|WYNONNA BY THE NUMBERS 3: Number of famous relatives (mother Naomi Judd, sister Ashley Judd, brother-in-law and auto racer Dario Franchitti) 5: Years since last album (2003’s What the World Needs Now Is Love) 10: Million-plus solo albums sold 20: No. 1 hits 61: Awards won during her career (including those with the Judds) (Sources: billboard.com; wynonna.com; grammy.com; acmcountry.com)|
Country music—the sort not practiced by Taylor Swift—is notoriously rough-and-tumble. Its classics involve enough anguish and angst to send the perkiest pop star scrambling for cover.
So what does it say about a performer whose own life could very well be a country song?
Call it “Peaks and Valleys”—Kentucky native Wynonna Judd has had plenty of both during her two-decade-plus career. From dealing with divorce, “food addiction” and familial turmoil to basking in millions of albums sold, armloads of industry awards, a best-selling book and two beloved children, Wynonna has remained one of Nashville’s maverick legends, a peerless vocalist and self-described “musical troublemaker.”
She is a superstar, but more important, she is a survivor.
In conversation, she speaks with the implacable conviction of someone who has been down dark roads, faced unpleasant truths and survived. Wynonna is candid almost to the point of bluntness. It wasn’t always this way. The woman born Christina Ciminella waited a long time to pull back the curtain, starting with 2005’s autobiographical “Coming Home to Myself.”
As Wynonna points out, she’s been succeeding and struggling in full view of the public since the tender age of 18. It’s understandable that now, at 43, she feels comfortable enough to “lift the veil.”
“I think this is a response to seeing how much BS there is in the industry,” Wynonna says in a telephone interview. “I was responding to all of the disease and denial I see in my life and my surroundings in this business. I see a lot of people, bottom line, walking around in absolute delusion.
“It was my intuition saying I would rather be known in my recovery than isolated in my disease and continue to not be known fully.”
Wynonna’s career path is pretty much passe, as the new school of Nashville talent leaps into the spotlight via televised talent competitions and MySpace profiles.
No longer do hungry young performers spend months and years gigging in dead-end bars or at industry conferences in the hopes of catching someone’s ear (of course, to be fair, Wynonna did have a bit of a leg up, with the Judds). The result of the fast track to fame these days are songs that have the durability of a paper plate: empty, pithy works that don’t have the heft and heart of the classics, the kind Wynonna has not only created but fears are slipping from view entirely.
“This next generation is just missing out,” Wynonna says. “I was talking to a teenager recently who didn’t know who James Taylor was. I thought I was going to fall on the floor. ... (So) I’m sad and I’m also encouraged—all I can do is my part. I played (my daughter) Gracie one of the songs I’m recording—she was singing it around the house and I thought, `That’s a good sign.’”
Wynonna hasn’t released any fresh material since 2003’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love” (2005’s “Her Story: Scenes From a Lifetime” was a double live album; 2006’s “A Classic Christmas” was predominantly Yuletide standards).
She’s at work on a new, as-yet-untitled album—her fourth solo record—with Don Potter and Brent Maher, that she says conveys the breadth and depth of her creative existence to date.
“I’m driven by the melody and I’m driven by the passion nowadays,” Wynonna says. “I’ve lived long enough with my career—22 years this year—(that) this album is a reflection of my musical journey. ... I’ve officially reached a place in my life where my voice can represent all these different genres—I’ve lived them.”
But it’s not the only thing she’s focused on: She’ll reunite with her mother, Naomi, to perform as the Judds for the first time in seven years Saturday at the 2008 Stagecoach country music festival in Indio, Calif.
The vocalist readily agrees that the last few years of recovery and revelation have made it easier in the studio and onstage. The notion of “to thine ownself be true” resonates for her.
“I think it’s just, bottom line, you see a lot of people behaving differently at work than at home,” Wynonna says.
It’s that life—and the pains Wynonna has taken to share it with the public, warts and all—that allows her to say things that, coming from anyone else, would sound pretentious.
“My hope is that when someone leaves the performance hall, they feel better about themselves in a very basic, fundamental way,” Wynonna says. “I don’t go out onstage and pretend to wear the rose-colored glasses and say everything’s perfect. What I do is go out and pretty much speak what I think is the truth, which is we are perfectly imperfect.”