Wynonna Judd remembers glancing at her mother and performing partner, Naomi Judd, in the final moment before they went on stage together for the first time in eight years, New Year’s Eve in Phoenix.
“Talk about a ‘deer in the headlights’ look,” the singing daughter recalls. “She had that look that I had in 1984 when we went on stage for the first time. Talk about role reversal, she was trembling. She was very nervous and extremely emotional, as the Judd women are known to be.”
Reflecting on the concert itself, Wynonna lobs a few friendly verbal grenades Mom’s way. “She had too many costume changes. Her harmonies on ‘Love Is Alive’ were a little off,” says dutiful daughter — before quickly giving up on the joke. “I’m being funny because we’re having such a good time that we don’t really care about all that stuff.”
This week Wynonna releases her sixth solo album, New Day Dawning. An anthology, Collection, gathered choice cuts from her first three releases. The first 250,000 copies of the new album will include a bonus disc featuring four songs by the reunited Judds. Friday night (Feb. 4) in Denver she begins a multi-city tour with her mother. They have not toured together since 1991, when they undertook a highly publicized farewell tour in the wake of her mother’s diagnosis for life-threatening hepatitis C.
But why, some are asking, did Wynonna agree to get back together with her mother after eight years of hard work to carve out a solo career for herself? Was it something she wanted to do, or merely something she felt she ought to do as part of being a good daughter?
“I was more of the prodder than Mom was,” Wynonna reveals in a telephone conversation with country.com, “and I think it needed to come from me because I don’t think my mom wanted to impose on what it is I’ve been trying to do, and that is, be an individual. It’s almost like it had to be me — I sort of opened the door to the possibility and gave her permission to come in.”
Wynonna turns 36 in May. She started touring with her mother when she was 18 — half a lifetime ago. As she anticipates another tour, she sounds determined to approach performing in a different frame of mind, open to all that it means to be out again with her mother, singing many of the songs that made the two women country music’s favorite duo in the ’80s and early ’90s.
Before, Wynonna explains, she concentrated so completely on the basics — singing the right notes, standing in the right place next to her mom, being on time — that she had no chance to savor the experience and its meaning.
“Now, here I am, in the moment, getting to respond once again to the music that got me where I am today,” she observes with relish. “It just all makes sense.”
And The Judds’ songs — the hits from those earlier years — still matter a great deal to her, she says, so singing them again is satisfying in a new way.
“They’re not just hits on the radio,” she contends. “They’re pieces of poetry that were very important and instrumental in my life. It’s pretty overwhelming.”
Since 1992, with the release of her first solo album, Wynonna has built her own catalog of familiar hits including “She Is His Only Need,” “I Saw the Light” and “No One Else on Earth.” The Kentucky-bred vocalist has sold more than nine million copies of her five previous albums.
So the mother-daughter tour that gets underway this week combines two very distinct personalities and two very separate phases of Wynonna’s career.
“I’ve claimed my own independence,” she asserts. “We’re both very keenly aware of maintaining that individuality, as well as really complementing one another and lifting each other up. There’s balance, there’s honor and there’s respect. There has to be, otherwise we couldn’t do this. I won’t go back to that time again.”
As if to further stake her claim to independence, Wynonna acted as co-producer on all 12 tracks on her new album and on the four tracks she cut with her mother. She recorded the majority of her own work in the Bahamas, with James Stroud co-producing. They went to the Caribbean to cut down on distractions that she knew they would encounter if they stayed in Nashville, she says.
“I know how out of control the music business is,” she observes. “I don’t ever want to be in the studio, trying to be in the moment, with the cell phone ringing. It kills my ability to be in that moment and to be a spiritual being.
“It’s wonderful to be able to go away and be creative. Indians did it all the time. They’d go out to the wilderness and just hang out a couple of days to think about stuff. We ate dinner together. We slept in. We took walks. We got to spend time alone.”
New Day Dawning finds Wynonna mining R&B, pop and rock music for material. She covers the Fabulous Thunderbird’s “Tuff Enuff” and Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me.” “Chain Reaction,” with its “chain-ai-ai-ain” chorus, conjures up Aretha, while “Going Nowhere” and “He Rocks” give vent to Wynonna’s rowdy, rock side. “Learning to Live with Love Again,” co-written by Mike Reid and Gary Nicholson, is a tender, contemplative ballad with a feel similar to another Reid composition, Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” The album ends with a soulful, horn-loaded cover of the saucy gospel number “I Can’t Wait to Meet You” by Grammy nominee (best new artist) Macy Gray.
The album comes at a time when Wynonna continues to adapt to another major life change. Last summer she was divorced from Arch Kelley III, the father of her two children, after three years of marriage. Recently, she has dated her longtime bodyguard, D.R. Roach. The new album reflects her response to the adversity, Wynonna says. The optimistic mindset is consistent with the family’s longstanding outlook on overcoming trouble.
“It’s not made me bitter, it’s made me better,” she says, tossing out another of the pithy phrases that decorate Judd speech. “I’ve had to force myself to rely on my strength.” A line in the title track has special resonance, she says: “Those bitter grapes have not turned to sweetest wine.”
“That’s the story of my life,” she goes on to explain. “One minute, my mother’s leaving the road. Fine. I’ll just go out there and do it myself. What am I supposed to do, sit down and take it? Or am I going to get up and use that pain to sing from my toenails?”
As they take to the road this week, Wynonna and her mother won’t try to re-create the moving, almost spiritual experience they had in Phoenix, Wynonna says. “The New Year’s Eve show was the first time, after eight years,” she marvels. “It was like trying to plan a wedding, and a honeymoon, and the birth of your children, and high school graduation, all at once. With this tour, I feel more settled, and I think Mom does, too.”