Late last month, Wynonna Judd turned 50 (or 18 with 32 years experience, as she is prone to quip). Now the mother of two grown children, Elijah, 19, and Grace, who turned 18 this month, the singer with the rafter-rumbling voice is working on an album that she confidently describes as a departure, a project that she says, “will absolutely defy all the odds.”
Wynonna first came to prominence as one-half of the Judds, the chart-topping duo with her mom, Naomi Judd. The pair reigned at country radio from 1983 to 1991, until Naomi retired after being diagnosed with Hepatitis C. The younger Judd’s solo career began the following year with a string of Number One singles, including “She Is His Only Need” and “No One Else on Earth.” The duo has reunited occasionally, most recently in 2011, when they were featured on a reality series for Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network. Now cured of her liver disease, Naomi has gone on to be a motivational speaker and spokesperson for the American Liver Foundation. Both women have also acted in TV movies and made special guest appearances, having made their on-screen debut together in 1979’s More American Graffiti, when Wynonna was just 15.
The singer’s third marriage, to former Highway 101 drummer Cactus Moser, nearly came to an abrupt and tragic halt just two months into their union in August 2012, when Moser was involved in a horrific motorcycle accident in the Black Hills of South Dakota. As a result, his left leg was amputated and his wife briefly retired from her musical career to become his full-time caregiver. In yet another odds-defying moment, however, Wynonna competed on Dancing With the Stars and the husband and wife soon returned to the road, with Moser back behind the drum kit in Judd’s band, the Big Noise.
The couple had been working on Wynonna’s new music together, drawing on the influences of their respective upbringings as inspiration for the material. One aspect of the business, chasing airplay with songs tailor-made for country radio, would unquestionably be a futile effort for Judd based not only on her age but also her gender, considering country’s current testosterone-fueled climate. In the golden era of “bro country,” hit singles may be a thing of the past for the woman whose booming vocals can be heard on 18 Number One records. Still, she’s no stranger to making her voice heard in other ways; although she cautions that some people may not recognize the artist they’ll be hearing on this new album. And thanks to a Foo Fighter, they may not recognize the face on the CD cover.
How would you describe the new music?
It’s vintage yet modern. It’s hard to explain. A lot of the things I did I’m drawing from, yet the new sound is so simple and so pure. I’m playing instruments on stage that I started playing when I was nine. I’ve never done that in my whole career. So it’s a time of going back to the well and starting over. This album is just going to be the highest of the high to the lowest of the valley-of-the-shadow-of-death sadness. Mournful, raw, primal sounds that come from the guts of music.
Which doesn’t really sound like anything country radio would be interested in playing.
I’m not worried about radio so much as I am the songs being from my soul. That I could sing them to my cats and I would love every second of that. I don’t want to make just another hit record. I don’t want to be just another statistic. I want to be life- changing in that people go, “Oh my God,” and they respond to it in a way that can be transforming; in that they quit what they’re doing and go for something crazy.
What else can you reveal about the album at this point? Has it got a title?
I think we should let the fans title it. I did that one time with a tour that I did with my mom. I may just put my face on [the CD cover], or maybe my mug shot. [Judd was arrested on a DUI charge in 2003]. That’s the first thing [Foo Fighters’] Dave Grohl said to me when he met me. He said, “Oh man, I love your mug shot!” I don’t care about labels as much as I care about content.
How did this project get started?
When I did Dancing With the Stars, and I say lovingly [that I did it] reluctantly, because, number one, I was not in shape, I was coming out of nine months… I was just on absolute wife duty, taking care of my husband. I kind of lost myself, and Dancing With the Stars came calling in the middle of all that. My husband one morning went to physical therapy and when he came back, I asked him how it was. He said, “Well, I met this guy and he’s a filmmaker. He has this film [The Hornet’s Nest, a documentary abut a father-and-son news team covering the war in Afghanistan] and he wants me to see it.” I said, “Well, honey, I’d like to go but I’m just exhausted. So he goes to the film, he comes back and says, “We have to be a part of this!” So, “Follow Me” [the song the husband and wife collaborated on for the film] started it. That and “Love It Out Loud,” because we wrote that for Mom during the show I did with mom for OWN. The music started to come because of our relationship. I’ve known Cactus since I was 20. There’s definitely a love story there. What we’ve been through with his accident combined with the fact that we have a band together, which is really hilarious, we are a tragic comedy. We’re Bonnie and Clyde meet Sonny and Cher on stage.
Do the new songs capture aspects of both of your personalities?
Yes, the music represents my heritage of being from Appalachia and his maverick heritage of being from the West. It’s very authentic, it’s very primal. It has sounds that are very dark, very mourning sounds, yet there is a really cool, sneaky, slimy, gutbucket, real factor to it. Cactus brought me some songs and at first I was like, “What? This is so weird!” And he said, “Yeah, that’s the point.” We’re recording songs that are going to make people go, “Wow, what did she do?” If I want to play Bonnaroo, and then go do a military event or the symphony, if I want to sing at the Americana Awards, or if I want to go down and do South by Southwest or the jazz festival in Monterey, I want to be able to because I’ve earned it. I worked really hard. I don’t want to be defined by formats in that I don’t want to fit into just one.
What motivated you to have that kind of mindset at this point in your career?
Both life and death. Singing at George Jones‘s funeral was really monumental for me because his was the first concert I ever went to, and here I am all these years later singing at his memorial. That really makes me realize life is precious, life is short. My husband’s accident, my children turning 18 and 20, and I’m dealing with an empty nest.
One thing many people may not know is that you and your mom, when you were living in California, were both in the film More American Graffiti. What was that experience like for you as a teenager, to be an extra in a bar scene?
I think I got paid $50 a day. I got to miss school and I thought that was the biggest deal ever. I’m dancing and it was right before a bar fight. They used our car, our ’57 Chevy that I still have today. Mom kept me pretty protective in a way that… there was no hanging out with or partying [with anyone on the set]. It was back to school and back to reality pretty quickly. None of the fantasy movie-star-singer stuff was happening at that time. It was pretty much her keeping me out of bars or letting me get a band or any of that. She bought me a reel-to-reel recorder and music board and a microphone, so that kept me pretty occupied. That was in place and getting a band and getting to play. I sang at prom and graduation and that was it. Other than that it was pretty much stay a civilian as long as possible until I say it’s time.
Who are some of the artists you like in country music these days?
I love the humor of Brad Paisley. I laugh at him all the time. I can’t take him seriously. He’s like the little kid at the birthday party opening all the presents and they’re not even for [him]! I tweet Blake Shelton all the time and he tweets me back. He’s the brother I never wanted but I’m so glad I have. I love Kacey Musgraves and the fact that at her age she’s doing stuff that I didn’t have the guts to do. I love that she’s controversial and she’s, oh my goodness, singing about what? I couldn’t do stuff like that because my mother would have said no! I love Lady Antebellum because I love [Charles Kelley’s] voice. Little Big Town is still my favorite in terms of harmony. Alison [Krauss] is not only a friend but she’s also got a voice that’s like the breath of heaven. I just did a duet with Willie Nelson and he could give a rip. There’s just this sweetness and this confidence. There’s no arrogance, it’s just, “Look, I’m 80! I don’t have anything to prove, I’m just having fun.”
And yet some artists who aren’t having the same level of success they’ve enjoyed in years past aren’t really able to get past it. How have you done that?
I know some artists that are bitter and jealous and frustrated and they can’t seem to find a place to be relevant. That’s not me. I won’t let that happen because my brain doesn’t feel good not being involved in the game. Whether it’s Carnegie Hall or the county fair, it doesn’t matter. I’m Wynonna Judd, I’ve earned a right to be here. I’m alive and I can sing from my toenails.