There was a moment during the Nashville Bridgestone Arena stop of The Judds’ “The Final Tour” when Wynonna, flame-red hair tumbling down, stared into the eyes of Cactus Moser, her husband/manager/bandmate, and sang “Young Love.” In the middle of a big, big show with lots of hydraulic lifts, walks through the crowd, video montages and high-powered special guests, she managed to create an innocence and intimacy that defied everything about the spectacle these concerts were built to be.
With her mother, Naomi Judd, 76, taking her own life the night before The Judds’ induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Southern gothic possibilities of the teenage daughter, now 58, taking the show on the road were limitless. But for Wynonna, already an acclaimed ’90s solo icon, she wanted to transcend the drama and offer – as well as find – genuine healing in bringing music to so many people who’d found their own way of living and values validated in the acoustic-driven, Appalachia-informed country that was Judd music.
“Young Love,” almost completely unplugged, with the four musicians who make up the rest of Wynonna & the Big Noise in close proximity at the front of the stage, suggested who Wynonna was before the fame and also a woman reborn to the possibilities her uncanny talent offers. In a night of country classics – the frisky “Girls Night Out,” smoky “Love Is Alive,” angsty blues “Why Not Me” and the anthemic “Love Can Build A Bridge” – the night’s quietest song brought the sold-out arena to a hushed stop.
“I don’t sing as sweet and young and naïve as I was back then,” she marvels. “I have to be breathier; I have to consciously make myself get sweet. It makes me wonder how did this child get through all of that?
“Thankfully, I have a better understanding of who I am in the music. The past sure is a part of my future; I’m so steeped in this family tradition, as chaotic as it was. Some days, it feels like I’m walking through the past to get to the future…
“I have to be realistic [about all of this]. I didn’t sign on for the money. For me, it was something to do and heal from the pain and celebrate Mom. But we’re also going to take [these songs] and make something new. It’s all leading to: What does the next chapter look like?”
Having spent her time prior to COVID touring as part of the Big Noise, supplementing those shows with intimate performances at small theaters, boîtes like New York City’s swanky Carlyle Hotel and various City Winery outposts, the teenager who came of age playing hockey rinks and basketball arenas is exploring a far more musical and intimate approach to live.
“The Carlyle was like a jam band gig,” Moser says, half-laughing. “We’d just play – and see where’d we go, and where we’d end up.”
Pausing, he assesses the theoretical dangers of smaller rooms for his superstar wife. He explains, “That barrier builds a comfort zone. When you’re eye-to-eye with the audience, that’s honesty. You have to have talent – instead of production and vocal tuning – and that’s what sets my wife apart.
“Figure she learned how to be a star, what a headliner does, all those years ago. She was brilliantly funny and good at her job, but now she’s as tender or as growly or bluesy as she wants to be.”
Moser first met his collaborator and wife when his band, Academy of Country Music 1988 Vocal Group of the Year, Highway 101, opened for the “The Judds’ Farewell Tour” in 1989. The flashy drummer remembered going to soundcheck with bassist Curtis Stone; Wynonna was by herself with the band “and we both saw a Ferrari that wasn’t getting out of fourth gear most nights.”
Over the years, the pair ran into each other. Both had a passionate curiosity for music, as well as a “spark” neither acted upon. It took Moser producing “Love Out Loud,” a song co-written with Wynonna, to move things closer to their current collaborative states.
Wynonna Judd has had it all, multiple times. Massive arena tours. The best songwriters – and seminal hits that defined country music in the 1980s traditional resurgence, the massive ‘90s radio No. 1s, the soul-basted evolution of her later solo hits. Friendships and collaborations with Dwight Yoakam, Bono and the Edge, Bonnie Raitt, Bette Midler. Awards. Heck, even the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Raised a vagabond with Kentucky roots, she lived in Southern California as a child. Then her single mom moved to the Bay Area where the precocious pubescent started singing Hazel Dickens, Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris songs; sometimes hanging on the fringe of demi-Texas émigrés Asleep at the Wheel.
Fame came early. When most girls worried about prom and SATs, Wynonna held her own as rhythm guitarist and the smoldering voice of hillbilly yearning. Radio tours, TV shows, fittings, fans. She learned her lessons well.
Andy Kaulkin, former president of hardcore punk label Epitaph, went on to found Anti- Records as a place where truly musical legends can explore their artistic depths. Started with Tom Waits’ Mule Variations, Anti- has been home to Merle Haggard’s fascinating late career work, Mavis Staples, Solomon Burke, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Bettye LaVette, Booker T. and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, as well as Beth Orton, Neko Case, Michael Franti, Joe Henry, Milk Carton Kids, Wilco and Tricky.
While Anti- seems an unlikely home for a woman used to touring with a caravan of trucks and buses, Kaulkin is a music-first guy. He enthuses, “She is a torch singer, a blues singer, a soul rocker. There’s so much to her as an artist that’s never really been touched … There’s a sense of depth and wisdom to her that’s never been explored. The phoenix metaphor really fits here, because like Bonnie [Raitt], where the commercial success had eluded her with the more polished records, when she dug into that more personal space, everything exploded.
“Wynonna’s commitment to the moment is so powerful. The pathos and drama she can wring out of songs, often bringing her own struggles, there is no one like her.”
“No One Else On Earth,” to quote Wynonna’s 1992 No. 1 hit. To know, though, then unlearn, is daunting. But it’s reintroduced the statuesque vocalist to the duality inherent to her art and her being.
“It’s a two-sided coin,” the five-time Grammy winner allows. “One is tough and rowdy, the other is very tender. It’s a strange place to be, to balance – and it depends on what day it is. For years, I was trying to survive in all that chaos; I was dealing with the arguments [with her mother] on the bus, downright fist fights, and having our manager between us, saying, ‘Girls, you go on in an hour. You need to work this out…’
“Then I was a solo artist, and it was all on me. It’s lonely. You’re isolated in a way. … Big Noise allowed me to be in a band, to be one of the musicians. That was freedom. Cactus is really good at saying to me: Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, the Stones – and that lets me not have to walk out there like Miss America.”
It’s also allowed the Bordeaux-toned vocalist room to explore what she wants to say. Beyond touring with excavating songwriter Brandi Carlile, Kelsea Ballerini and Ashley McBryde on the “honor thy legacy/mother” on “The Judds: The Final Tour,” she’s recorded a duet with Waxahatchee, done an EP of the blues songs that shaped her – including a duet of “Ramblin’ Rose” with Bob Weir – worked in the studio with Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), and is to play with Tyler Childers at Fiddlers Green near Denver this summer.
“I’m going to do a record this year,” she says with a glint in her eye. “I’m a little more fear-based than faith-based because I’m feeling the emotions so deeply. It’s exhilarating and terrifying because I know it’s going to rip me apart and elevate me at the same time. But, you know, that raw place is where the best comes from.”
“She could be a jazz singer,” Moser says. “She was a great rock singer, but no one heard that. When we first went in the studio, the memory of that soundcheck all those years ago was still so clear; it was undeniable: she’s one of the greatest singers of all time.
“Andy and Anti- understood. We all said, ‘Let’s make music that makes people say, ‘Who the hell is singing that?’ It’s made the process harder, finding songs that aren’t just big pop hooks and sensibilities.
“This album she’s making – and the touring we’re going to do this year – needs to be a game-changer. I don’t care about hit songs; I care about what she’s feeling and how it suits her gift instead of a big ‘We Are The World’ chorus, which she can kill. This is deeper.”
Wasserman Music EVP and Managing Executive Jonathan Levine concurs: “Her life, and the amazing journey that’s defined it, lives and breathes through her music,” addressing the expressive nature of Wynonna’s voice and concerts, via email. “Every single soul who experienced first-hand during the Judds’ final area dates in September and October, and again later this month, witnessed the power and magic that is Wynonna. She captivates in any live setting from theaters to festivals to arenas.”
Confirming there will be no more Judds dates, that it’s time for the next chapter, she acknowledges, “This run is going to really kick my butt: 26 songs for three nights running. I long to play Gruene Hall, Red Rocks, musical festivals – but I wanted to finish honoring this music, my mother and the fans. ‘Love Is Alive’ has become a prayer for the fans. When they hold up their lighters – or their cell phones – that light is going to be the spirit that heals the world.
“But with the band, (the shows) become more of a gathering. The thing I love about Springsteen so much is he talks to the people down stage, invites everyone into the moment directly. I’ve gotten to where we break down the wall between us, and the band allows me to do that, to go for it.
“I’m still so shy, I question myself all the time. The band just says, ‘No, go for it.’ It makes me brave – and pushes me to see just what we all can do.”
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