“Raise your hand if you’ve never seen me in concert before,” Wynonna Judd told the crowd of about 200 at Bethel Hall in St. David’s Church on Saturday. A few dozen hands went up. Judd nodded. “About frigging time.”
Judd confessed, “Tonight’s a big fat hairy deal for me.” She rolled in to the show with a lot of baggage: not just a checkered personal life (divorces, arrests, etc), but her mega-successful career (she’s scored 20 Number One singles, both solo and with her mother Naomi in the Judds). At age 50, she’s incredibly famous, but has the cheesy sheen that adheres to many mainstream country stars of the Eighties and Nineties. The antidote: playing with a stripped-down three-piece band of stone Nashville pros and telling stories about her own life between songs. The audience, a mix of superfans and skeptics, watched Judd reinvent herself in the space of an hour.
She noted that her musical career began in Austin, when she hung out at the club Antone’s at age 13 with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimmy Vaughan of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, cracked jokes about how it was appropriate for her to be playing a church as Saturday night turned into Sunday morning, and said of her dysfunctional family life, “If you had to share a bus with your mother for 10 years, wouldn’t you be that way too?”
Speaking of Dave Grohl, she said affectionately, “He’s like a tenth grader with cash.” Speaking of Kanye West somewhat less affectionately, she said, “I could take him with one hand tied behind my back.”
But most of all, Judd played music, both her old hits and three new tunes from a forthcoming, unfinished album. Without overblown production, the emphasis was on her big, bluesy voice — she said that at an early age, she wanted to be known as “Shelvis,” and her Presley roots came through as she took control of her own music, and her own story.
Judd was clearly nervous about the show: She noted that it was strange to be able to see an audience up close, and when a few members departed as the hour grew later, she visibly glared at them. After an anemic singalong to the 1986 Judds hit “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Ol’ Days),” she noted that the last time she had played that song, she had 50,000 fans singing along. But she shouldn’t have worried: Judd demonstrated that she had talent and personality to relaunch her own career, and have enough left over for three other acts.