100 Greatest Women, #10: Wynonna (The Judds)

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June 21, 2008

100 Greatest Women

#10

Wynonna (The Judds)

One of the most extraordinary voices in the history of recorded music belongs to Wynonna Judd. As the lead singer of mother-daughter duo The Judds, she was part of the new traditionalist movement that brought country music back to its roots. But when she launched her solo career in 1992, she transformed herself into the most soulful female country singer of her generation.

Wynonna lived in both California and rural Kentucky growing up, and when living in the latter, she would only get along with mother Naomi while the two were singing. Much like the titular character of her solo hit “Girls With Guitars”, it was only singing and playing her guitar that brought her happiness. Wynonna always sang lead, and her mother provided counterpart harmony, where she would sing a mirror of Wynonna’s melody, going up when she went down, and vice versa.

Naomi started a nursing degree while in Kentucky, and she moved Wynonna and sister Ashley back to the West Coast for her to finish her schooling. Even at age fifteen, Wynonna’s stunning vocal prowess was apparent, and Naomi moved the girls to Nashville so she could pursue a recording contract for mother and daughter. While Wynonna was in school, Naomi used every spare moment when she wasn’t working to promote their act, now billed The Judds, and she passed on their demo tape to anybody who would listen.

Soon, the duo was performing on Ralph Emery’s morning show, and when producer Brent Maher’s daughter was a patient of Naomi’s, she slipped a tape his way. He didn’t listen to it immediately, but once he heard it, he flipped. He made arrangements to produce the act and they were soon recording for RCA Records, in a joint partnership with Curb. Wynonna was the youngest person signed to RCA since Elvis Presley, which fit neatly with her desire to be the female Elvis.

Their first single, “Had a Dream (For the Heart)” quickly made waves, reaching #17. They released an EP titled The Judds – Wynonna and Naomi. Even in the beginning, there was a sense that Wynonna would eventually be a solo act, and the title helped establish the two personalities in the duo from the start. The next single, “Mama He’s Crazy,” was perfectly matched to the mother-daughter setup of their act. They filmed a music video at their home, and the song became a smash, topping the chart and winning them their first of five Vocal Duo/Group Grammys, a run matched only by the Dixie Chicks. The CMA gave them the Horizon Award in 1984, and as they went to the stage in homemade dresses, Naomi exclaimed, “Slap the dog and spit in the fire!”

Their first full-length set Why Not Me kept the hits coming, with four #1 singles: the title track, “Love is Alive,” “Girls Night Out” and “Cry Myself to Sleep.” It sold two million copies and won a Grammy. “Why Not Me” was named Single of the Year by the CMA and Song of the Year by the ACM. 1985 started an award-winning streak where they would win seven consecutive ACM Top Vocal Duet awards. At the CMAs, they won Vocal Group three years straight, and then when they were moved to the Vocal Duo category, they won that for the next four years. Their traditional, rootsy sound was an important part of the new traditionalist movement, which helped bring country music back to the forefront of American popular culture.

The duo had top-selling albums with Rockin’ With the Rhythm, Heart Land, River of Time and Love Can Build a Bridge. Their Christmas album went platinum, and their first hits collection double platinum. Over the course of seven years, they scored fourteen #1 singles, including eight in a row. They were the first duo in history to be nominated for Entertainer of the Year. In 1990, they released the first 3-D music video, for the peacemaking hit “Love Can Build a Bridge,” one of several hits written by Naomi.

However, Naomi was diagnosed with hepatitis, forcing her to retire. After a teary press conference, the duo announced a farewell tour, which sold out across the country. The pair received support on the tour from up-and-comer Garth Brooks. The final concert was attended by fellow stars like Reba McEntire and Kathy Mattea, and was a popular pay-per-view special and top-selling home video.

By the time the duo’s run came to an end, they had begun including more soulful material, and Wynonna’s vocals had become more prominent, and Naomi’s harmonies less essential. When Wynonna recorded her solo debut, expectations were high, but nobody expected the genre-busting smash that was her self-titled set. Wynonna featured growling vocals that showed far greater range and emotional depth than anything she had done with the Judds.

There was a sense of liberation to the project, and the ambitious selection of material impressed critics, even earning her a lead rave review in Rolling Stone. The album sold an astonishing five million copies, the highest-selling studio album by a female country artist in history at the time. Three singles from the set topped the chart, including the four-week No.1 single, “No One Else on Earth,” which became Wynonna’s signature hit. She was nominated for all of the top industry awards on the strength of that first album.

The most amazing transformation, however, was her stage show. While with the Judds, Wynonna would stand still and sing, usually with a guitar, while her mother engaged the audience, practically a wallflower at her own concerts. As a solo star, she was a force of nature, commanding the stage and cheekily interacting with the concertgoers.

By the time she released Tell Me Why in 1993, she was co-headlining with Clint Black, having scored the hit duet “A Bad Goodbye” with him earlier that year. The new album was even more ambitious than the last, featuring songs written by Sheryl Crow, Jesse Winchester and Mary Chapin Carpenter. She scored another five top ten singles, and was named ACM’s Top Female Vocalist in 1994.

After taking time off to have her first child, Wynonna resurfaced with the spiritually reflective Revelations in 1995, which featured the #1 hit “To Be Loved By You” and her take on “Change the World,” which was later a hit for Eric Clapton. She continued to be fearless in her selection of material, including a ferocious cover of the southern rock standard “Free Bird.” Her 1997 album, The Other Side, continued her genre-blurring country-blues sound, with the highlight being the heart-stopping ballad “Come Some Rainy Day.”

In 1999, The Judds reunited for a millienium New Year’s Eve show. Wynonna’s fifth solo album New Day Dawning arrived the following year, and it included a four-song Judds EP called Big Bang Boogie. A brief reunion tour followed, along with a 2-CD live set of the New Year’s Eve concert.

The new millenium has featured one of Wynonna’s best albums to date, 2003′s What the World Needs Now is Love. Highlights included the nostalgic “Flies on the Butter (You Can’t Go Home Again)”, which had Naomi on backing vocals, and her jaw-dropping cover of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is”, which became an international dance hit. In 2005, her autobiographical tour produced the stellar CD and DVD Her Story: Scenes From a Lifetime. Wynonna released her actual autobiography as well, Coming Home to Myself, and most recently used her legendary pipes on her Christmas standards collection Classic Christmas.

Wynonna (The Judds)

Essential Singles

  • “Mama He’s Crazy,” 1984
  • “Why Not Me,” 1984
  • “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days),” 1986
  • “Love Can Build a Bridge,” 1990
  • “She is His Only Need,” 1992
  • “No One Else on Earth,” 1992
  • “Come Some Rainy Day,” 1998
  • “I Want to Know What Love Is,” 2004

Essential Albums

  • Why Not Me (1984)
  • Wynonna (1992)
  • Tell Me Why (1993)
  • Revelations (1995)
  • What the World Needs Now is Love (2003)

Industry Awards

  • ACM Song (“Why Not Me”), 1985
  • ACM Top Vocal Duet, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990 & 1991
  • ACM Top Female Vocalist, 1994
  • CMA Horizon Award, 1984
  • CMA Single (“Why Not Me”), 1985
  • CMA Vocal Group, 1985, 1986 & 1987
  • CMA Vocal Duo, 1988, 1989, 1990 & 1991
  • Grammy: Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (“Mama He’s Crazy”), 1985
  • Grammy: Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (“Why Not Me”), 1986
  • Grammy: Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (“Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days”), 1987
  • Grammy: Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (“Give a Little Love”), 1989
  • Grammy: Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (“Love Can Build a Bridge”), 1992

==> #9. Kitty Wells

<== #11. Alison Krauss

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  1. LeeannNo Gravatar says:

    Oh man, I love the Judds and Wynonna!!! The Judds are my gold standard of what a duo should sound like. Unlike B&D, they had distinct harmonies that could not be substituted by anyone else. They were clearly a duo. Although Wy was the clear lead vocalist, Naomi added a distinctive harmony that didn’t just sound like any old backup studio singer.

    Then there is Wynonna on her own. As Kevin said, she really came into her own as a solo act. I love both voices, Wynonna of the Judds and Wynonna as a solo artist. They’re different, but wonderful in their own ways. I agree that What The World Needs was an excellent album. I was so glad to hear it and had really hoped that it would be her comeback album. “Flies On the Butter” ranks as one of my favorite Judds songs, even though it was done more than a decade after the Judds disbanded. It perfectly captured the innocence of the Judds sounds.

    I could go on and on.

    In an earlier comment, I said that Patty and Trisha were my favorite women singers, but the Judds and Wynonna are right up there with them.

  2. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar says:

    We differ on this one Kevin – I have the Judds at 29 and didn’t have a separate listing at all for Wynonna. As a solo artist Wynonna has been remarkably inconsistant and her work with the Judds still represents most of her best work.

    Truthfully, I think that Wynonna would be better served to give up the pretense of being a country singer and just take aim at the R&B / Jazz and pop markets, where her voice is better suited. I can see her having an Ella Fitzgerald / Aretha Franklin type of career more than I can see her as a country artist.

    She is a TERRIFIC singer – just completely miscast as a country singer

  3. JonathanNo Gravatar says:

    I’ve found latter-day Wynonna a bit underwhelming– her constant “sisterfriend” interjections and increasingly hammy theatrics are off-putting (along those lines, when she recorded “Burnin’ Love” for Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, she actually referred to herself as “the female Elvis,” a self-assessment that could fall anywhere along a spectrum from “dead-on” to “blasphemy” depending on one’s take on both Wy and Elvis individually), and I think she’s irreparably damaged the tone of her wonderful voice at least two botched nose-jobs ago.

    That said, both with The Judds and as a solo act in her prime, Wynonna really demonstrated how a true artist builds an identity that is distinct from what their contemporaries are doing; there’s a deliberately constructed aesthetic to her records that makes them immediately identifiable. It’s all the more impressive that the character of her work with The Judds and that of her solo career are so fully-realized and so different– to the extent that separate entries for the two on a list like this one would have been as well-justified as a single mention.

    Personally, I love the grit and soulfulness of her best work, and the R&B growl that she brought to contemporary country. Sure, she could make for a convincing R&B singer, but I’m glad that she’s chosen to remain a country singer– stylistic diversity, when it comes through the kind of authoritative presence that Wynonna carries, only makes the genre all the richer. Her self-titled debut is one of the strongest start-to-finish albums to come out of Nashville in the 90s and, unlike many albums of that era, it has aged surprisingly well.

  4. ccfNo Gravatar says:

    So your combined the Judds and Wynonna to one number? hmm if so that leaves me guessing for one more name.

  5. The Judds were selling platinum and multi-platinum when selling gold was considered big-time. The Judds drew a lot of non-country fans to country music without having to cross over to pop radio to do it.

    I loved that most of the Judds music was acoustically driven. They showed you could still rock out even without an electric guitar in the band. When they did finally put an electric guitar in one of their songs (Let Me Tell You About Love), they got one of the best electric guitar plays in Carl Perkins.

    I know the personal theatrics over the last few years involving Wynonna, Naomi, and even Ashley have taken away for some from the Judds music. However, I think history will look very kindly on them, as it should.

  6. JoeNo Gravatar says:

    I’ve heard Wynonna on AC radio before, especially after the coming of Shania. Nothing like that since Dolly had crossover appeal. These ladies are giving respect to country females to be heard outside the box.

  7. Jewels says:

    Well, this ranking makes me want to know the criteria used for this list even more. I would never have combined The Judds and Wynona into one listing. I guess with a list of 100, Wynona as a solo artist would have been on there somewhere but certainly not very high. As for The Judds, I am not sure where I would have ranked them as I did not write out a list of my top 30. But, I am sure they would have made my Top 30 easily enough. But, in the Top 10 for me it would not even be close. When I look at other artists already on this list and where they are, well, the Judds have to be behind them. Brenda Lee, Barbara Mandrell, Patsy Montana and the list goes on. I would have The Judds ahead of the Dixie Chcicks by a mile but the Chicks are also ranked too high here as far as I am concerned.

    But, Wynona as a solo artist. Take a step back and picture the reverse. Say, Wyonan came on the scene as a solo artist….where would she has been able to go. Somehow, I do not think she would have met with great success. But, being part of The Judds helped her when she embarked as a solo singer and I think she was cut some slack because of this when she first started solo. But, a good solo artist with this kind of ranking, I just cannot agree.

    Also in making the listing Wynona(The Judds), you are really giving more emphasis to Wynona! If you wanted to link them together, I think The Judds(Wynona) would have been a better listing though I would have left the name Wynona off entirely.

  8. ZeaNo Gravatar says:

    The should have said The Judds (Naomi and Wynonna) Wy is an amzing singer but no one realizes how much harmony is, when Naomi was forced to retire you lost a huge part of Wy with her music. I thought that the Judds were placed well on the list maybe they shouldve been higher. But it shouldve been writen The Judds (Naomi and Wynonna).

  9. JazorNo Gravatar says:

    Wynonna should be at number one. Let’s face it folks, without Wynonna’s powerhouse vocal ability, there would have been no Judds. Naomi is the harmony piece in that duo and could have never had a recording career without Wynonna’s superior ability. The Judds “act” was what sold millions of concert tickets but if it were just Naomi and her pretty face on stage, the crowd would have eventually gotten bored with the entire thing. Naomi brought the flirt, fun and laughter to the set…not vocal ability. Further, Wynonna has not had the greatest luck with her record companies. they choose less that GREAT songs to put out as singles and always tried to buck her efforts to be creative and soar like she should have. And….Wynonna is the FIRST modern day country artist to cross over to pop music. After Dolly, no one did that. She is his only need, no one else on earth, healing (with Michael English), and I’m not in love yet (with Huey Lewis) were ALL pop hits. Wy was pre-Shania, let us not forget. She blazed the trails for all of the current hit makers.

  10. maria silveiraNo Gravatar says:

    i have hepatice and i love to read her book , she be my model to survie besides my God amen

  11. Colt McGrawNo Gravatar says:

    No one else on earth compares to Wynonna. She deserve every recognition she gets. I LOVE YOU WYNONNA.

  12. TravisNo Gravatar says:

    I love Wynonna’s voice much like that of the lead singer of the Forrester Sisters…. I feel, however, that she got to trapped up in her own voice, which leads me to believe she loved hearing herself sing, more than I did….. Her first solo album was amazing but I’ve not cared for anything since as her direction and song choices have been severely hit and miss….. is it that radio changed and she never caught up,, perhaps,,,

    I truly think that, although she has tons of fans from the Judds days,, in all honesty, she’s weird, her mother is weird and together they are wack, and the true country fans don’t care for that to much…. Country has two options,,, clean and sober or drunk and drugged up and Wynonna is neither of these,,, just an odd human being with a great voice…..

    In all her interviews I’ve seen of her, she’s living “out there” in a world all her own and it seems the interviewer as usual is trying hard to reign her or her mother back in to answer a simply question without making it into a HUGE production of an answer…….I once saw her tell choir members who were backing her, NOT to touch her hair,, REALLY… your hair is disgusting and looks like FAKE color and bad extensions… I’m a licensed hairstylist, so that is my professional opinion….. CUT it off already…

    Don’t get me wrong,, I enjoy the Judds and I enjoy her as a solo artist but she always was a solo artist as her mom just looked pretty and made cute remarks.. Naomi was not a vocalist by any means and her harmony, if you listen closely was weak at best,, one reason for back up choirs and other voices used in recordings….

    Back to Wynonna,,, great singer, OVER sings most days but still a great singer,,, not worth being at this ranking in the least as she has not done anything to further country music in my book….

    I sound like i Hate her, but I don’t ,,, I just don’t her and her mom are very fake ppl…..

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