I’ve always been a Wynonna fan first.
Growing up in the eighties, some country music of the time made its way on to my radar through long car rides with my parents. As I’ve mentioned before, it was John Conlee and Lee Greenwood and Reba McEntire and George Strait. Even some Rosanne Cash, because my parents were cooler than they or I realized at the time.
But The Judds were on my radar for their public personalities more than their music, simply because the only Judds music my family owned was a 45 of “Grandpa (‘Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days),” which was transferred to many a mixtape of theirs.
I was flirting with being a hardcore country music fan by the end of 1991, which coincided with their farewell tour and final award show appearances. By the time I was all in on the genre, Wynonna had launched her stunning self-titled debut album, which was eclipsing the commercial and critical success that the Judds had experienced toward the end of their run.
I love the Wynonna album from start to finish. They could’ve released twice as many singles from it without lowering the caliber of what was sent to radio. I also loved Wynonna’s solo persona, all grit and confidence and 100% comfortable in her own skin. Her solo career felt like a liberation from her former limitations.
Still, my appetite for country music was ravenous, so the Judds’ Greatest Hits CD made it onto my 1992 Christmas list, alongside a Super Nintendo system. I was barely 13, y’all. I hooked up the SNES to the computer monitor in my room and popped their hits CD into my stereo, expecting to give it a once over while playing the first few stages of Super Mario World. One Christmas break later, I’d found all 96 exits in the game and had listened to the Judds on repeat the entire time.
How had so many brilliant songs evaded me over the years? Sure, I knew about “Mama He’s Crazy” and “Why Not Me” and even “Rockin’ With the Rhythm of the Rain.” But “Change of Heart” was a revelation, and an early indication that Naomi Judd was a songwriter to be reckoned with. I loved the moody groove of “Cry Myself to Sleep” and Wy’s reading of “the cashier gave me the strangest look” in “Have Mercy.” I was baffled that “Give a Little Love” somehow stopped at No. 2. I was convinced that “Love is Alive” was the best song ever written about love.
The sound was mesmerizing. Those harmonies! Those acoustic guitar licks! That slow emergence of Wynonna’s bluesy growl. By New Year’s Day of 1993, I was a true blue Judds fan, and my allowance eventually went toward a copy of Greatest Hits Volume Two. It didn’t have the same impact, but “Born to Be Blue” and “Young Love (Strong Love)” joined those earlier hits among my favorite records of theirs.
Through the years I have remained a much bigger fan of Wynonna’s solo work than I am of her work with the Judds, though Naomi still remained a presence in some of my favorite Wynonna moments over the years. She co-wrote the brilliant songs “My Strongest Weakness” and “That Was Yesterday,” and provided harmony on Wy’s exquisite cover of “Flies On the Butter (You Can’t Go Home Again).” In a weird way, Naomi Judd’s impact has always felt overstated and underrated at the same time. I’m happy that they got into the Country Music Hall of Fame together, even if it means Wynonna’s deserved solo induction is now a long way off.
I can’t go back and understand what it was like hearing that classic Judds sound in real time, washing over the airwaves like a cool mountain stream. But I can go back to the Christmas of 1992 and play Greatest Hits on repeat again, and remember the awe that I felt in discovering the depth of their talent and the breadth of their material. That’s what I’m doing this morning as I write these words.