Wynonna Judd Talks Johnny Cash, New Nashville and Finally Being Free
“Everything I've ever done is preparing me for this moment in this time in this heartbeat in this breath”Music Features
Released earlier this year, Wynonna Judd & the Big Noise is the eighth and perhaps most daring album of its namesake. With over three decades behind her, including multiple Grammy wins, world tours and universal success both as a solo artist and as the other half of the legendary country duo The Judds, Wynonna Judd’s status as an icon of the genre has long been assured. Though not unlike the music itself, Judd’s path hasn’t been without its troubles and heartaches. For that reason, her latest isn’t so much an endeavor into new, unexplored territory as much as it is a rekindling of passion that, according to the 51-year-old Kentucky native, never really went away.
Preceded by a covers album with 2009’s Sing: Chapter 1, Wynonna Judd & the Big Noise is the singer’s first full-length of all original material since 2003’s What the World Needs Now is Love. The 13 years between that record and this year’s release were perhaps the most challenging and uncertain of the musician’s life. From an acrimonious divorce to a DUI arrest to what could have easily been a fatal car accident, what could have proved to be a series of insurmountable obstacles became the foundation for what Judd says is heard in the music now. Judd recently spoke with Paste about the new music and her renewed sense of purpose in this candid interview.
Paste: This album is really special for you for a number of reasons. What was your perspective going in?
Judd: That’s a great question, my dear. You’re right, I’m coming out of an incredibly large challenging time in my life having done what I’ve done and accomplished what I’ve accomplished. Lots of failure in the mix, which is what I’ve learned more from, actually. Truthfully, I can break it down to you real simply. It’s so personal between Cactus and I, what we have been through together. Most of the time, artists go in with marketing first and then they try to fulfill people’s expectations. They try to market before they make the product. It was the exact opposite for us. Cactus and I were staying at a hotel in Coronado. I’m really terrified of the ocean. I had an experience as a child where I almost drowned and I didn’t know which way was up, and I was just really scared. We were out there having a romantic evening after a date night, and he literally took me by the hand and he said, “Do you trust me?” I said, “Yes I do.” I’ve known this man since I was 20, and I’ve loved him ever since.
Thirty years later, we began dating again, having run into each other during transitions in both our lives. But we were on this date night. He took me into the ocean. I was terrified. I’m talking little girl, chatter teeth, the whole thing. He said, “Hold on.” I’m telling you, that became a metaphor for our experience together musically. He took me in, the water got up to my chin, and then the wave came and totally drenched us both. I was terrified. It was dark. But I remember that moment like it was our wedding day. I just remember me holding on to him. I’ve never felt that trust with anyone. That’s how our love affair began. With that being said, when he said to me, “We’re going to make this record and we’re going to do it this way,” I submitted my resignation and fired myself as a control addict. I said, “Okay. I’m going to try it your way. I’ve done it my way, and I’ve succeeded, and I’ve failed.”
I just wanted something different. This goes to a personal level. Not just, “Nashville’s going to love this record.” This is the two of us sitting in a room and deciding we’re going to do it live, and we’re going to do it with people we like. We went to friends. We went to people we loved. We were blown away, and it was a very personal journey that started with just the man and the woman saying to each other, “Do you trust me?” I said yes. I went with the trust I’ve not ever had. He took me down a path I’d not been down before. Now I just want to interpret these words as honestly and as transparent as I can. I think you can hear that. There are moments in the record that I cried because I knew I was crying when I was singing it.
Paste: There’s a different kind of earnestness in the music as well.
Judd: It’s a different place. I’m 51. It’s a big difference from 30. Trust me.
Paste: Were you more retrospective with this record as far as looking back and seeing those obstacles, the failures and successes?
Judd: It was present. I think there were moments when I would be walking back up to the house from the studio going, “God, it’s been a long journey.” There were some really cool moments where I was just like, you know what? Everything I’ve ever done is preparing me for this moment in this time in this heartbeat in this breath. I’m living as fully as I’ve ever lived in my life. There’s a lot of responsibility in that. As free as you are, there’s a lot of responsibility.
If you’re going to open yourself up to be that vulnerable and that transparent, you better be ready to feel as scared as you’ve ever felt in your life. On the other side of that fear is freedom. I had to go through a new process. That process blew the doors open to my soul in a way I didn’t expect. Boy, I’m glad it did. When I went down to SXSW this year, I felt so much freer than I did last year. Last year was a different dynamic. I am so grateful. I am so excited to be here. I am going to sing from my toenails. I have nothing to lose. I have everything to gain. I don’t want to be a slave anymore to the grind. I don’t want to be the same old. I want something new to happen. In order to do that I had to go to another level of awareness and sensitivity.
Paste: I wanted to ask about the guest performers on the record. That’s a damn impressive list.
Judd: I know! [Laughs.] And we had no idea Chris Stapleton was going to blow up the way he did. We had an idea that Jason [Isbell] was making some changes in the atmosphere, the sonic boom he was putting out there. We knew it was changing the environment, but we had no idea. It was pretty interesting the timing. [Jason] come out to the farm and down to our little studio that’s filthy and dirty. He just sat there singing with his ball cap on and was so humble. Of course, I see him months later on Letterman, and I’m like, whoa, I had no idea.
Paste: You seeing these contemporary country artists making the kind of impact they are, does that give you pause to think about your own influence on them and so many others?
Judd: What I usually try to do is stop myself before I go into my, “I’m a spokesperson for country music” spiel. [Laughs.] I can tell you from experience only. My first concert was George Jones and Merle Haggard. I was raised by the highway. Johnny Cash was a mentor. I go into those moments of remembering the times with Willie [Nelson] doing a duet. I have such a rich heritage. That having been said, I also sang at George’s funeral. I’ve come a really long way from the first time Loretta Lynn. She hugged me like I was her relative. I just spoke to her on the phone the other day and she told me she loved me three times. That, to me, is my absolute. I was with Tammy [Wynette] in her darkest moments with her health scares. I sang at her memorial. It’s a weird, interesting, oh my gosh, how does this happen kind of thing.
There’s a frustration as a mother that too much happens too soon to be an artist. There’s a motherly instinct where I mentor now. I get these young girl singers on my Twitter feed saying, “You’re an inspiration. What advice do you have?” And I’m very, very strict. My mother raised me that way. Tough love, I say. First of all, you must have the gift. It would be difficult to be a racecar driver if you had glaucoma. Number two, you need a good lawyer, and you need someone around you who tells you the truth, and they’re not on your payroll. Number three, do it because there’s no way you cannot do it. Do it because you love it so much you’d be willing to do it for free. If you can answer those three questions for yourself, you’re at least partially there.
I just did The Voice, and these young kids come up to me and say the same thing: “I grew up on your music.” Some of them want to be famous. I just go, “God be with you because if that’s your goal, you’re in the wrong business.” If you want to be rich and famous, you might be, and it might last for a minute. I’ve had 33 years of it and a lot of it during some of the darkest moments of my life. I was on stage five weeks after giving birth to my daughter, which I almost died giving birth. I’m telling you, I’ve been down the road to hell so many times. I’m blessed if a place has air conditioning. I come from a different era. I come from the era of if you’re late, Dolly Parton is sitting there waiting. I come from the era of you don’t say to Johnny Cash, “Hey Johnny!” Are you kidding me? It’s like calling your teacher by her first name when you’re in second grade. It doesn’t happen.
There’s a little frustration on my part with the entitlement piece. There are some things I see that’s youthful arrogance of, “I’ve had one hit.” First of all, your one hit doesn’t give you license to bypass work ethic. You don’t get to sit on your high horse and get a million dollar bus. You can get a million dollar bus, but you’re going to lose your money. There’s a lot happening to a lot of these youthful kids who just aren’t ready. It’s like handing the keys to your 13-year-old and saying, “You drive.” It’s too much. I’ve gotten in trouble because I’ve said some things. I was at an awards show and somebody asked me about Taylor Swift. I don’t know if she had graduated from high school. They said something to me like, “What do you think about her being nominated for entertainer of the year?” I said, “Too much too soon.” I didn’t mean it as in I’m jealous. First of all, I have five Grammys. I don’t even want to go there. They did. They spun it. They tried to make it out like I was giving criticism. I said, “Wait a second. I have a daughter. Do I want my daughter to have sex at age 14? No.” I just think it depends on which hat I’m wearing. If you’re asking me as a professional, I come from a very, very secured place. I earned my space, and I’ve owned it long enough to say that I’m not exceptionally comfortable with it, but I’m very confident of having earned it. There’s no arrogance as much as there’s this confidence of knowing I’ve survived 33 years.
Paste : That background has been such a part of country music’s background going all the way back to Hank, Sr., or even someone like Roy Acuff.
Judd: I think about it and go, whoa. I opened for all of those characters. I know I’m the kid. I was always the kid in the room. I was always the youngest girl in the midst of the sea of men who were twice my age. They used to call me Little Judd. It was always very present in my mind that I was the youngest and most inexperienced. I literally pulled over with a straight face not that long ago and said, “It’s only been in the last five years that I have felt remotely as if I’ve earned my success.” I was just so young. I felt like I’d gotten into the party without an invitation. Of course, I’m here now, and I’m going to get away with as much as I can before they throw me out. That was my mentality, though, and I had it for so long. It’s only been after having children and after having a few “oh gosh, that kicked my butt” moments that I went, “you know what? I think I’ve arrived.” I think I’ve gotten to that point where I realized I’m coming into my authority.
As a parent you do get to a point where you realize: I’m the parent. When you first have them you’re like, “Oh my God! I’m terrified!” Then you get to a confidence level of saying no. I’m the parent. I say no. That’s where I’m at. That’s the way life was in country music at the time in the ‘80s. When you were raised in that world of “yes sir” or “yes ma’am.” “I’m sorry I’m late.” “I apologize.” My mom would have me go to the director and have me apologize for being late. I didn’t get a hall pass from having to be accountable. I do have a sense that this record has opened a door. I know this. I’m singing this new music and I’m going, “oh my gosh, this is going to be either the greatest moment or the worst.” I think there’s a lot to the happiness I have now. It’s just time for me to rest.
I think I’m in a real place of rest. A season of rest. I’m willing to be vulnerable. When I did SXSW there were some real hipsters there that looked very intimidating. The people that you see at Starbucks or Whole Foods that you see and think, “wow, you look really intelligent.” I was scared. I took my shoes off. I messed up my hair. I was playing a church at midnight. It was a very awkward time for me. I’d been waiting for hours to go on stage. These guys are all sitting there. I know they’re sitting there going, “You’re this pop country act. I know I’m going to be irritated.” By the end of the performance they were on their feet, and I thought, “I’ve done well.” That was more of a statement than anything I’ve done in a long time. That’s a very specific environment. I’ve been around long enough to know what not to do. I’m still young enough to be hungry and want more. I’m really satisfied with what I have. That’s a really good place to be because you’re full. If I want dessert, I think that’d be fun. That’s what this record is. It’s my fun record where I’m not worried about format. I’m not checking the charts every week. “What number am I, so I can go on living?” I’ve been there before. I’ve had experiences where my record fell five spots, and I stayed in bed for half the day. I’ve been there. Done all that.