Wynonna Judd is currently in the middle of a tantrum that even a whirling dervish of a 2-year-old badly in need of a nap might find exhausting. But the source — and also the outlet —for her unhinged, yet wholly healthy abandon is the spotlight in which she finds herself during an unexpected third act of her career.
Wynonna’s room-filling voice and outsized personality were key factors in making the Grammy-winning mother-daughter duo the Judds one of the most celebrated acts of the Eighties. Thrust into a solo career after mom Naomi was diagnosed with Hepatitis C in 1991, critics and audiences were cautiously optimistic about her ability to step out of Naomi’s shadow (never mind that she was the act’s lead singer all along). Three Number One singles, a solo debut LP that sold more than five million copies, and two subsequent platinum albums went a long way to quell the naysayers, and the occasional Judds reunion left the door open just enough for her to fall back into the familiar.
But like a rebellious, strong-willed kid, Judd would do the unexpected, appearing on Dancing With the Stars, reuniting with Naomi for a reality-TV series, and inadvertently landing in the tabloids. With DUI arrests (one), kids (two) and husbands (three) among the headlines, Judd’s life has been full of the peaks and valleys that define the blues. On the uncompromisingly raw, gritty Wynonna and the Big Noise album, out today, she mines that territory, mixing bluesy wails with the high lonesome bluegrass of her Kentucky upbringing. She’s still delivering earth-moving vocals straight from her toenails, but for this LP — her first fronting a band — she skipped the pedicure.
Wynonna and the Big Noise is produced by her husband and drummer Cactus Moser, whom she married in June 2012, two decades after they first met when the Judds and Moser’s band Highway 101 toured together. Two months into their marriage, Moser lost his left leg in a motorcycle accident and Judd spent the next several months caring for her partner, who was fitted with a prosthetic leg and eventually returned to his drum kit. Taking stock of their lives, the couple began recording Judd’s new album.
When her longtime label Curb Records wanted “more” out of the music, Judd obliged by delivering less. Instead of glossy, peppy three-minute singles, she was drawn to songs such as the LP opener “Ain’t No Thing” — a thick, greasy slice of Americana blues penned by Chris Stapleton with John Scott Sherrill, and featuring Susan Tedeschi. There are also the groovy, percussive “Cool Ya,” the classic barroom country of “Jesus and a Jukebox” and the redemptive “Things I Lean On” with Jason Isbell.
On the same day they surprised a small group of fans with a performance at Nashville’s Lightning 100 radio station, Wynonna and Moser sat down with Rolling Stone Country to talk about the new album and their relationship both at home and in the studio.
How did the two of you decide what your game plan would be for the new album?
Wynonna Judd: Well, I made a record and we turned it into Curb. They did the thing that every artist hopes never happens. They said we want more of you. We want more than what we have here. They weren’t quite satisfied with the full meal that they’re used to getting. It was more comfortable, it was more I was on cruise control than pressing on the gas and gunning it. So I’m freaked out. We spent half the budget already. So not only did [Cactus] have to come in and do it for less than half the budget that we have.
Cactus Moser: A quarter!
WJ: A quarter of the budget, excuse me! He has to do such a good job in addition to what I’ve already done to prove that this is better than that. So I’ve already gone in and given them something and they said, “We want more.” So the pressure’s on him to get the more. It’s not from the ground up; he’s coming in with the house already built and he’s got to completely remodel it. Which I think is tougher than building it from the ground up.
CM: What had been built I felt needed to be knocked down. It was the old image, the old deal and it didn’t gain anything.
WJ: He just knocked me off my rocker and said, “Nope, we’re not going to do it like that.” Everything that I had grown used to, whether it’s a comfort zone, all that went out the door. I just didn’t have any of the things I’m used to. For instance, you go to the beautiful studio with the beautiful church windows and you have the intern running to get you a Starbucks. Now, we’re down in a shed behind the house and I’m literally walking down there in my slippers, holding a Ziploc bag with my snacks in it. That’s the catering!
And you’re all huddled together in a little room. What was that like?
WJ: Really uncomfortable, because I’m used to having my own vocal booth. You know what my vocal booth was? Eggshell carton around my head like a helmet! I’m just in a room with all these characters thinking, “I’m in a band. This is so weird.” And yet it’s so exciting because it’s like the best blind date ever.
How sure were you about this being the right next step?
CM: I don’t think there was ever a sure moment. The idea of changing the direction was terrifying. I had to go through a lot of managers and label heads and plead my case. Thankfully everyone would go, “You know what, give it a shot.” I told her, “Honey, the only one here who has any chance of being fired is me. They’ll keep you but I could be launched into the abyss at any moment.”
WJ: I was really in a place of serenity and peace and [points to her husband] this one came in and said, “Oh, heck no! We’re going to blow stuff up, we’re going to set this on fire.” Next thing I know I’m cutting off all my fingernails and playing guitar, playing drums on stage, I’m in a band situation on the bus. I haven’t shared a bus with a band since the Eighties. Now, I’m bumping into people on stage. It’s like Cirque du Soleil!
CM: It’s kind of like a wrecking ball coming through and getting these wide-open spaces of love.
“I think this record is my musical coming-out party where I’m just letting everything come to the surface”
Are you feeling that same kind of love from the fans or do they not quite know what to think of the new music yet?
WJ: I read a book called Who Moved My Cheese? It’s about change; some people don’t like it, some people won’t do it, some people embrace it and some people thrive on it. I’m all of the above. I’m seeing myself in this book and I’m seeing it happen with the fans. Some are saying, “I embrace this love affair that you’re having, good for you.” I’m sure some are irritated by the love story because it’s a deep and wide story. Then there are some who are saying, “More Wynonna and less of the Big Noise.” It’s really hard for them to let go of the past and see me with a band. Because, I am telling you, it’s not Wynonna, Inc. over here and the Big Noise over there.
CM: There are fans who are [saying to Wynonna], “What? You were in the band with your mother?”
WJ: Then there are people who are saying, “The Big Noise is too big. She’s getting lost in it and her husband’s taking over.” They obviously don’t know me very well. [Laughs]
You’ve always had a bit of a blues influence — why do you think we’re hearing more of it on this record?
WJ: It’s just me letting it go, just being myself. It’s the fiber of my being. Blues and bluegrass are the two greatest influences. It’s being in a darkness that is so dark that your soul cries out to get relief. Because of where I’ve been and the hell I’ve been through and just the primal, guttural cry with which I have shed many a tear over children, death, divorce, being in the music business for 37 years as part of my journey. I think this record is my musical coming-out party where I’m just letting everything come to the surface. Have you ever watched a kid throw a tantrum, where they are not aware of where they are? They’re just in their own moment, just letting it all go. I think that’s what this record is for me. It’s my tantrum record.