony. And without even missing a beat, I turned around and looked at the screen and said, “Mom, I’ve lost 20 pounds.” My husband started laughing. He said, “Honey, it’s still happening.” It just caught me off guard — that was a knee-jerk reaction. Like, oh, there’s my mother. “I’m a good girl, I promise. I’ve done my chores.” I mean, that’s me to a T. I live in the moment, and the moments are sudden, and sometimes they kick my butt and they take my breath away. And then sometimes I just start to weep. And during that one, I just happened to whip around and say something snarky, because isn’t that what we do to our mothers?

Spandex, baby! I wore Spandex and Candies, with the wooden heel, on Austin City Limits. I thought I was Miss Hot Tamale. Another time, I wore a black vinyl jacket like Elvis and matching vinyl pants, which I wore with boots that were made of … vinyl. I was like, Don’t even mess with me. I think they were in the Country Music Hall of Fame for a minute. My mother wore a red vinyl dress, with all of these petticoats and layers, and I wore a black vinyl suit with vinyl boots. Thank you, have a nice day. We wore those outfits onstage at Madison Square Garden.

It was at soundcheck. No, seriously. I met Ann Wilson when I was 16. I went to their shows, and I was around all these rock groups, Ratt, Heart … I knew Bono when I was 17. I would be at soundcheck and Cactus Moser, my now-husband who toured with us for a year as a member of Highway 101, remembers seeing me and saying, “That chick rocks.” At soundcheck, I was free to sing like Ann Wilson and Bonnie Raitt — all these women that I emulated and looked up to — and then I would go onstage later that night and behave.

Cactus Moser, chiming in: I said, “You know, she’s okay — she has some talent, but maybe I can really help her bring that talent to the surface.” [Laughs.] No, no. I saw a whole different side of her. There was another gear or two, like she was a Ferrari that was parked in the garage — it was really great just sitting there, but then I saw the fifth and sixth gears start to show up. Her mom wasn’t there, she was just with the band, and she was singing for fun. It was a whole release of this other sort of freedom that I had not seen. I knew she was great just from what you hear in the songs of the Judds. But when she started playing with rhythmic structure and melodic structure and just kind of being free, I was like, “There’s something way more involved and deep in this woman than just what I’ve heard.”

Wynonna: I love what you said, honey, about the Ferrari. I’m gonna go with that. Is it a red Ferrari? Yes.

Nights are difficult for me still because after the show, Mom and I would sit up in the front of the bus, look out the windshield, and eat popcorn. So I tend to have a struggle with carbs at night because of her. I think about the comfort of sitting with her up in the front of the bus. I didn’t realize then, and of course I do now, how precious that time was. I’ll be honest, there are times when I get really sad and I miss her and it’s like, “Wow, I’m on this bus going down the highway, just like before.”

It’s a very strange dynamic because on one hand, it’s a million-dollar bus — the best of the best. But it’s not the same when you were 18 years old. She always had the back lounge so she could come through my room without knocking. A little resentment there, as I said that. [Laughs.] Just a little bit. And yet we sat in the front of the bus together every night. So yeah, I miss her.

I definitely go through a withdrawal after the show. I mean, every artist does because it’s like, all of a sudden, the lights are dim and the fans are gone, and it’s quiet. So I travel with two dogs to help me with the loneliness, that missing piece of the puzzle because she’s no longer there. I have a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who’s an absolute beauty. She has her own Instagram, for God’s sake. And I travel with a protection dog who is a Malinois trained by the Navy SEALs, for the obvious reason, you know.

“Love Is Alive” is when they take out their phones. They replaced the Bic lighters — now we have our phones with the white light. It’s the same sentiment, but just a different prop. That’s what I’m talking about, being wrapped in a blanket of white light. That’s how I feel during that song. That song elevates me to another level of existence.

I’m 58. For me, when I was 32 and singing the song, I had just had my second baby — what the crowd gave back was different. Today, after the pandemic, after people losing their jobs and losing lives, we are in a different place than ever before. Life and death experiences bring us to another place of listening. I’m now a grandmother. So I’m dealing with having a grandbaby, and then having my mother’s memorial.

So when I go out onstage, I’m singing from both places. The fans are reacting from that same sort of life and death experience place. It’s heavy. It’s sweet. It’s vulnerable. The emotion comes, and it knocks me out. I’m singing a song and all of a sudden, I look down and see somebody crying in the front row, and it hits me and I start to cry, because I remember she’s not here anymore. And all of a sudden, the song is different. I sing it differently. It’s holy in a way that has just increased over the years. I know that sounds heavy, but it’s just the way I feel about that song.

Rerecording and correcting a recorded vocal track in sections, a practice that is made extremely straightforward by digital recording software.
During the show, a video of Naomi Judd is projected behind Wynonna while a recording of her singing the harmonies on “Love Can Build A Bridge” plays.

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