(Editor’s note: Wynonna and New American Library recently published her memoir, Coming Home to Myself, written with journalist Patsi Bale Cox. In this excerpt, Wynonna vividly recalls her Kentucky childhood and an early attraction to music.)
“We’ll be river rats!” Dad said, excitedly, pulling his MG convertible up to the little house. That’s what the city folks called people who lived along the Kentucky River, river rats. It was winter, and bitterly cold. The place Dad rented was named Camp Wig. It was located between a cow pasture and a concrete block church where the congregation often sang and praised all night long.
It was an unheated summer fishing retreat, so he purchased one of those black coal-and-wood-burning stoves, and put up sheets of metallic protectors on the kitchen wall to keep the house from catching fire. We all took turns waking up through the night to keep adding wood. If Mom and Dad were gone, it was my job to keep the home fires burning. We wore clothes on top of clothes and rubbed our hands a lot. Mom, Ashley and I often slept together under piles of blankets, quilts and coats. Our pipes froze a lot in the winter, so we always seemed to be out of water.
We had to get up early at Camp Wig. Mom left before dawn for her nursing classes, driving her red VW through the back roads to the ferry across the river and finally to the highway bound for Richmond, Kentucky. Ashley and I got up before dawn, too. We’d warm ourselves by the wood-burning stove each morning. I have vivid memories of standing and looking out the window, watching Mom bust up coal outside the kitchen door at five a.m. to warm us all up for breakfast. Afterward, Ashley and I would walk up the long driveway to the main road to catch the school bus. It was over an hour’s ride to town.
The small village around Camp Wig was poverty-stricken. Many of the other river rats lived without electricity or plumbing. A few of my friends used coffee cans for toilets. Some families lived up to eight in a three-room shack, curtains hung across the room to separate the kitchen from the sleeping areas. Many of the children had never been out of the county.
Yet with all that poverty, these people were the friendliest you could imagine. They were family out there. It reminds me of a story I was told about a woman who was asked which she thought would be worse, to be too rich or too poor. She thought about it and said, “Too rich, because being too rich can be lonely. If you’re poor, you may not have much but at least you know who your friends are.”
As spring replaced winter, Ashley and I discovered the real magic of Camp Wig. We fell asleep each night to the sounds of crickets and frogs, and awakened each morning to the birds singing. Flowers bloomed, and finally that summer, the blackberries ripened! Dad, Ashley and I would pick the berries, then sit on the back porch and eat them until our faces were stained blue-black. Camp Wig was where I came to love the four seasons. There was always something to look forward to, even if you did have to put up with frozen pipes.
Our house was so far off the beaten path that there were days that we never saw a single soul or made it into a town. We seldom ate in restaurants or went to movies. But Dad was happier than I’d ever seen him, and it made me happy just to see him content. He’d run a trot fishing line across the river and bait twenty or more hooks to catch fish. At night Ashley and I swam out to check them. He’d watch as we’d swing from vines into the river. We’d take bars of soap and go out in the huge front yard that filled with water in places during a thunderstorm and take baths. Sometimes we’d play in the rain. I find myself going out into the rain with my children, just to feel that same joy from such a wonderful time in my life.
There was something about living at Camp Wig that was defining for me. As harsh as the conditions were at times, it was also peaceful. We had very little, but we relied on one another. It felt natural for me to be there. The lifestyle was simple and the people were real. We had lots of gatherings with neighbors where people played musical instruments and sang. Dad loved the Stones, Warren Zevon and Frank Zappa, so this was where I developed a real passion for rock ’n’ roll. I also discovered my first “(s)hero,” Joni Mitchell. Mom, Dad, Ashley and I were together. And we were family.
We were happy until an unusually wet season upped the ante for living along the river. Camp Wig flooded and kept right on flooding until almost all of our belongings were ruined. Mamaw and Papaw Ciminella [her father’s parents] were never happy about us living along the river anyway. After the worst of the floods, they drove out often to try and convince Dad that it was no place to raise children. By that time, Mom and Dad agreed.
Dad finally moved back to town, and Ashley and I stayed with him until we finished school. Mom — in true Judd fashion — grew restless, packed up and went searching for a new adventure. She had moved to a little one-room bungalow in nearby Berea, Kentucky. The town is home to Berea College, where low income students can work their way through school using their talents doing various jobs in the community. The entire area reflects an artisan spirit, with homage paid to its Appalachian roots. Berea is filled with arts and crafts stores and classes everywhere, as well as some of the most beautiful handwork in America. There is a hotel called Boone Tavern that is run by students in the heart of the town. When Ashley and I were with Mom, and Mamaw and Papaw Ciminella came to visit, they stayed at Boone Tavern and took us to eat in the restaurant.
The day our lives changed — at least for a while — started out with another of those hard Kentucky rains. Ashley and I were in Berea visiting Mom, and we were driving home from the grocery store in the pouring rain. Mom was having a difficult time seeing the road, when she suddenly slammed on the brakes. Despite the downpour, we could see that an elderly woman had slipped off of the curb, and fallen into the street.
“We almost hit that woman!” Mom shouted as she jumped from the car.
Mom rushed over to help her up. We got the woman into our car, and rushed her to the hospital’s emergency room. We stayed at the hospital with the woman, Caroline Hovey, waiting for her husband, a professor at Berea College, to arrive. Once Mr. Hovey got to the hospital and his wife was being treated, Mom introduced us, and explained that she was a nursing student at Eastern Kentucky, and that the three of us were in Berea looking for a place to live. Because of Mom’s kind deed, the Hoveys called a professor at Berea College, Margaret Allen, and told her about a single mother with two children who needed an affordable place to live.
Margaret Allen called and said she wanted to meet with us at her home in Morrill, a forty-five-minute drive from Berea. Even though we’d lived along the river and seen poverty up close, we were unprepared for the sight when we turned off the main highway and on to the long gravel road leading to Mrs. Allen’s. We passed old outbuildings and run-down trailers with farm animals running loose. Malnourished dogs with their ribs showing were tied up to old tires. There were junked cars on cinder blocks.
“Mom, are we lost?” I asked.
“No,” Mom answered with a frown. “This is the road.”
I looked at Ashley and shrugged. Surely a professor at Berea College didn’t live here.
Then suddenly, the gravel road ended and there was a huge red gate. It was open, as if we were expected. So we entered the property and drove up the paved road. It was like a scene from a movie. There on a hill sat a lovely, cared-for house as different from what we’d just driven by as could be. Mrs. Allen came out and greeted us.
“Welcome to Chanticleer,” she said with a big smile.
Her estate had two homes: Windswept, where she lived, and the house she called Chanticleer, named after one of her favorite children’s stories. Mrs. Allen explained that she was a music teacher, and along with the two homes, she had cabins on the property, where students stayed each year for her music camps. Chanticleer was magical! It was completely furnished, with beautiful hardwood floors and hand-hooked rugs throughout. We each got our own bedroom, with a handmade quilt on every bed. Most of the furniture was antique, and all the furnishings seemed to match. In the kitchen, beautiful china filled the knotty pine cabinets. In the living room there was a Steinway piano beside the huge picture window overlooking the front porch. There were apple trees in the front yard, and berry bushes in back. When Mrs. Allen offered to rent Chanticleer to us for a hundred dollars a month, Mom could barely speak.
That summer we raised a garden and Mom taught Ashley and me how to can. Those are things I promise that I will make time to do with my own children. Chanticleer was where my lifelong love for animals began. We had kittens being born in the barn and homeless dogs wandering into our lives. I learned how to shear sheep, spin the yarn and weave tapestries on a loom. There was no television and no telephone. We relied entirely on our own creativity for entertainment. I loved to visit my best friend, Ramona Van Winkle, down the road. We’d go to the main road and sing Loretta Lynn songs at the top of our lungs to passing motorists. This was my first experience singing as a duo. I guess I was in training and didn’t realize it!
If Camp Wig had opened my heart to nature, it was Chanticleer that opened my soul to music. It was during this time that I discovered the guitar. Someone had given one to Mom as a going-away gift when she left California. Dad had already shown me a few chords on his guitar, so that was enough to inspire me. I started singing and playing around the house. I’d sit on the porch and practice for hours. And so my life as an artist began.
Dad’s love of music and my desire to play was one of the first true connections I felt with him. He often brought his leatherwork to Berea’s art fairs, and I’d stay with him in a tent while he sold his wares. We’d sell by day, play and listen to music by night. It’s one of my happiest memories! The big tents, the lights, the people singing and playing — it was there that I discovered jamming with other musicians. I began to play by ear. The guitar became an appendage. It was the first time I remember feeling as though I had a purpose in life.
Mrs. Allen started giving me piano lessons that summer. The lessons taught me discipline, but while I liked the piano, I was more drawn to the guitar. Still, Mrs. Allen had faith in me and even allowed me to attend her music camp free of charge. It is one of the most magical memories of my life. Mrs. Allen was so gifted. She taught us about the passion of music, the rise and fall of notes. She was the first person to show me the difference between playing technically and playing from the heart. She had such a musical style, and such a big heart. (The camp took in children from all walks of life.) At the end of music camp, the students always put on a show on her elaborate patio. That year it was Porgy & Bess. It was my first performance. A milestone!
I was starting to get really excited. Music was becoming more than an interest — it became my passion. By the end of the summer it was just that guitar and me. I’m glad I wasn’t a Top 40 kid. It was because we shopped in used record stores that I discovered Rounder Records, and the label’s great collection of authentic music. I also discovered Emmylou Harris, Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley, Merle Haggard, Bill Monroe, Dolly Parton, Hazel and Alice, the Boswell Sisters. I got hooked on hillbilly music — bluegrass and the old mountain folk songs. By the end of summer I was addicted to the way that Doc Watson played the guitar. I started to learn the autoharp, and when my uncle Mark, Mom’s brother, brought me a banjo, I started learning to finger pick. Mom loved the way Hazel and Alice harmonized and started trying to work up harmonies to my lead. Even though she had never done that before, it somehow felt natural there in the mountains, with so many singers, writers and musicians around.
One of my great influences was the Yancey family, Minnie and her four children. Minnie is the one who taught Mom to make lye soap, which would later cause television host Ralph Emery to start calling us the Soap Sisters. The Yanceys were like family to us. Minnie’s daughter Sonja Bird sang and played dulcimer as well as guitar. Sonja Bird was very important in my own musical journey, since she was my first real guitar and vocal teacher.
The Yanceys lived in Berea, which Mom thought had the best school in the area, so we enrolled there. She drove Ashley and me into town each morning to the Yancey house so that we could catch a ride to school with Minnie’s sons, Toddie and Garrett. We had to get up very early to be in the car by five a.m. I remember once, when I woke up to use the bathroom at about two a.m., I went ahead and got dressed for school.
After school I’d walk to the Berea College Student Center to hustle pool. I became a pretty sharp pool player, so I ended up winning money most days. Then I’d take my winnings to Mama Mia’s and play pinball for hours, just killing time before Mom got out of nursing school and came to pick us up at the Yancey house. I wore the same sort of clothes every day: blue jean overalls, flannel shirts and hiking boots. All I cared about was music, pool and pinball.
I could have lived at Chanticleer forever. But Mom, being the gypsy she is, decided to move us back to California and continue nursing school at the College of Marin, north of San Francisco. She packed us up in a U-Haul and off we went. Uncle Mark came along to help. I was terribly sad to be leaving a life that had meant so much to me, to leave a place that had nurtured me and inspired me to begin taking the first steps on my journey as an artist. Living on that mountaintop gave me a sense of self and purpose that I don’t think I’d had before. We had little financially, but a wealth of joy and a connection to the earth, to one another.
Since we didn’t have much money for the trip back to California, we took along a mattress for Uncle Mark to sleep on when we stopped at motels for the night. Ashley and I rode in the back of the U-Haul with the furniture. Mom rigged the sliding door so it would stay open just a little and we’d have fresh air. Deeply unhappy and left to my own devices, I acted out. Ashley was lying down on the mattress when I jumped off of the chest of drawers and on top of her. I held her down and pinned her so she couldn’t get up. Then I licked her face until she peed her pants.
When Ashley finally got away from me, she jerked off her T-shirt and frantically waved it out the back, hoping somebody would see it and save her. Suddenly I heard a siren. We pulled off to the side of the road. The back of the U-Haul was rolled open and there stood a highway patrolman next to Mom and Uncle Mark. The cop chewed out Mom for putting us in the back of the U-Haul. Mom chewed me out for taking out my frustration on my sister, and Uncle Mark spanked me in the bathroom of a truck stop. I’ll never forget that feeling of humiliation. I worshipped my uncle Mark.
When we got to Marin County, we moved into a small one-bedroom apartment. Mom put the mattress on the floor in the corner of the living room, and she and Ashley slept there. I got the one bedroom. Mom worked as a waitress while attending school, and also as a private nurse for an older man named Skipper, who lived next door. He adopted us as his only family, and helped Mom out financially to pay some of our bills. What a change in environment! From Chanticleer to that small apartment next door to a bar.
Between school and jobs, Mom worked all day and most of the night. There’s a scene in Ashley’s first major movie, Ruby in Paradise, where her character has tried and tried to find work. She gets turned down during all her job interviews and ends up working in a Laundromat. I remember seeing that film with Mom, and watching her weep as she sat in the theater.
Mom drove by an Arabian horse farm every day when she went to work as a waitress at a restaurant named Rancho Nicasio in Nicasio, California. She says that she was concerned that I take on more responsibilities, so she got me a job cleaning tack a couple of days a week, after school. I rode my bike to and from my job. I was fourteen, and didn’t mind the hard work because I got to be with horses and out in the open. The barn had a radio that played country music constantly and I found myself listening to it. Soon I was singing along, memorizing every song I heard. Merle Haggard became one of my favorites.
Mom picked me up one day when I’d finished mucking stalls, and I immediately tuned to KNEW radio. They were giving away tickets: “KNEW is bringing you Merle Haggard and the Strangers, live and in concert at Oakland Coliseum! Be caller number ten and be a winner!”
I wasn’t caller number ten.
“Mom, if I save the money for the tickets, would you take me?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said. Mom loved Merle’s music, too.
On the day of the show, we left Ashley at a friend’s house, and off we went, country music blaring all the way. When we pulled into the parking lot, Mom just leaned out, smiled and asked to park in the backstage area, where all the buses and trucks parked. It was so like Mom to park in back, right next to the tour buses. Mom was so beautiful that she always seemed to get a backstage pass whenever she needed it. Plus, back in those days, they didn’t have the security issues they have today. Just as we pulled up next to Merle Haggard’s bus, he was coming out to walk his little dog, Tuffy.
“Well, hello,” Merle Haggard said. I was in awe!
What he must have thought of Mom and me! We wore our best dresses, me in lace anklets, Mom in seamed hose. Mom was such a hottie and she had that Southern accent! She must have made quite an impression on Merle because he immediately invited us to come on his Silver Eagle.
Getting on that tour bus was a defining moment, my first taste of a star’s world. That bus seemed to me like the mobile home of life. It had the leather seats, the kitchenette. I could see myself on this bus! I could picture myself driving down the highway on my way to the next show. I was ready to hit the road. Merle invited us to watch the show from the side of the stage. What I remember most is the audience’s reaction when the lights came down. And when I saw Merle’s band in matching stage outfits, that, too, was a defining moment. I could visualize myself on that stage with my own band.
When Merle invited us to go on the road with him for a few days, Mom didn’t hesitate. We just left the car right there in the parking lot and we left with him. Merle introduced me to his sons, Noel and Marty. I got such a crush on Noel! After a few days, Mom and I flew home. I was heartbroken when Noel kissed me goodbye. It was back to reality and that crummy apartment in Lagunitas.
From Coming Home to Myself by Wynonna Judd
New American Library/September 2005