100 Greatest Women, #11: Wynonna & The Judds

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

#11

Wynonna & The Judds

2008 Edition: #10 (-1)

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.

The Judds were honored for their historic contributions to country music in 2013 with the Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award from the Academy of Country Music, a likely precursor to their eventual induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. They toured again in 2010 and 2011, documenting the trek on a reality TV show and releasing a one-off single, “I Will Stand By You.” Wynonna, for her part, released a covers collection in 2009, Sing: Chapter 1. After marrying Highway 101 drummer Cactus Moser, Wynonna collaborated with him on the critically acclaimed album, Wynonna & The Big Noise, which released in 2016.

Essential Singles

The Judds:

  • Mama He’s Crazy, 1984
  • Why Not Me, 1984
  • Love is Alive, 1985
  • Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days), 1986
  • Young Love (Strong Love), 1989
  • Love Can Build a Bridge, 1990

Wynonna:

  • She is His Only Need, 1992
  • I Saw the Light, 1992
  • No One Else on Earth, 1992
  • Tell Me Why, 1993
  • Is it Over Yet, 1993
  • To Be Loved By You, 1996
  • Come Some Rainy Day, 1998
  • I Want to Know What Love Is, 2004

Essential Albums

The Judds:

  • Why Not Me, 1984
  • River of Time, 1989
  • Love Can Build a Bridge, 1990

Wynonna:

  • Wynonna, 1992
  • Tell Me Why, 1993
  • Revelations, 1996
  • What the World Needs Now is Love, 2003
  • Wynonna & the Big Noise, 2016

Industry Awards

  • Academy of Country Music Awards
    • Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award, 2013
    • Song of the Year
      • Why Not Me, 1985
    • Top Female Vocalist (Wynonna), 1994
    • Top Vocal Duet, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991
  • Country Music Association Awards
    • Horizon Award, 1984
    • Single of the Year
      • Why Not Me, 1985
    • Vocal Duo of the Year, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991
    • Vocal Group of the Year, 1985, 1986, 1987
  • Grammy Awards
    • Best Country Song
      • Love Can Build a Bridge (Naomi Judd), 1992
    • Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group
      • Mama He’s Crazy, 1985
      • Why Not Me, 1986
      • Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days), 1987
      • Give a Little Love, 1989
      • Love Can Build a Bridge, 1992

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

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Previous: #12. Patty Loveless

4 Comments

  1. ♡ Wynonna Judd. Definitely one of the great voices in music history, whether she’s flying solo or with her mother. She was also the second female artist I ever had any of on CD (the first was Suzy Bogguss), when I picked up her self-titled solo debut at a Half Price Books (the day after I purchased Suzy’s Give Me Some Wheels at a different HPB, in fact!)

    Probably my favorite thing Wy’s been involved with is the Judds’ first single, “Had a Dream (for the Heart)”, mostly for the largely unaccompanied first two lines alone. In fact, it was the only reason I bought the Wynonna and Naomi mini-LP. As for her solo stuff? I like most of what of hers I’ve heard, but to me, “She is His Only Need” never stood out as remarkable – heck, there was one time I heard it on the radio and thought it was Reba McEntire singing it.

  2. Wynonna and the Judds were my earliest memories in listening to country music. They are my favorite duo ever in country music. But, when Wynonna branched out on her solo career with No One Else on Earth, I became more of a fan. I love Wynonna’s voice so much. It so distinctive and different that I heard from a woman in country. My favorite albums from Wynonna are Wynonna, Tell Me Why, and What The World Needs Now Is Love. My favorite album from the Judds is Why Not Me.

  3. Incredible voice. I was more of a fan of her solo work than some of the Judds’ songs, but whatever she chose to sing, it was always fantastic.

    I would add her solo hit ‘Only Love’ to the essential singles list. I once listened to that song six times in a row because I couldn’t get enough.

    Not sure who replaced her in the top 10, but it doesn’t matter. Wynonna deserves top 10 status on this list.

  4. Never got to see Wynonna. Favorite songs not included in essential singles:
    “Girls with Guitars” (Mary Chapin Carpenter)
    “When Love Starts Talkin” (Jamie O’Hara, Gary Nicholson & Brent Maher)

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