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Music: In the Heart of the Country

5 minute read
Jay Cocks

Just this Christmas past, Naomi Judd, a local girl made very good indeed, went back home to Ashland, Ky. She stopped off at the white bungalow where she had been raised, then moved on to Jane’s beauty salon on 13th Street to “get a manicure, now that I have this diamond ring.” At 39, Naomi Judd had no great familiarity with gems or with manicures–this was her first–and she was barely getting accustomed to celebrity. “I heard you were making it big as a singer, and I pictured you in a gingham dress,” said a friend who was also getting a Jane’s do-up. “But,” she added, after a neatly timed pause, “no one ever told me you were any good.”

So it should be said flat-out then: Naomi Judd and her daughter Wynonna, 21, are not only good enough to be jealous of, they are good enough to kick a little life into the listless country scene. “Disk jockeys are saying the Judds saved country music,” says Naomi, in a slightly incredulous tone. It is at least true that the sweet-flowing harmonies of this mother-and-daughter act have earned them a brace of awards, including a 1985 Grammy, and sprightly record sales and airplay. They have also roped in a wide audience all the way from down-home to downtown. Elvis acolytes, Loretta Lynn fans, Mötely Crüe freaks can all join in the gently rolling communion of the Judds’ music. “People are watching us,” says Wynonna. “We’re representing family.” Adds her mother: “It’s some strange combination of two worlds. I’m just so glad to be who I am and glad of where I came from. I think that’s what makes Judd music.”

Rockin’ with the Rhythm, their newest album, is No. 11 on the country charts and shows the Judds off at their finest. With Wynonna taking lead vocals and an exemplary band featuring Don Potter on guitar, the singers work their way through ten songs of love, loss, reminiscence and resolution. If that sounds like a predictable country combination, the record nevertheless comes alive from adept musicianship and vocals that ease around, then animate the lyrics like a spring breeze blowing a window curtain. The album gives the impression of a kind of spiritual centering the Judds draw not just from music but from the way they live. “We are two generations,” says Naomi, “and we play off each other.” She listens to and learns from Elvis, Loretta Lynn, Joni Mitchell, and the Ink Spots. Wynonna admires singers as disparate as Nat King Cole and Bonnie Raitt. The Judds will cross any musical boundaries, but as they tell it, their real strength comes from staying close to the roots.

“Growing up in Ashland gave me a sense of who I was and where I came from,” says Naomi, who married young and had Wynonna at 18. In 1968 she left Kentucky for the West Coast, where she modeled, worked as a secretary and managed a health-food store in West Hollywood, all the while proudly holding on to her lineage. “What’s your sign?” someone would ask her. The reply was simply “Baptist.” After a divorce and two prolonged stints in California, Naomi, Wynonna and Younger Daughter Ashley headed home for good. Ask Wynonna what the Judds’ music would have been like if they had stayed put in California, and she will say only, “We wouldn’t have it.”

In Kentucky, Wynonna was “forced to resort to my own creativity” and taught herself how to sing and play guitar. Her mother mostly just sang around the house. They eventually bought a $30 cassette ma chine at a K mart, and on a lark made a tape of a few songs. Remember now, a great part of the mythology of country music depends on dreams’ being fulfilled, the intercession of fate, the intersection of wish and coincidence. It happened that Naomi, who had become a registered nurse, was tending the daughter of Brent Maher, a top-rank country producer. Maher heard the K mart tapes and got the women together with Guitarist Potter; they made a more polished demo, which quickly got to RCA execs in Nashville. An audition was arranged, the Judds were signed, and their debut single hit the country Top 20. Dream on. And on.

“Are we a Judith Krantz story or what?” Naomi says, smiling. Wynonna has bought herself a new BMW, and Naomi tools around in a turquoise Cadillac purchased from Conway Twitty. Ashley, now 17, lives with her father in Ashland, where she attends high school and models. Naomi and Wynonna live only a mile or so apart on the outskirts of Nashville, from where they will launch periodic concert sorties to venues as diverse as Las Vegas and Searcy, Ark. Down at Jane’s beauty salon–and in lots of other quarters as well–everyone wants to know how mother and daughter get along in a professional relationship. These women have heard that question a few times before.

Wynonna: “We’ve had our bad times, our struggles, our fights, and now we’ve gotten it together and thank you very much.” Naomi: “She’ll still make me want to peel the wallpaper off my hotel room every once in a while.”

While making a music video in Los Angeles, in fact, Naomi stayed in a high hotel room from which she could look down on her old West Hollywood house. “We’re talking déjà vu,” she says, but she flashes on something a little different when she looks in a mirror. She remembers, wondering, long roads and big risks, and she looks again and says, rightly, “Gee, I pulled it off.” –By Jay Cocks. Reported by B. Russell Leavitt/Nashville

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