Wynonna Judd, on Her Own
NASHVILLE — Wynonna Judd was almost late for her date to sing with Joni Mitchell.
It was July 2022, and the country star had rented a yacht off the Rhode Island coast while she rehearsed for her idol’s first public performance since a 2015 brain aneurysm. That Sunday afternoon, the captain struggled to find a dock, forcing Wynonna to race to the Newport Folk Festival. She arrived a minute before showtime, squeezed into a spot toward the rear of the onstage throng and sighed with relief. Maybe people wouldn’t know she was there.
A dozen songs into the secret set, Mitchell began to purr “Both Sides Now,” the tune Wynonna — who with her mother, Naomi, comprised one of Nashville’s most indelible duos — had sung during her debut performance, at eighth-grade graduation. Cameras caught her over Mitchell’s right shoulder, often sobbing as she occasionally harmonized. Honest and unmitigated, the footage went viral. Everyone knew Wynonna was there.
“It flipped me like a pancake, man, everything coming out. I was such a beautiful little mess,” she said on a recent Saturday afternoon in an enormous Nashville rehearsal hall, red hair cascading over a silver cross resting against her stomach. She paused to apply another stratum of lip gloss. “I was thinking about my mom, how much she loved my voice. And I was so freaking mad at her for leaving me. I realized I was an orphan.”
Less than three months earlier, a mediator who has worked with the entire Judd family for more than a decade commanded Wynonna to race to her mother’s house across the 1,000-acre farm they shared outside Nashville. Her younger sister, the actress and activist Ashley Judd, was already there. Wynonna arrived nine minutes later to find paramedics ready to rush her mother and lifelong singing partner into an ambulance. Naomi had struggled for decades with severe depression and panic attacks. She died that morning, her death ruled a suicide, the day before the Judds were to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
As the Judds, Naomi, left, and her daughter Wynonna became one Nashville’s most indelible duos.Credit…Ron Wolfson
“We were still at the hospital,” Cactus Moser, Wynonna’s husband, manager and drummer, remembered later in the same dressing room. “Her exact words were, ‘I’m walking my mother into the Hall of Fame tomorrow. We’re not going to bail.’ She is an oak.”
The tearful ceremony was Wynonna’s first step in moving toward her own future. Since the Judds disbanded three decades ago, her relationship with her mother had been fraught at best, an exercise in boundaries. A fence split their spread in half. Family dinners observed firm time limits. Meetings about music were led by managers. “I can compartmentalize real easy,” she said, curling her lips.
Last week, Wynonna began what may prove the pivotal phase of putting the past to rest: the second leg of the Final Tour, a sweeping survey of the Judds’ bygone country supremacy, performed over 15 dates across the United States with a cast of guests that includes Tanya Tucker, Brandi Carlile and Kelsea Ballerini. When it is over, she believes the rest of her career can begin. Now a 58-year-old grandmother newly confronting an empty nest, one of country music’s most venerated singers is electrified by the idea of making records that turn away from what Naomi long called “Judd music.”
“It’s made me even more determined to be myself,” Wynonna said of her mother’s death in a second interview on her tour bus, flanked by photos of herself with Mitchell. “It’s given me a louder voice. I want to do stuff that makes people say, ‘What are you doing?’”
With a new record deal through the independent label Anti-, Wynonna hopes to mine the rock, folk and soul she wanted to sing before Naomi suggested a family band, when Wynonna was still a teenager. Already, she has released new music with an indie-rock descendant, Waxahatchee, and had even started a band a few years ago with the elliptical singer-songwriter Cass McCombs.
“We’ve both lived our lives as people have expected us, but she’s just getting started,” said Bobby Weir of the Grateful Dead, speaking by phone from Mexico, where Wynonna had just joined Dead & Company for a surprise performance. “I can’t wait to see who she takes with her, who she leaves wondering.”
FOR MUCH OF the ’80s, the Judds were country music’s sweethearts next door, the mother-daughter duo mistaken for sisters. The Judds’ preternatural Kentucky harmonies politely rebuffed the “Urban Cowboy” craze sparked by the 1980 film, and country’s increasing slickness. Wynonna and Naomi sang about grandpa and the good ol’ days, and then held each other in love or heartache. Naomi was the playful one, charming crowds as she sang backup; Wynonna, more stoic, was the generational singer out front.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in the business — any business, whether it’s country or rock or pop, anything — that has a greater voice than Wynonna,” Dolly Parton, a longtime mentor who thinks of her as a daughter, said in an interview. “With all the passion she has, all the stuff she feels, she was able to get that voice out there.”
The Judds’ life was “a wonderful duet,” Naomi wrote in her autobiography, “the two of us against a frightening and unknown world.” But for Wynonna, the songs were more idyllic than their circumstances. Naomi was a single mother, pinballing between California and Kentucky, Texas and Tennessee for opportunity or inspiration. By the time Wynonna was 8, she felt the burden of raising Ashley was, in part, hers. Her mother never told her that she and her sister had different fathers.
“We didn’t have the sit-down, Norman Rockwell family,” she said. “I always wanted that. I was never really allowed to be a kid.”
That applied to music, too. Wynonna loved Joni Mitchell and Bessie Smith but longed to be Linda Ronstadt or Bonnie Raitt. She wanted to build a sizzling rock band, not be in a country duo with her mother. Bouncing between short-term jobs and nursing school, Naomi had other ideas, not only to safeguard her firstborn but also to try a novel family business.
“On some level, she knew that this kid could sing,” Wynonna said, winking. “She had dreams and plans, and I had dreams and plans. They were very different. But I was so codependent, and I wanted to sing.”
Indeed, in only six years, Wynonna’s supple vocals led the Judds to country’s biggest stages. Their meteoric rise was interrupted in October 1990, when Naomi announced her sudden retirement as hepatitis C ravaged her health. Wynonna wanted to quit, too. “It’s like being in the middle of a divorce,” said Wynonna, who has endured two of them. “How can you possibly think about dating?”
But as Wynonna built a solo career, Naomi found other ways to impose. Wynonna believes her mother once hired a private investigator to learn if Wynonna’s boyfriend was gay. Naomi resented that Wynonna toured while she stayed at home. It got worse after 2009, when Wynonna partnered with Moser. Comparing her voice to some garage-bound Ferrari that had “only ever gone to fourth gear,” he encouraged her to try new songs and fresh settings of Judds standbys.
“Mom was not a big fan of me and Cactus, because she desperately wanted to be on the road,” Wynonna admitted. “There’s a piece of me that feels like I left her at the party.”
In 2019, an unexpected invitation arrived. The Nashville promoter Leslie Cohea saw Wynonna perform at a Tennessee festival, as Naomi watched from backstage. Cohea began hatching a plan for a final Judds hurrah: a full tour, taking the hits to arenas one last time.
At a preliminary meeting in a Nashville board room, mother and daughter sat at opposite ends of a conference table and offered redlines. At Naomi’s request, the songs would be true to original form, recalled Jason Owen, the founder of Sandbox Entertainment, who built the tour alongside Cohea; at Wynonna’s request, the outfits would not be fastidiously coordinated.
When Naomi started in on wardrobe plans, Wynonna gagged. “She said, ‘I’m fine. That’s just the sound of my mother’s uterus strangling my throat,’” Owen remembered in an interview. “They were playing off each other, but it was real.”
Sandbox shaped a comprehensive plan to relaunch the Judds, hinging on a taped outdoor performance of one of their final hits, “Love Can Build a Bridge,” for the CMT Music Awards in April 2022. They announced 10 tour dates that night, quickly selling most of the tickets.
The performance, however, wobbled. For the first time in Judds history, the ever-punctual Naomi was late, flustered by the unseasonably cold weather and an edit made to shorten her anthem for television. “She went from being at home, putting on makeup, to being in a multimillion-dollar production,” Wynonna said. “She wasn’t prepared.”
Wynonna is not big on regret. She doesn’t think she could have saved her mom. “Once you make that choice, you’re determined to carry it out,” she said flatly. “There’s only so much guilt to carry around.” Still, she wondered if they should have debriefed more, unpacking the anxiety of working together again.
“I missed that, because I was gone,” she said, referring to a tour of her own. Two weeks later, so was Naomi.
LATE IN THE afternoon on the first day of the Final Tour’s last leg (at least for now), Wynonna shuffled up the stage steps in a hockey arena in Hershey, Penn. “Oh, hi!” she said to a small crowd in the arena’s front two rows, stretching that last word like molasses.
More than two dozen devotees had paid extra for deluxe treatment, arriving three hours before showtime to watch a snippet of soundcheck and pose for a snapshot. After the band raced through “Have Mercy,” an early Judds hit about a hopeless cad, Wynonna grabbed a stack of scrap paper. Each fan had scribbled a question, and she started with the easy ones.
How many pets do you have? (Forty-eight, including 26 cats.) Who was your biggest influence? (Her Mamaw, or paternal grandmother.) And then, inevitably, came the queries about carrying on without Naomi. Her mother loved everybody, she said, and taught her gratitude for the life they’d built, even when it seemed impossible.
“She was a good person — to everybody else,” Wynonna said. She paused, as if realizing how harsh that sounded. “I did her hair, so she was strict with me.”
Perched above her behind the drums, Moser interceded with a mischievous grin, asking if she was ready to play. “What are you talking about?” she shot back. “I was born ready.”
In the weeks after Naomi’s death, Wynonna wasn’t sure if she was ready for this tour, to say goodbye to the Judds without her mother. She canceled a run with her own band and wondered if continuing was crass. “There was no way I was going to sing these songs without her,” she explained. “I had to seek counsel, because I was in a shutdown. Even Jesus had disciples.”
The feedback from a retinue that included Moser, her sister and even her farm manager was nearly unanimous: Play. Parton demanded as much in front of a crowd at a private memorial service, telling Wynonna she needed those shows. “I told her that Naomi had her journey, and she had hers. None of that was her fault,” Parton remembered. “I told her to get her ass out there on the road. It’s time for her to go on and do the great things she’s capable of doing, a new start.”
Singers including Carlile and Ashley McBryde, both ’80s babies reared on “Judd music,” volunteered to join her and sing Naomi’s parts. The first 11 shows last fall were more celebration than elegy.
“I would have been desperately sad if not,” Wynonna said, anxiously rubbing her hands together. “You can’t fake this. It’s not a time to put on your big-girl panties and just deal with it. This music is my foundational life journey.”
These concerts without Naomi are the culmination of an extended and unsteady process of stepping from their famous duo’s shadows, personally and professionally. Though Wynonna’s solo career was full of left turns into slinky R&B, vaulting pop and collaborations with the likes of Jeff Beck, that work was heard within the context of what she had accomplished with her mother, or might still. That is finally over.
Scenes from opening night of the Final Tour’s second leg, in Hershey, Penn.Credit…Thea Traff for The New York Times
“Almost instantly, there was less weight, less pressure,” Moser said, chatting in a Hershey sports bar. “Naomi believed I was trying to tunnel under the Judds legacy and let her fall through the cracks.”
An encyclopedic rock fan who scoffs at Nashville mores, Moser speculates about future collaborations with cerebral producers like Daniel Lanois or Blake Mills. He and Wynonna are eight songs into an album that will most likely include work with Weir, Carlile and Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam. It feels so real and vulnerable, Wynonna said, it makes her uncomfortable. “It’s the most intimate I’ve ever been,” she noted of a song called “Broken and Blessed.” “And that’s because of my mother.”
And two years ago, after her biological father died, she finally met her brother, Michael, when she called him without warning on his birthday. They talked for five hours the first time they met. “We couldn’t get over how much we looked alike,” she gushed. “They’re all so normal.”
She never told Naomi about her new family. She beamed, though, when she mentioned someday introducing him to Ashley, whom she repeatedly called “honey bunny.” Their relationship has become closer, Wynonna explained, the result of having and respecting boundaries. “We’re in such good places now,” she said. “It’s going to be OK.”
MORE THAN 20 minutes before Wynonna was due onstage in Hershey for the opening night’s 24-song set, she stood still in a backstage hallway, bare feet on the concrete floor. She talked to her son, Elijah, and asked for more hair spray. Her black velvet outfit was covered in a constellation of gold glitter, and her wavy hair was a ripple of burnished reds. She clutched an enormous white guitar, so new it gleamed even beneath wan fluorescent lights.
For the better part of a year, Moser schemed with Gibson to make a replica of the big, white guitar Wynonna bought soon after the Judds broke up. After a quarter-century of concerts, the original was as yellow as fresh butter, the wood beneath its strings ground down from countless strums. That guitar had signaled a new phase of her life, just like this one. She kept both hands around it, as if protecting a puppy. “It feels good,” she said slowly, closing her eyes to reveal more glitter.
Just then, she stopped her tour manager, Tanner Brandell, and asked how much time she had left. “I was coming to tell you that you have the trigger,” he said. “Tell me when.” Without hesitation, she said “Now” and began sauntering toward the stage, moving deliberately, as if the world could always wait for Wynonna.
She climbed the stairs and strummed a chord as the white guitar caught the spotlight for the first time. She belted out one line from an old Judds favorite, her voice every bit as mighty as it was when they cut the song in 1983: “Had a dream about you, baby.” She let the line echo back, and grinned.