Wynonna Judd enjoyed a reputation as a diva. She called herself the She Elvis (or “Shelvis” and demanded attention be paid to her big, glorious county voice or whatever subject she chose to pontificate on. Her persona was bigger than her life and branded her into a salesperson for a whole host of non-musical items and a subject of People magazine stories. Her record releases became less frequent and important it seemed. Until now.
Wynonna and her husband Cactus Moser mostly recorded Wynonna and the Big Noise’s self-titled debut album in their rural home studio on the farm in Tennessee. The biggest change on this record from Wynonna’s previous ones (this is the first one of new music in 13 years) is how well she integrates the band into the creative process. They are not there to set a platform for Judd’s vocals, but to serve the songs. This time she kicks butt as a world-class singer with excellent material and a top-notch band all working together.
That doesn’t mean Wynonna doesn’t belt put the words and growl anymore. She and Susan Tedeschi get real, real bloozy on “Ain’t No Thing” (a song co-written by Chris Stapleton). The two voices blend like whiskey that has a smooth taste and a coarse after burn. Meanwhile, the band raises a ruckus that evokes both the sound of a railroad crossing warning signal and the roll of the wheels on the tracks. It’s hot stuff that keeps one hopping.
Wynonna emits a different type of heat on R&B maven Raphael Saadiq’s “Staying in Love”. She achingly croons about love and making it last with a sly nod to the temptations of cheating. Wynonna whispers with passion even as she knows passion can be a dangerous thing. The beat incessantly moves forward in counterbalance to Wynonna’s declaration to remain steadfast. The struggle between clashing desires results in a deeper and richer experience.
The acoustic version of Timothy B. Schmit’s “I Can See Everything” (preformed with Schmit), takes this moral point even further. What if you could see everything in your true love’s smile, including the fact that you lover is bound to leave you someday? And this is the result of the elements you love most about the other person—the things that make that person special? Wynonna sounds vulnerable but she doesn’t bleed. She understands the magic of empathy to transform pain into something more transcendent—a double vision of the world.
The other tracks reveal Wynonna and Moser’s good taste and selectivity. The hardscrabble landscape of aging on “Jesus and a Jukebox”, the sweet joy of “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast” and the gospel spirituality of “Things That I Lean On” (sung with Jason Isbell), reveal an intelligence and sensitivity to how music out of things words can only suggest. They are more than just poetry; they are lyrics in the highest sense. This is true of all dozen songs on the album.
Including one co-written by Wynonna and Moser (with the help of a couple others) that provides the record’s theme. “Every Ending (Is a New Beginning)” knows that everyone experiences tragedy and hurt. This can stop one from moving forward. One may not be able to change the bad things that happen, but one can change one’s attitude. This may appear facile advice, but the powerful way in which Wynonna and the Big Noise deliver the song makes one believe in its essential truth.
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