At this point in her career, Wynonna’s pretty much been there and done that. As one half of the Judds with her mother Naomi, the performer achieved fame nearly 40 years ago and, with her mom, became one of country’s most successful duos in history. As a solo artist, she showcased an even wider range of her talent, branching out into soulful pop and blues-rock like “No One Else on Earth” alongside country balladry like “To Be Loved by You.”
Her latest release, Recollections, was put out through a new agreement with Anti- Records and brings Wynonna back to a point before her name was on the marquee signs — when she was simply playing for the love of it. Recorded with Wynonna’s husband and musical partner Cactus Moser while the two were quarantining at their farm, Recollections includes loose, gritty renditions of songs originally recorded by Nina Simone (“Feeling Good,”), the Grateful Dead (“Ramble on Rose,” featuring contributions from Bob Weir), and John Prine (“Angel From Montgomery”).
It has the feeling of listening in on a jam session, of a band working out what it’s going to become. And most importantly, it’s Wynonna proving herself to be as unpredictable as ever.
“I’m in this beautiful moment where I’m on the outside looking in on my life and going, ‘What do I want the next chapter to be?’” Wynonna tells Rolling Stone. “I want it to be music that comes from the deepest part of me. I’ve been famous since I was 18 and it got me distracted from being an artist. I think I’m discovering my artistry again like it’s brand new.”
How have you been holding up?
Are you ready for my interesting answer? I came home in March, and I took all my belongings off the bus and it felt like it was definitely a disconnect — I see things as life or death oftentimes, because when you’re living on a farm it’s kind of all or nothing. I just got through feeding the pigs and the pigs, they live and they do their thing on the farm and they’re gone — there’s no argument, there’s no sense of politically correct. They exist and they are grateful for good feed and they get in my lap and we talk and I go to work. When you wake up, you wake up with the light, you go to bed with the dark. I’m praying a lot and crying a lot and I’m laughing my ass off doing these Zoom calls with the fans. I’m having a love affair with these people who have loved me and supported me for 36 years. It’s live-giving, and I’m connected. The rest of it is, I have no answer for any of it other than I cry and I swear to you, I go practice because I feel so helpless.
That sounds like what I’ve heard from several people this year — finding some comfort in family, balance in routine.
I’m living so simply. I get up in the morning, I feed the animals and I do what’s called the next right thing. Whether that’s choosing to eat something healthy or not, it gets down to: I need to brush my hair. I’ve lived that way for seven months, and it’s pretty interesting. I do that on the road, but there’s always a lot of parade and fanfare and going out onstage in the lights and applause, which is a lot for the brain and the spirit is soaring. So it’s kind of chaotic. But when I’m home: I get up; I cook; I’m learning to live simply.
That’s a good entry point for us to talk about Recollections. You had this time at home, and you figured out how to make an interesting recording in the middle of everything, even with all the constraints.
Cactus — when he had his [motorcycle] accident [in 2012] — I stayed by his side and my world shut down and it wasn’t until I guess four months after the wreck when I went back on the road without him and I was heartbroken and I couldn’t hardly breathe. But I sang. And that’s kind of where I am now. I feel like I’ve been in a car wreck and I’m completely in shock. And we all are, everyone I know. I’m watching people, going oh my goodness this is intense, and then I cry, and then I go sing. Recollections is all of that emotion. Thanks to Cactus Moser, he literally said to me, “It’s time to play.” And I said, “No, it’s too much.” And he’d say, “Get your guitar,” and we would sit there and jam. I haven’t done that in years, like really sat down and jammed. And next thing, our road manager says, “Let’s do something for the fans.” I started doing Facebook Live. She filmed it, we put it out and the fans are eating it up. That’s what John Prine’s “Angel [From Montgomery]” is. I found out that day that he’d passed. I got a text that he was gone. That night we were doing a Facebook Live and I started playing that song because I’ve known it since I was a teenager. There’s no agenda, there’s just me sitting there playing. He said, “Oh honey, we have to do that tonight” And we did, and there’s your recording.
Do these cover songs represent a period before fame? What stands out about that time period?
I’m back where I was when I guess was about 15 years old. This is really weird, because right before I got famous — 1984 when they said “And the winner is…” — I was a musician, playing and singing in my room. I watch Billie Eilish because I can identify with her where she’s in that room with her brother just playing and singing. They’re just doing their thing. And that’s where I’m at right now. I got really distracted. When Mom and I got famous — we were, in our time, I guess considered pop stars. I was like, “What?” And now there’s no bus, there’s no truck, there’s a camera and we’re going out to thousands of fans and we’re doing it here in my kitchen and I’ve still got on my apron. So I’m right back where I started: I want to play this song, and I’m going to do it today. I sit and I play my song and I practice and it hurts. It’s messy and it’s painful, but you gotta go through that process how many times before you leave this earth.
I’m glad you mentioned jamming, because so much of Recollections feels like listening in on a jam session. It’s freewheeling and loose.
When you play, when you’re in the moment and you’re not paying attention, you lose time. You don’t have any concept of, “I have to be somewhere.” You’re just suspended. When you play like that, it’s so healing. You talk about audience of one, there’s no audience, dude. We’re sitting on the back porch of the studio, literally being interrupted by the sound of the frogs, they are so loud. We’re just in the moment. And Cactus will look at me and I’ll start to get a little more form, I’m trying to build something, and he’ll go, “No, no, no, just play.” He’s been forcing me to let go of my perfectionism. “Oh, I need to do that vocal again because of that one note.” He’s like, “Nope.” We’ve been doing everything live and that’s what’s really brought new life to me.
How did you get acquainted with Bob Weir?
My musical life began in California. I learned “California” — Joni — and I would sing it every night. And then next couple nights [my husband] said, “Let’s do a Grateful Dead song.” I was like OK. I went and learned it. I had no idea what was about to happen. I’m trying to understand the song. I’m like, “Rambling Rose,” what the heck? Then I watched the documentary, and I started to get it. Next thing I know, Robert’s coming to Nashville to do something with Dwight Yoakam and Cactus invited him out to the house. I’m like, “This is interesting, a Judd-head and a Deadhead.” He stayed for several hours, we talked, and his driver took him back to Nashville. He played and sang on this song we decided to record for fun. Next thing I know, we’re playing onstage at the Fillmore and I’m looking at Robert and he’s playing “Why Not Me.”
Your last album, Wynonna and the Big Noise, sort of hinted at this direction. How do you feel about that project in retrospect?
I don’t think I set out to say, “Today, I’m going to strive to be jazz.” I remember saying to Cactus Moser, “These are the things I like.” I don’t remember setting out to accomplish an end goal. I remember saying, “I love being in a band.” I had hung out with Susan Tedeschi and her husband Derek, going, “Oh my god, this is crazy that I’m getting away with this.” And I go sing with Mavis Staples at the Ryman. I’m getting invited to the party; I show up and I party musically with these artists. I go, “This is a snapshot.” There’s no way I can say I’m one thing because I love the Eagles and I also love Run-DMC. I can’t tell you why, I just know that I dig it. It’s an interesting time for me to play and enjoy myself — good luck trying to figure me out.