Wynonna Judd Is Right Back Where She Started, for Better and Worse [Interview]
Wynonna Judd admits she's not doing well. There have been good days since her mother Naomi Judd died by suicide on April 30, 2022, but she'll stop short of saying — about 17 months later — those outnumber the bad.
"Highs are high and the lows are low, baby," she tells Taste of Country. "Not gonna lie. There are days where I'm just as confused as I've ever been in my life."
"I was devastated. I was young and impressionable and I was passionate about the music, yet I was lost."
In a couple of hours, she'll get to spend time with her granddaughter, and that helps keep her present in the moment. Sometime soon, she's likely to drive by an old memory that may set her back. Recently, Naomi Judd's husband, Larry Strickland, sold the house they shared on the border of Wynonna's 500 acres in Middle Tennessee.
"The house is sold. The furniture is gone," Judd says. "Ashley (sister Ashley Judd, who also lives nearby) and I went over to the house recently, and it's empty, and that was quite a kick in the gut."
Writing, recording — a new album gets a little closer every week — and performing have helped, so it makes sense that in October she'll begin the Back to Wy Tour in Indianapolis. Her return to the road comes seven months after finishing the Judds Final Tour.
"I'm right back where I started," she'll say, referring to more than just her career as a solo artist. By choosing to perform her first two albums back-to-back in their entirety, Judd has chosen to relive a kind of death from 30 years ago. Fans may recall early '90s Wynonna as a confident boss of a performer who filled the stage and radio speakers.
She remembers it quite differently.
Taste of Country: Where were you at mentally when you went to begin recording the Wynonna album (released in 1992)?
Wynonna Judd: I was devastated. I was young and impressionable, and I was passionate about the music, yet I was lost. I had just finished a tour with Mom, and I was in that sort of funeral place, sort of experiencing the death of something that was remarkable for eight years. I had a tour with my mom every year. We always did everything together, and it was mom and daughter, and then all of a sudden, I'm by myself, and so it was a death. Yet, it was a transition to being reborn.
So I was heartbroken, and yet I kept hearing new songs, and I'll be honest, that's what fed me, because I had something to do, somewhere to go and somewhere to turn my pain into purpose. I took all of that angst and sang — after "Love Can Build a Bridge" was the last song I ever sang with Mom — to "She Is His Only Need," and I gave everything I had to that song. I remember singing it 20 and 30 times with Tony Brown as my producer, just snotting through the entire production of it and just walking through it, man. You can't go around it, you gotta go through it, and I did. It was the most remarkable and painful rebirth I've ever experienced.
How confident were you then that you could have success as a solo artist?
None. As a matter of fact, we hired people to help counsel me and walk me through how to just — it's like anything else, you get a wedding planner, somebody you can look to for direction, somebody you can talk to about, "I love these flowers" and they help you decide where to put them. I had to walk through an incredibly painful time of not knowing where to go. Even on stage, I remember feeling a bit lost because I was used to standing with a guitar and mom's the twirler and the one who's a little bit more extrovert. I had to learn all over again how to be on stage by myself.
You had three straight No. 1s ("She Is His Only Need," "I Saw the Light" and "No One Else on Earth"), so 30 years later, it looks like radio embraced you, but was that a fight as well?
No, that wasn't. That was the part of my life that I just could rest in and know that God's got me. I just knew it. I knew that the music would carry me. I have such great stories with Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn teaching me how to be an artist and follow my convictions and I just remember thinking, "That's my strength."
Was there another solo artist who really supported you?
They all did. My very first tour was George Strait. He's always been somebody in my life that I've looked to for strength. Down to Marty Stuart, who prays for me. He and Connie (Stuart's wife, artist Connie Smith) are sort of like my parents for prayer. I just had all these artists that come up to me. Hank Williams Jr. ... I have an interesting array of friends in the music business, from Brandi Carlile to Bonnie Raitt to Joni Mitchell, who literally wrap their arms around me and say, "Carry On."
It's interesting you mention George Strait, because we hear so many great things about him, but never about him in a support or mentor role. Can you share an example of how he was there for you?
The thing about George is, you pick up where you leave off. He was there during the memorial period with my mom and he just — he has a strength about him that, it doesn't take a lot for George to say much, but he looked right at me and said, "I love you, Wy." And I said I love you too, and he knows that I do because he was my first tour in 1985 ... and these people just stand there strong like an oak tree. They're just strong and they're there and they support you. If I called him tomorrow, he would probably say very little. He's not a man of many words, but he's there.
Which songs on either of these two albums — Wynonna and Tell Me Why — do you hear now through different ears?
"Only Love." That's a staple. I sing "Love Can Build a Bridge" every night. I sing "Love Is Alive" every night and "Only Love" has been one of my prayer kind of songs that just takes me to a place that I need to go every night, where I stand there and just bask in the glow and I can feel the Holy Spirit. It's one of those songs that no matter what I'm going through, I can just be myself and let it carry me. I'm somewhere between heaven and Earth when I sing that song.
There was a somber tone throughout the Judds Final Tour even though it was a celebration of the music and your career. Will you be able to shed that for the solo tour?
Oh, I'll cry. I cry all the time. I keep Kleenex in my bra. I just cry all the time and I think that's natural for me at this time because, you know when mom committed suicide, it was something that I can't breathe. and I can't think of a worse thing to go through for anybody in this life. When you lose somebody to suicide, there's a whole mystery there of never knowing why. So I'd cry all the time, and I think that's necessary. That's who I am. That's why I sing the way I do, and it allows me to continue to be an honest artist.
There's quite a bit of recognition of your music and career coming up. You're receiving the Country Champion Award at the 2023 People's Choice Country Awards — do you enjoy this part of your career where you're being celebrated?
I do. It's so weird. I'll be honest — and I'm sure some of them don't know what I've done, and I have to remind myself there's a whole new generation of people that don't know your her-story. So it is nice to go out there and stomp around for a minute and remind them of who was boss.