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Sunday, 14 June, 2009 0:04 AM

Wynonna Reflects on 25 Years of Success (CMA)

Photo by Kristin Barlowe

Wynonna Judd

By Deborah Evans Price
© 2009 CMA Close Up News Service

It's been a colorful journey. Fiery redhead Wynonna is the first to admit there've been a few bumps along the way, but her inimitable voice and willpower have allowed her to survive and thrive. She's learned a lot along the way, and smart newcomers will heed her advice.

"The hardest thing in this business is to really, really stay true to yourself," she advised, speaking to students at Nashville's Belmont University, on the occasion of a release party and concert for her latest album, Sing Chapter 1, organized by the school's Record Company Operations class.

"You are so caught between so many people's opinions and objectives for your career and your life. Never let them tell you who you are, ever. I speak from my spirit really deeply because that's been my greatest challenge these last 25 years."

Wynonna has certainly come a long way from being the fresh-faced teen who rocketed to fame with her mother Naomi in the '80s as The Judds. She still remembers accepting the CMA Horizon Award and confessing innocently to the audience that she didn't expect to win - she only wanted to wear "a pretty dress" to the event.

This was only the first of many accolades earned by the mother/ daughter team, who reigned as one of Country Music's top acts until illness forced Naomi into retiring from the duo and prompted Wynonna to embark on a solo career.

It was a pivotal - and scary - moment. "One of the things I remember the most was standing in a store, talking to a guy who loved Judd music," she said. "He actually said to me, 'Gosh, do you think you can make it without your mom?' I'm looking at him and thinking, 'OK, I'm not going to cry.' I just wanted to get out of there. I remember leaving the store, getting into my car and just weeping because I thought, 'What am I going to do?'"

One of the most intimidating episodes of her life followed shortly after that in Midland, Texas, when she gave her first solo concert. As she looked to her mother for help, she received some odd advice.

"I remember walking to the stage," Wynonna said. "Literally, my mother is on my right side, and the look on my mother's face is something I'm sure that as I pass from this Earth, I will remember. She turned to me and said, 'Spread your wings and fly,' and then in the very next breath she said, 'My advice to you .' And I think there's some great profound wisdom coming, and she says, 'Honey, never watch sausage being made.' I'm like, 'You've got to be kidding me! I'm about to embrace the universe and that's the best you've got?'

"I went out there," she concluded. "And I never moved from the three-foot radius of my microphone the entire show."

Though she might have felt shaky at first, Wynonna emerged quickly as a solo artist, with her self-titled debut album, eventually certified quintuple-Platinum, and four No. 1 singles, including "I Saw the Light" and "No One Else on Earth," on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. With her soulful voice and gift for connecting with audiences, she remains one of Country Music's most recognizable artists and an ambassador for the format through appearances on countless magazine covers and TV shows that range from "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to "Good Morning America."

Corporate America, recognizing this potential for reaching out to consumers, has often tapped Wynonna as a spokesperson, most recently by the weight-loss product alli, whose sweepstakes through May 15 will pick 50 grand prize winners for transportation, accommodations and a private Wynonna concert at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum July 11.

Above all else, though, Wynonna remains a vital and sometimes risk-taking artist, as documented on Sing Chapter 1. On this ambitious seventh studio album, available on Curb Records, she performs one new tune - the title track, penned by Rodney Crowell - and 11 standards whose only common denominator is that each is a fixture in the American repertoire and together they represent a vast variety, from Country classics by Merle Haggard ("Are the Good Times Really Over?"), Hank Williams ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry") and Tammy Wynette ("Till I Get It Right") through R&B ("I Hear You Knocking"), lush ballads ("When I Fall in Love" and "Anyone Who Had a Heart") and flat-out, roadhouse rock ("The House Is Rockin'").

"Being musically ADD, I'm just going to wake up and go for what I really feel that particular season," she said, explaining her decision to cover these disparate songs. "My records are like children: You just never know until they come out of the womb what their spiritual makeup is."

Wynonna did switch gears somewhat while recording these tracks. "When I started out with this record, I wanted to rock," she confessed. "It was going to be like the movie 'How Stella Got Her Groove Back;' I was going to get my groove back. I was going to get out there and be really loud and proud. [But] the more we listened and the more we studied different genres and styles, I was really drawn to the torch ballads more so than I was to being really loud."

To help achieve her goals for this album, she recruited two co-producers, Brent Maher and guitar virtuoso Don Potter, both of whom helped shape The Judds' sound and have worked with Wynonna during much of her career.

"As I get older and wiser about my journey and what has worked and what hasn't worked, I know one thing for sure: At some point in your life, it is time to return," she said. "And Brent and Don I not only trust with all that I am musically, but personally as well."

Wynonna has known them both since she was 16. "Brent and Don really trudge with me," she said. "They aren't in front of me or behind me, telling me what to do. They are walking this journey with me. There are a few people in this lifetime who will walk with you on your path the way that Brent and Don have with me. They've known me my whole musical career. I trust them and that's everything to me. So much of this business is life taking; they are life givers. They say, 'Just do your thing and be who you are because your best is good enough.' Who doesn't want to hear that?"

Potter, for one, knew early on that Wynonna was destined for stardom. "The first time I looked across the kitchen table while we were playing and the girls were singing, I looked at Wynonna and thought, 'This girl is already famous. It's just a matter of letting the rest of the world know that,'" he said. "I thought, 'Wait until the world hears her. This poor girl's life is going to go to pieces!' The talent was always present; then you have to ask, 'Are they strong enough to survive what their talent will drag them into?'"

Wynonna has proven that she is strong, having overcome personal and professional obstacles long enough to celebrate her 25th year in the music business this year.

"As an artist, Wy is still growing," said Maher. "She has the God-given gift of being a phenomenal singer. Not only does she have that phenomenal voice, she has equally a fabulous gift for communication. It's not just a beautiful voice that throws a lyric at you; she sinks it in your heart."

For this survivor, the little moments along the way, as well as the accolades and successes, are what stay with her. "I have so many memories," she said with a sigh. "I remember leaving the hotel and getting into a cab to go sing at the Super Bowl, and I had tennis shoes on - and the Fed Ex truck pulled up behind the cab with my dress shoes. I have so many memories of, 'Just how in the world did I pull it off?' It was by the grace of God that I got there. That's the story of my career."

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