When I was offered the opportunity to interview Wynonna Judd, of course I wasn’t going to say ‘no’ – Wynonna is a bona fide legend of American country music, and curiosity alone would have made me want to talk to her. But it certainly helped that I love her new album, recorded with a new band that includes her husband, Cactus Moser. The eponymously titled Wynonna & the Big Noise is not to be missed for Wynonna’s fans and will also introduce her to a new audience.
This interview is a transcript, as all interviews on this site are. What the transcript can’t convey is how engaging Wynonna is to speak to, because it lacks the cadence and charm of her voice. She is compelling – funny, smart and warm. There was very little for me to do because her innate drive to connect with people and tell stories meant that that’s what she did in the interview, too.
It’s such a privilege to talk to you – I’m feeling nervous and I’m not even in the same country as you.
Well, that’s love, baby.
Listening to this album, your voice sounds really strong and rich and complex, and it also sounds like you’re having fun. Were you having fun?
It’s illegal, it’s so good. It’s so good that when you’re my age and you get away with this, you just feel like you’re totally breaking the law, like, ‘How did I get in here? How did I get away with this?’ I was singing the other night with Ann Wilson from Heart and I was standing right next to her, and when it came my turn to sing in rehearsal I just completely forgot the words and everybody was looking at me like, ‘You forgot the words, for cryin’ out loud – you’re standing next to Ann Wilson.’ And I looked around at everybody and said, ‘Everybody relax! I’m standing next to freaking Ann Wilson – give me a minute!’ And everybody started laughing because they could totally relate, right? I’m standing next to a hero.
You know what, after 33 years, whether it’s a marriage or any job you have, you have to know what keeps you in that job. Do you love it? Are you doing it just for the money? Are you doing it just because you’re bored? What is your purpose? What’s your agenda? What is your calling? You look at yourself and go, ‘Why am I so miserable?’ I’ve been there. I’ve had everything – I wrote a book about how to have everything and have nothing at all. It propelled me to being on Opraheighteen times, more than any other person – because I have a story. And when I tell the story between songs I think people relate to me. Because I was raised in country music, I worked with all the legends – we’re losing them, by the way – I made a record after all these years of success, five Grammys, all the statistics, because that doesn’t matter to me any more as much as the experience. And what I love about the idea of coming to Australia is meeting a fan who’s half my age who has none of my records, and hearing my voice and saying, ‘I want to listen to that again.’ That is the payoff for me.
When I was in a club recently doing a show, I had a guy come up to the stage – I would probably never have a conversation with him anywhere else in the universe – he had a mohawkish [haircut], he had the big gromlet holes in his ears and he had on a black T-shirt that said ‘Murder’ on it. The only reason I would probably go up to him anywhere would be to ask him a question: ‘Why the heck are you wearing that?’ and, second, ‘Did your mom not teach you any better than that?’ I’m so sassy, sometimes I say stuff, I open my mouth and my mother comes out. So I go up to this guy, I grab him by the hand, I pull him into me – because, oh, that makes so much sense – and I look right in his face and I said, ‘Sing these words.’ I put the microphone in his face and he looked at me, like, I have no idea why I’m doing this but I’m going to because Wynonna Judd told me to, and he sang the words and he got emotional. And he was with his brother and you could tell there was a shift in this guy’s attitude maybe from being a bully, maybe from being a hardened criminal – I don’t know. But I just know in that moment all I had was the trust of that person, and he and I were in a moment together. I don’t think he’ll forget that moment and that moment might encourage him – it might inspire him in some positive way. That’s my goal. And I did it. And I left that town feeling like I had made a difference in someone’s day. That is what grooves me more than anyone.
I love the success, sure. I love a good seat in a restaurant – who doesn’t? But that’s not what drives me any more. This record was made – we all played the music at the same time, I sang while the band was playing. We put Jason Isbell on the song – thank you, Jason – and Susan Tedeschi and her husband, Derek Trucks, who are the blues band of the universe: love them, love them, love them. I got to hang out with Gregg Allman the other night and I gave him our record and I said, ‘Sir, this is one girl who is absolutely ready to work with you’ – I just say it, I’m not scared any more, I guess is what I’m saying. I don’t have fear like I did in my twenties about, What will people think of me? Expectations and all that crap … I’m not afraid. I stepped up on his bus, I gave him that CD and I said, ‘Sir, I would love to work with you. I can’t wait.’ And he looked at me like, Well, she doesn’t know any better. And I don’t care! If I want something, I’m going to have to make it happen. Dreams are not going to come knocking on my door. I’m going to have to get dressed and show up, and be open and ask.
And you have shown up, over and over again. Listening to you talk, it sounds like you really understand your vocation as a storyteller, and a storyteller through song as well. At what point in your life did you come to realise that about yourself?
When I was laying on the ground a year before this past year, because last year I had the surgery – when I should have died – I was laying on the grass and I was looking up at the sky and I couldn’t breathe, I’d fallen off a horse, and if I had turned my neck possibly a half-inch it would have snapped and I would have gone on. I think that was a turning point because I couldn’t move and I couldn’t breathe and that’s pretty scary. After my husband had his wreck and lost his leg – I saw the whole thing – we have a documentary on Youtube, Wynonna and Cactus: The Road Back, because we’ve turned our mess into a message, to tell other people, ‘Don’t give up’. They said he’d never play drums again, now we have a band and a new record, and he produced it, and he’s playing better than ever.
I think there are things that happen to you that make you either better or bitter and you have to make a choice. And for me, I was so devastated by his wreck and so devastated by these incidents that happened to me that I had to make a choice: I had to decide whether I was going to get up off my butt and quite complaining and move towards my destination, or if I was just going to sit there and be a victim. I could have done that easily. Did the drugs, sat back and watched life go by. But I thought, I’m not going to be here forever. My kids are grown. I’m dealing with empty-nest syndrome. Nobody’s going to come knocking on my door and say, ‘Hey, let me make your day’. I’m going to have to get off that bus. Seriously, it’s just real simple – that’s why I tell stories, because they’re real and they don’t sound poetic, they’re just real life.
I got really mad at my daughter and today I got on the bus and decided I was going to do the best show in the world because my anger and my frustration with raising a teenager is so up there, off the charts, that I thought, You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to go on stage and act like the queen of the world. And right now, I’m so mad as a parent I feel like I’m a failure, I feel like she’s turned into me – and I can’t deal with it [laughs].
One just hopes she understands that her mother is the queen …
She doesn’t, actually, and that’s the problem. Every now and again I say, ‘Grace – Google me. You’ll see how famous I am.’ [Laughs] And she just looks at me like, ‘Oh, good lord, Mother – go get me a snack.’ Anyway – I know what this business is about. It’s about people with real lives who just have a gift – we all have a gift, I believe, and mine is singing, and I don’t want to miss the opportunity. I don’t want to miss the miracle. I don’t want to be sitting at home complaining and miss the opportunity to meet Gregg Allman or sing with Ann Wilson or meet all the characters I’ve met. I don’t want to miss the opportunity to show up backstage at Earth Wind and Fire and pray with them, and them invite me into their circle. I don’t want to miss that. I don’t want to. And it’s just out of determination, I think, really more than anything to not be – what did my grandmother say … I don’t want to rust out, I want to wear out. I love that. I love that!
That is a great saying – I might use that myself.
Yes, you will.
And it seems when you come from that place of storytelling and wanting to connect with an
audience, that is why your work resonates around the world. It’s not just for a small pocket of people who are like you.
I hope not. That would be so boring, wouldn’t it? It would just be, like, ‘Yeah, it’s a job, that’s great.’ You know what I love? I love the fact that all these stories happen in real time, on the road. I’ll be doing a show and I’ll look out, and I’ll see an 18-year-old girl and next day she’s on Twitter, and she says to me, ‘I know it’ll never happen, I’ll never get a chance to meet you’, and I say to her, ‘Give me your phone number’, and I’ll call her. I just love that, because that 18-year-old is the next generation of greatness, and if she has the right person, if she has the right opportunity, she may really do something with her life, and that matters to me. And this girl – I know her by name, her name is Destiny – and she’s literally a teenager wanting to have something to look forward to, so she writes me. It’s @wynonnamusic if you want to talk to me from Australia.
I love my fans. I’ve spent more of my life with them than with my own family, really. They’re there for me when I’m platinum, they’re there for me when I’m plywood; they’re there for me whether I’m a size 8 or a size 18. They love me because I have something to say to them that means something more than just fluff. I love some of the music – some of the music I don’t identify with because to me I wasn’t raised wth that. I was raised with Tammy and Loretta and Dolly, and I was raised in the sweetness of the ’80s country music when you could walk in a room and see Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and George Jones and all these characters that we opened for. I have such a rich heritage – my heritage goes back to 1984 when we worked with Merle Haggard, we worked with the greatest legends of all time and now we’re losing our legends.
I just see [I have] an opportunity to continue to learn, to continue to reach out to people, to say that this album is not just about, ‘Hey, buy my record’. This album is about real words for real people in the real world. This band that I’m in Cactus Moser put together and said to me, ‘Come with me, you’ll have the time of your life’, and he was right. He put me on a bus with these characters, I went screaming ‘No’ as he dragged me on board – I’ve always had my own bus because, yes, I’m a diva in my own mind, right? But he said you’re going to come on this bus and you’re going to be in a band and you’re going to have fun. And I said, ‘What?’ I’ll be darned if he wasn’t right. And I ended up saving, like, a quarter of a million dollars, so there’s that. But my point is, my dear, that the reason I did it was to merge with these people, to know their stories, to know their kids’ names, to go out on stage and tell jokes and laugh so much I can’t even talk, and make mistakes and have the time of my life, and walk off stage and say, ‘If that’s the last show I do, that’s the best I have’, and I love that – I love knowing that at the end of the day I can close my eyes knowing that I have done my best.
I’m sure your fans feel that.
Well, if they don’t, they’re drunk. I had a guy the other night screaming at me, and I said, ‘Dude, go sit in the car – you can drink in the car, you don’t need me.’ And everybody started laughing because this guy was so on his own trip. And there are nights like that when I go, ‘God, please, seriously, why am I here?’[laughs] Because this guy’s screaming at me like I’m his ex-wife or something. But the rest of the fans get it and that’s why I do it. That’s why I’ll get on a plane and fly for one show – yes, one show. I have proved my loyalty to Australia: I came over there for one show and then I came back. That’s crazy!
It’s crazy but it’s also connection, and that’s what I’m hearing from you: you really understand connection with audience.
I love that. I love the idea – who would have something in common with me in Australia? I don’t know what your culture is like, I don’t know much about you, you may not know much about Nashville. You may not even know who is number one on the charts, you may not even care. But here’s what’s cool: I’m on a bus, coming to a show, I’ll get off that bus and I’ll make connections with people that I’ve never met and probably will never see again, but I made a difference in their day. That is probably the biggest motivator, because I know that someone out there in that audience someone is dying of a broken heart or they’ve lost a loved one or they’re really struggling with their kids or their spouse. Maybe they hate their job. Maybe they hate everything. But they hear me talk and they think, I had no idea that Wynonna was so broken and so blessed. And they go and buy the record, and you know what that record does? It puts a pep in their step, and they start to boogie, and in their mind they start thinking more positively. That’s what gives me the most joy.
Wynonna & the Big Noise is out now.