By Angela Durrell
You recognize her voice even before you hear her name or see her face.
That voice; the one that rolls over the music like a laugh. It’s velvet and grit at the same time—rich, smooth, often playful, then deadly serious. Wynonna opens her mouth and an effortlessly glorious sound fills the spaces between solid objects. It’s a voice that warns you, with a wink: You better listen to me.
The richness of her voice has been a constant since she was a child, but it’s been tempered and deepened through the experiences of a life she knew early on was going to be anything but ordinary or easy. Her mother Naomi pretty much laid it out in plain terms: Breaking into music is hard, and it’s work, and it takes practice. A lot of it. You have to take care of your voice, and you need to be disciplined. And even after all that, we might still get knocked down on our butts.
Wynonna knew she had a gift; figuring out what to do with it was the challenge. So when her mother outlined the strategy of going to Nashville and warned her of the all-but-certain disappointments and setbacks that were to follow, it wasn’t a question of deciding whether or not she wanted to go for it—there was no choice, really. The only question was, When do we start?
The prospects of being rejected, knocked down, disappointed, or heartbroken were scary, of course. No one likes feeling unappreciated, and as bold and bawdy as Wynonna’s personality is, she’s also sensitive and searching, wearing her heart outside her body where the world sees it and can easily take a swing.
But it’s the only way she knew how to be authentic in a business that was often dense with artifice. It would have been so easy to conform, to submit, to acquiesce. The rebellious streak she’d had since childhood—and which had fueled an intense relationship and professional partnership with her mother—simply wouldn’t allow her to capitulate. It wasn’t in her.
So she got knocked down. Got up again. Fell again. Learned how to fall better and get up stronger.
“It took me 36 years to be able to be myself and like it,” she observed once, looking back on her astonishing, diverse, and often rebellious career.
It would have been remarkable enough had she stopped in 1991, when her mother Naomi was diagnosed with Hepatitis-C and retired from their genre-busting partnership, The Judds. That last concert, just outside Nashville on a cool December evening, was two hours of nostalgia and fun, jokes and tears, and ultimately of a mom pushing her offspring out of the nest, insisting her wings were strong enough.
“I’m not going anywhere. You’re the one who’s going places,” Naomi told her daughter as they played their last song onstage. “Just spread your wings and fly.”
Wynonna was clearly struggling not to cry as she sang the final two songs—as she had struggled throughout the evening—but the emotion powered her forward and became an indelible part of the performance. Sometimes her voice shook, or got slightly scratchy with tears, but as it had always done, it held her up even when she sometimes needed to sit down.
Striking out on her own as a solo artist was a new kind of scary. If her voice was the constant force under the wings of her life, her mother had often been the pilot. But if there was anything else Wynonna had learned by that time, it was that any kind of fear should be dive-bombed, and she knew how to get back up from any fall.
She didn’t fall.
Over the next 28 years, she sang her way through multiple Grammys, CMAs, AMAs, and just about every other music award ever conceived and cast. She bore two children she loves with the ferocity of a lioness and the roar to match. She kept her heart open after two divorces before finding her life’s duet with Cactus Moser in 2012. She reunited to harmonize with Naomi again in 1999, touring as the Judds once more and exploring the dynamic and descant of their complicated relationship in a book and a reality show. She belted her way through the confrontation of her demons, tackling food addiction and refusing to let it own her. When her husband was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident, she kept pushing the air through her lungs and her vocal cords, making more music and telling more stories.
Indomitable isn’t a word she’s likely to use to describe herself, but after eight (solo) studio albums and the ninth in progress, it does seem as if nothing short of a cosmic event could keep her down.
Focusing her energies with Moser on new music for a new label with their band, The Big Noise, she’s already back on her beloved tour bus again to play multiple venues across the US, and will be playing in Ocala at the Reilly Arts Center June 28.
To celebrate the new direction in her career, she released a stunning acappella cover of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” with her label, Anti Records. It’s fifty-five seconds of pure faith embodied in that velvet, effortless voice, embellished by nothing other than the acoustics in the room.
“What came out of my mouth surprised even me,” she told Rolling Stone in January. It was an uncomplicated and unfettered experience —the kind of music she wanted to make for the new album. “It’s kind of my battle cry for 2019. I am determined to march into this new season with a sense of pure determination—not from arrogance, but from confidence knowing that I have a gift, and I know how to use it.”
And you better listen to her.