Wynonna Judd is many things — five-time Grammy winner, fiercely proud mother and free-spirited country superstar — but when she takes the stage this weekend, she’ll be something else: a newbie making her first introduction to the Summit County music scene.
“It had better be a good blind date, or I’m leaving,” she said with a laugh.
In addition to crisscrossing the country from north to south and coast to coast, Wynonna is also working on her eighth solo studio album. She said rather than contemplating a release date, she’s just been focusing on getting it done.
“This has been a really, really fascinating process of elimination, and probably been one of the toughest records I’ve made because of all the music that’s out there today,” she said. “I’m trying to decide what I do and do not migrate to. I have quite the musical ADD challenge of focusing. It’s been literally me sitting in a room for hours saying, I love that song, however, what is it that I want to say today?
“It’s like going shopping. You’re in the mall and you have to decide OK, what’s on my list of who I am and what I want? I know what I don’t want. I don’t want it to be a record that’s about commercial success, but from my soul. How do you mix commerce with art?”
The mish-mash of themes represented on the album is a reflection of the different layers of the complex world we live in and Wynonna’s attempt to strike a balance among all of the different topics that are important to her fans, she said.
“One day I am a patriot, the next day I’m a parent, the next day I’m a road warrior princess singing at a NASCAR race, the next day I’m preparing to sing for a group of women who need inspiration,” she said. “It’s a very interesting time, a lot of ups and downs in people’s lives.
“One minute I get a tweet from a person who’s really struggling from depression or a person who just had a baby and she’s in love with being a mother. There are so many diverse people in my life, what do I want to say to them? It’s a blessing and a burden as an artist; it’s what do I want to say and a lot of what people want to hear. What do I want to say to a soldier, his wife who’s just lost him? What do I say to the fan who doesn’t believe in God, who doesn’t like country music but likes me?”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Wynonna’s goal is to use her platform as a world-renowned performer, not to be a megaphone for the 6 o’clock news, a political leader or an idol, but to communicate her story in an honest way, to “not be a judge, but be a Judd.”
“I don’t want to be a reflection of what’s going on in the world,” she said. “I want to be part of the solution. I’m not Gandhi, but how can I make a difference? You want to be successful but you don’t want to sell out, be marketable but not just singing a catchy hook line. Country music is a story about real people in the real world, it’s not just show business. I’ve been doing it too long to stay in that category.
“I’m not interested in being Entertainer of the Year, but saying something that’s going to leave a spiritual imprint on people, and when they leave my performance, they feel better than when they came.”
Giving back and providing peace of mind, at least for an hour or so, is a way for Wynonna to get back to her roots, and part of that is creating an authentic record that’s not overly produced.
“We’re making our record in a shed a little bit bigger than one you put your lawnmower in, but not much more,” she said. “A building with some machinery in it, one wall unit of air conditioning. We sit in there and dream about being real.
“This is going to be a gut-bucket record. The most honest piece of work I’ve done. In the past, I’ve been a little bit, because of my age, a little bit obsessed with the vocals sounding good, but I want this to be so real that people are like, wow, she’s singing from her toenails. Perfectly imperfect — it’s real, it’s not slick, it’s not Photoshopped or put through a voice box that makes it sound perfect. It’s raw, sweaty, here it is: me. I want this record to represent where I’m at in life. I’m one day on top of the mountain shouting and the next day on my knees begging God to give me wisdom to help me deal with my beloved teenagers who are determined to fly the nest.”
For Wynonna, the musical roots go deep, intertwined with family and the driving ambition of growing up a Judd.
“I will say that I was taught well by a very strong mother with a will that is really hard to describe,” she said. “I think of her as one of the strongest women I’ve ever known and one of the toughest women I’ve ever known, as well as tender, and yet she had this desire to teach me how to be a champion, and in order to do that, I sacrificed a lot. I didn’t have a personal life.”
The younger Judd describes herself as being similar to an Olympic hopeful, trying to keep up with her mother’s perfectionism from the age of 18.
“That was both painful and inspiring at the same time,” Wynonna said. “When you’re going for the gold, it’s a blessing and a burden. It’s constant practice and you just need to live and breathe it, there’s no outside focus. You’re absolutely hunting for your next hit, the next TV show, the next production meeting, the next wardrobe fitting, and I spent the first 10 years of my life in that mode of literally boot camp. And I learned a lot.”
Fast-forward to her solo career, and Wynonna said she was annihilated with sadness, having left her beloved mother, Naomi, and having to strike out on her own.
“I was a student,” she said. “I had a lot of great teachers, some of the greatest artists in our history, thank God, were my mentors, Johnny Cash, Bono, Sting, Loretta Lynn. It was in the ’90s, a really good time, and I had access to the greats, Tony Bennett, all these great leaders of lyrics. And I was a sponge. So I was in training.”
Now, Wynonna is the CEO of her own corporation, and she said she’s blossomed into a leader, thanking God for the wisdom she’s gained and her ability to let go of the constant pursuit of perfection.
“I’m able to step into the circle of light around the microphone and just sing,” she said. “I don’t worry. I have freedom to express myself, and I don’t feel judged. I used to worry about what is a guy going to write about me in my critic article tomorrow? What’s his review going to say? Now I go out on stage and enjoy the heck out of myself.”
After surviving 30 years of complete chaos, Wynonna said she’s in a really grateful place, free of any responsibility or pressure.
“I know that I’m an artist and I sing the best I can and I let the rest go,” she said. “My identity is being a communicator. Where I’m at now is light years away from where I started. I wish to carry on as that free spirit, with a guitar, and do whatever I want and get away with it. It’s not arrogance, it’s confidence in who I am.
“And I wish that for all women and men who try to fit into a format and category. Forget that. I’d rather apologize later and get away with as much as possible. Not because I’m wanting to make trouble, I just want to make noise and be heard.”