The music healed me through a very big change. And that first album will always be my favorite because that album has my guts on it, man.Wynonna.1
Wynonna‘s life is a country song. Just look at her poverty-ridden childhood and her tumultuous relationship with her mom, Naomi, that saw her leave small-town Tennessee and become a singing superstar with said mother as the Judds. Her journey to fame and fortune was a series of peaks and valleys that often found itself in the most heartbreaking country tunes.
But she is far more than a careworn country music cliché. With Naomi, Wynonna sold millions of records and enjoyed a remarkable 20 top ten country hits. The mother-daughter pair were heralded as the most successful country duo of the 1980s, making their mark with their patented brand of sweet, dainty neotraditional country-pop tunes. Although their harmonies were breathtakingly beautiful, it was daughter Wynonna who constantly stole the show with her stunning voice.
Ah, yes. Wynonna’s voice. It’s an unlikely mélange of soul, country, blues, and rock. She’s got a seemingly limitless range that ran from delicate cooing to a sassy growl. Her singing reflects her disparate influences: Patsy Cline, Bonnie Raitt, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Bette Midler, and Elvis Presley. It’s an assertive rainbow of a voice, genuinely shocking in its beauty and singularity. No one else sounds like her.
The story of the Judds as a mother-daughter team is very old-fashioned. Naomi was the gifted brains behind the outfit, blueprinting their success, whereas Wynonna was the prodigious musical talent. The knotty and complicated dynamic between them made for some fascinating watching. Though the love was evident, there was a messy and complex layer to that love that was laced with resentment, rivalry, money, and superstardom. There was an element of Gypsy with the Judds, their dusty-pink harmonies belying the rawer nature of the pairing. They became known for their eccentricity and flamboyance, their storied relationship spilling over to their public image. Their backstage skirmishes and fights became the stuff of showbiz mythology.
At the height of their success and at the precipice of becoming legends, Naomi was diagnosed with hepatitis. This discovery prompted her to withdraw from music and touring, finding herself on a protracted hiatus. After a lengthy farewell tour, The Judds said a proper goodbye to their fans on 4 December 1991. Wynonna astutely observed that the final show was simultaneously an ending and a beginning: “It was the greatest goodbye, biggest in country music at the time. To say, ‘Hello, she’s coming up on her own'”. 2
After a decade of crooning with her mother to great acclaim, Wynonna’s first solo project was saddled with heavy expectations. This consequence is nothing new, though. When a beloved group disbands or if a key member of a band quits, there is usually a lot of interest in what happens next. Thus, Wynonna wasn’t the first performer tasked to chart a new career as a solo artist under heavy scrutiny. Diana Ross, each member of the Beatles, Michael and Jermaine Jackson, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Sting, and Debbie Harry were all members of legendary musical acts who sought fame outside the safety/restrictions of their prior group. As a result, there are always questions about how a performer will move on and whether they can make it. Wynonna harbored these doubts, too.
Part of her strategy for success was to change her sound slightly from the music she performed with her mom. For much of the 1980s, The Judds set themselves apart with their traditional, acoustic approach to country-pop. The decade saw many trends and shifts in country music that exposed the tension between tradition and pop music. Despite much of country music owing more to glitzy Hollywood and MTV than Nashville during that decade, neotraditional country music sought to return to the rootsier sounds of early C&W. The Judds were part of that neotraditional movement, applying their angelic harmonies to prettily classic country songs that were burnished just enough to be played on the radio.
So, for that debut LP, 1992’s Wynonna, she held on to her country roots while incorporating heavy influences of R&B, blues rock, and mainstream pop. The swagger and attitude inherent in rhythm and blues fit her gutsy vocals and her sassy attitude. Plus, her public persona was a fascinating mass of contradictions. Though she was known to be shy (in contrast to the brassy Naomi), Wynonna adopted a ferociously sassy persona as a solo artist. No longer having to hew her hurricane voice to airtight harmonies, she let loose her inimitable growl. As a result, she showed off a feisty and zesty image that departed from the more demure mother’s daughter she was as a member of the Judds.
On her first lone outing, she worked with two producers—Tony Brown and Paul Kennerley—who helped make the collection the perfect record for the early 1990s. After all, country music was seeing some unprecedented mainstream success as genre giants like Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, and Clint Black were combining the sounds of neotraditional country music with adult contemporary and pop. These artists packaged themselves as rock stars by performing in massive and elaborate stadium stage shows complete with pyrotechnics, backup dancers, electric guitars, jumbo screens, and flashy costumes.
This sleek take on country music mirrored the 1990s take on the New South that saw major urban areas in the southern states become homes to major companies. Progressive politicians like Ann Richards and Bill Clinton became symbols of the 1990s New South, personifying a sloganeered, slick version of the concept of the American South that referred to parts of the South becoming more urban, diverse, and urbane.
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason captured this modernization of the popular notion of the South with her sitcom, Designing Women. Bloodworth-Thomason’s show about four women who were products of the New South sought to highlight the urban side of the American South (as opposed to the more familiar rural side). Specifically, it looked at how seemingly Southern values and traditions—such as deep faith, emphasis on family and community, and conservative morals—existed alongside more contemporary ideas like gay rights, feminism, multiculturalism, and trendy consumerism.
The music that came out of this time spoke just as much to audiences of Michael Jackson as it did to Garth Brooks. Wynonna was a product of this glittery time in country music. The collection of love songs spoke to independent, smart women who were vulnerable but strong. Wynonna’s particular genius was that her broad voice could sound forlorn and lost or determined and decisive. Songs like “No One Else on Earth”, in particular, became cheerleading anthems for Wynonna’s fans.
The album’s first single, “She Is His Only Need”, is a highlight. It’s an early ’90s pop ballad update on the classic story song of an enduring love in which the man works himself to exhaustion to provide for his family. One of the themes of country music that’s endured despite the glossy trappings of contemporary trends is the tale of the working poor and engaging in hard labor. In fact, work has always been important in country music. Songwriter Dave Loggins writes a lovely tale that spans decades in just about four-and-a-half minutes.
In it, Billy and Bonnie fall in love, marry, have kids, and get old, all while Billy does everything he can to afford whatever he needs to express his love to Bonnie. Loggins’ hero is self-sacrificing, but this is a sweet valentine of a tune, and he makes sure listeners understand that Bonnie deserved Billy’s generosity. Wynonna narrates this romantic saga with a deep warmth, her toothsome voice paying tribute to the exemplary Billy. Loggins lets the story of Billy and Bonnie drift into an open ending, too, with the couple reaching late-middle age. They’re gray and watching their kids move away, the constant of Billy’s affection evergreen.
While the composition is classic country, Brown’s production is adult Top 40 pop. Though we hear the gentle strum of an acoustic guitar, keyboards coat the song. Loggins and country singer Judy Rodman join Wynonna for some stirring harmonies, elevating Billy to an everyday hero. Despite its glossy and overtly expensive production, the piece remains a touching elegy to the working man.
A common theme in country music is working hard to persevere through poverty because so many of its stars came from difficult, oft-meager backgrounds. Some of the flashy aesthetics of country stars can be traced back to growing up poor and seeing flash as a marker of wealth. Because Wynonna—like so many of her peers—grew up poor, she could conjure up the wealth of empathy in her beautiful voice to pay homage to all the Billys and Bonnies she’s encountered on her way. As she noted sagely of her humbler beginnings, “It’s a rags-to-riches story, and who doesn’t love that? And ours was better than anyone could’ve written”. 3
The sincerity and humanity in her performance offset the obvious contradiction and juxtaposition of a millionaire singing about a guy working overtime to buy his wife a ring. Yet, that’s the appeal and magic of great country music. The singer could’ve just stepped off a Gulfstream G700, shrugged off a mink fur, brandish diamonds and pearls on her neck, and still break hearts by performing a sense memory of grinding poverty.
That sincerity translates to other moods and sounds on Wynonna. Like a great actress, Wynonna delivers a library of feelings, and the album blends rocky tunes with bluesy numbers and heartfelt ballads. For instance, high-octane blues-rocker “What It Takes” opens the album, reminding listeners of Wynonna’s rumbling snarl of a voice. At the same time, the funky electric guitars show that this is quite a different Wynonna. Though not strictly a concept album, Wynonna could be seen as the semi-themed introduction of an artist who is free and in complete control of her sound.
Indeed, Wynonna channels the sounds and influences that shaped her artistry, such as with the sprightly “I Saw the Light”. It’s a satisfying slice of spry country-pop that highlights her commercial instincts. Elsewhere, the mediative ballad “When I Reach the Place I’m Going” operates as a transition for her fans, with Naomi joining with her pretty harmony vocals. As for Marty Stuart-led rocker “A Little Bit of Love (Goes a Long, Long Way)”, it indulges in Wynonna’s affection for Elvis Presley. Likewise, her strong faith is celebrated in the gospel closer, “Live with Jesus”. It bursts with fervor and conviction.
The album’s biggest hit, “No One Else on Earth”, became her signature hit and perfectly encapsulated her distinguished sound separate from the Judds. With its hot guitar licks and strutting beat, it’s an irresistibly groovy tune that recalls the best of Tina Turner, Bonnie Raitt, and Aretha Franklin. Also, the song’s soul showed how versatile contemporary country-pop can be. Its lyrics—penned by Jill Colucci, Stewart Harris, and Sam Lorber—talk of a love that practically unnerves the singer.
Despite Wynonna admitting, “I shivered once you broke into my soul / The damage is done now / I’m out of control now”, her confidence tells us that she’ll be fine. Her howl of “How did you get to me?” sounds rhetorical and bemused, too. Of course, humor is a large part of her appeal, and when she’s singing the faster, cheekier numbers, she does so with knowing wit. You can practically hear her eye roll sardonically as she throatily purrs a line like, “I can’t deny you even when I catch you / Weavin’ a weak alibi.”
The other important track from Wynonna is the beautiful ballad “My Strongest Weakness”. Like “She Is His Only Need”, this song establishes its creator as a premier pop balladeer. At best, the tune’s country-adjacent, existing as a sentimental pop song that would sound home on A/C radio (I mean, just listen to that keyboard intro). There’s a prescience to it, as it pointed to the impending trend of female country singers of the 1990s finding huge mainstream crossover success recording lush pop ballads. People like Faith Hill, Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, and Lee Ann Womack scored massive pop hits on the Billboard charts with sentimental pop odes like “My Strongest Weakness”.
“My Strongest Weakness” is most significant, however, because Naomi wrote it. According to Wynonna, work on the solo debut began while she was touring with her mother for their farewell tour. She likened working on the solo record while touring as a Judd to having an affair. Naomi’s departure was imminent, so it was clear that Wynonna had to create a new persona and sound of her own, divorced from her time with the Judds.
When she emerged as a solo artist, it was clear that she wasn’t interested in just being a vocalist. Instead, she had to be an entertainer and performer. Costumes were always important for her stage shows, but without her mom, she could explore sensuality and sexiness. She would often wear leather, rhinestone bustiers, and low-cut outfits. Her distinct look also found her rocking neon pumpkin tresses and startling makeup. She would wear headset microphones onstage, too, and not just so that she could play the guitar. She also needed her hands to be free so that she could dance and move around during uptempo numbers. When guesting on country singer John Rich’s show The Pursuit!, he praised her look and showmanship at the halftime show of Super Bowl XXVIII, comparing her to Janet Jackson. The comparison seemed apt because Wynonna, like most country singers of the early ’90s, was looking to pop stars’ playbooks.
Her flamboyant look attracted the attention of drag queens. Of her vast gay following, she enthused:
Are you kidding me? It’s the highlight for me. Halloween. I’m like, “How many men are going to be me for Halloween?” That’s all I care about. That’s when you know you’ve really made it. You just want to see [drag queens], like impersonate you. You’re like, “Yes!”4
Upon release, Wynonna sold over five million copies. All four of its singles reached the top five on the US country charts, with three even going to number one. The following year, she beat the sophomore slump with the platinum-selling Tell Me Why, which would net her more top ten country hits. She continued with more studio albums (one more platinum-seller and another that went gold), further hits on the country charts, a Christmas record, compilations, and a live album. In addition, she toured and appeared regularly on television—particularly on award shows and chat shows, where her sharp, sardonic wit made her a great guest. More recently, she also shared her struggles with family and health with her audiences, writing the 2005 memoir Coming Home to Myself and appearing with her mother on The Judds, a reality show on Oprah Winfrey’s cable channel.
Now, 30 years after Wynonna, Wynonna is a bona fide country legend. The image and sound she crafted with that album followed her throughout the subsequent three decades of solo work. Hence, it’s understandable that she once called her first album her favorite since it captures her specific brilliance wonderfully.
1 Tellalian, Gary, writer. “Wynonna.” Intimate Portrait. Lifetime Television, 9 Nov 1997.
2 Rich, John, host. “Wynonna Judd on the ‘greatest goodbye’ in country music.” The Pursuit! With John Rich. Fox Business, YouTube Channel, 7 Oct 2021.
3 Ferrier, Lindsay, writer. “Wynonna Judd.” Inside Fame. CMT, 2003.
4 Behar, Joy, host. “Wynonna Judd.” The Joy Behar Show. HLN, 25 Nov 2010.