Music News & Reviews

Wynonna Judd on country music, romance and returning to her roots

Wynonna Judd belts out a tune out during a performance in May at Dylan Fest in Nashville, Tennessee.
Wynonna Judd belts out a tune out during a performance in May at Dylan Fest in Nashville, Tennessee. Invision/Associated Press

When her mother, country star Naomi Judd, retired from the music industry in 1991, Wynonna Judd felt a sense of loss.

The two had spent eight years performing and touring as the hugely successful duo The Judds, releasing six studio albums and snagging five Grammy Awards and eight Country Music Association Awards.

“I did everything with Mom. I don’t remember having a day where it wasn’t the two of us,” Wynonna Judd, 52, said, adding that her mother was “the first person I saw in the morning, the last person I saw at night. … I was not used to being solo.”

The flame-haired singer suddenly found herself forced to go it alone.

“It was quite terrifying,” she said.

But Judd has survived, and thrived, garnering four Grammy nominations as a solo act.

Her platinum-selling debut album, 1991’s “Wynonna,” yielded a trio of chart-topping hits — “I Saw the Light,” “No One Else on Earth” and “She Is His Only Need” — and won her the Academy of Country Music’s Female Artist of the Year award. Her 1996 album, “Revelations,” spawned another No. 1 song, “To Be Loved By You.”

Over the years, Judd has put out eight studio albums plus an autobiography, “Coming Home to Myself,” and a novel, “Restless Heart.” She’s dabbled in acting, competed on the reality show “Dancing with the Stars” and appeared with her mother and younger sister, actress Ashley Judd, on the docu-series “The Judds.”

In addition to these successes, the Kentucky native has also dealt with hardship and heartbreak, including struggles with addiction and troubled relationships. (She divorced her second husband, former bodyguard D.R. Roach, in 2007 after he was arrested on charges of aggravated sexual assault and battery against a minor.)

But Wynonna Judd said one of her biggest challenges to date has been breaking out of her comfort zone.

2011 saw the debut of Judd’s band, Wynonna & the Big Noise, and a bold new musical direction. Her album “Wynonna & the Big Noise,” recorded at her family farm’s in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, and released in February, finds Judd “gleefully crossing lines between hard country, electric blues rock and contemporary Americana,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

Judd credited her husband of four years, drummer Michael “Cactus” Moser, with pushing her creatively.

“He brought me back to a real place of centeredness that I needed, honestly,” she said. “He just said, ‘This is about artistry. This is about you being authentic.’ ”

Judd, who performs as part of Wynonna & the Big Noise at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Live Oak Music Festival in northern Santa Barbara County, recently chatted with The Tribune about music, romance and returning to her roots. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Q. Let’s start by talking about your partnership with your husband/bandmate.

A. The most important thing is I’ve loved him since I was 20. We toured together in the ’80s and we’ve had a connection since then.

Through the years during my most successful and worst times, he’s been my confident. I’ve taken my boyfriends to meet him. I’ve always asked his opinion creatively. He’s just always been there. He’s always been part of my landscape. …

What I love the most about our story is it started off with such a sense of trust and respect. … In hooking up with Cactus once again, romantically, I found myself really drawn to his joy and his ability to be such a positive person in my life. I had walked through a pretty dark time and he was this beacon of hope. …

Sure, he’s a badass on drums and a force to be recognized musically, but I think what I love the most about Cactus is his sense of kindness.

Q. How has he fostered you creatively?

A. In going out with him, he would play me songs and I would listen and he would talk about his journey.

I think that’s really what started it. The two of us in a car listening to a song, literally parked and looking over a field of fireflies and listening to Greg Allman ...

After that came the band. He introduced me to some real characters and I went, “Wow, this is crazy. This is totally in a different direction than I was going.” I just literally turned 360 and hired this band. We went out on the road and our musical journey began.

Q. What was it like to record “Wynonna & the Big Noise” at home?

A. [Moser] was very adamant about me not practicing and learning these songs and getting perfection. He said, “I just want you to come in and, as if we were doing a rehearsal, just jam.”

He said, “I just want you to be part of a band, and sing, and let the music take you.”

It was a real free fall into faith for me because I’m definitely a rehearsal kind of person. When I worked in the past with Mom, it was all about practice, practice, practice.

He said, “No, we’re just going to go in and push record and see what happens.” That was both inspiring and terrifying at the same time.

We made a record that was live and it’s perfectly imperfect and it’s raw and it’s real. There are definitely tears on each song as well as laughter to the point where I can’t even breathe. …

Being part of this band gives me freedom like I’ve never had before. I’m enjoying the heck out of that.

Q. Where did this raw, rootsy sound come from?

A. I have a tendency to want to go back to raw and rootsy because that’s where I come from. My first records were (from the) Rounder Records used bin. I was not a Top 40 kid. We didn’t have TV or a telephone. I didn’t have a sense of pop, in other words. I had a sense of Americana and roots because that’s what was around where we lived in Appalachia: the real, mournful sounds of bluegrass. …

Though I love the Katy Perrys (of the world) … it’s just not who I am. I tend to want to strip it down and be able to stand flat-footed, no shoes, and just sing from my toenails.

Q. How does it feel to let down your hair, so to speak?

A. I just feel really free to be me, which of course is every woman’s dream. [Moser] just brings out the best in me. The harder I rock, the more he’s turned on about watching me rock. Most men would be threatened by it; he actually encourages it. …

This band has definitely put a pep in my step. I have fans writing to me saying, “I don’t know what you’re doing but you’re insane on the stage. What’s changed for you?”

Everything’s changed!

I just don’t have fear. I don’t have a place in my heart where I just worry, like I used to worry about things that were so ridiculous. Ninety-nine percent of them were made up in my head.

Now I just wake up every day and go, “I’m capable. I have a real sense of where I’m gifted and what my strengths are.” My husband helps me do that. Together we are a force that is pretty powerful.

Live Oak Music Festival

2 p.m. to midnight Friday, 8 a.m. to midnight Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday

Live Oak Camp, Highway 154, near Cachuma Lake

$65 to $130, $25 to $40 children ages 4 to 12, free for children under 4; $15 to $140 parking and camping passes

781-3030 or