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Naomi Judd, given name Diana Judd, name legally changed to Naomi Judd; born c. 1946 in Ashland, Kentucky; daughter of Glen (a filling-station owner) and Polly Judd; married Michael Ciminella, c. 1963 (divorced, 1970); children: Wynonna, Ashley. Wynonna Judd, given name Christina Ciminella, name legally changed to Wynonna Judd; born c. 1964 in Ashland, Kentucky; daughter of Naomi Judd and Michael Ciminella. Education: High-school graduate. Addresses: Other-- P.O. Box 17087, Nashville, Tenn. 37217.
Virtually unknown in 1984, the Judds--a mother-daughter duo--have become one of the biggest acts in country music. Theirs is a Cinderella story of long years of hardship, of singing around kitchen tables and crisscrossing the country in search of work before landing a major recording contract and some of Nashville's most prestigious awards. As Alanna Nash puts it in Stereo Review, the two Kentucky natives have given "staid, lifeless country radio a direct and well-positioned kick in the pants by introducing a fresh, new direction for progressive country fare." Indeed, the two performers seem to have much in their favor: daughter Wynonna Judd is said to possess the most significant voice to enter country music in the last twenty years, and mother, Naomi, brings a daredevil spirit, uncommon verve, and astute songwriting to the team. Drawing on an inventive collage of sources, from folk to bebop to early rock and roll, the Judds have molded a personal style that animates lyrics "like a spring breeze blowing a window curtain," to quote Jay Cocks in Time magazine. Cocks adds that the Judds "will cross any musical boundaries, but ... their real strength comes from staying close to the roots"--the traditional roots of the country sound.
Both Naomi and Wynonna Judd were born in Ashland, Kentucky. Naomi, who was christened Diana, was the daughter of a comfortably well-off filling-station attendant. Her formative years in Ashland were very traditional until her younger brother, Brian, developed Hodgkin's disease. Not only did the cancer kill Brian, it caused the Judd family to splinter--Naomi, who married at seventeen and had daughter Wynonna at eighteen, embarked on a new life in Los Angeles in 1968. It was there that Wynonna--born Christina Ciminella--grew up, "a typical Hollywood kid, eating Ding-Dongs and watching The Brady Bunch on TV," to quote her mother in Life magazine. Naomi drifted through a series of jobs as a model and secretary, eventually deciding that the West Coast did not provide a suitable environment for her two daughters. In 1976 the family of three (Naomi had left her husband in 1970) returned to Kentucky to live in a rustic cottage on a mountaintop near Morrill.
Some early publicity exaggerated the primitive conditions of the Judds' home in Morrill, but the cottage did lack a telephone and a television, forcing Wynonna and her sister, Ashley, to find their own amusements. Wynonna discovered the guitar, and singing and picking became an obsession with her. Meanwhile, Naomi struggled to pay the bills, and the family sometimes went without heat and electricity for days at a time. Finally the three Judds moved back to California, this time to Marin County, where Naomi enrolled in nursing school and worked the night shift as a waitress. Naomi remembers those California years as the hardest of all. In Behind Closed Doors: Talking with the Legends of Country Music, she said that she, Wynonna, and Ashley shared a tiny, one-bedroom apartment above a real-estate office. "We're talking serious poverty," she said. "There were times when I didn't know how we were gonna eat, or how I was even gonna pay the small rent that I paid.... It still amazes me how I did it."
Growing up under these conditions, Wynonna found herself drawn to music to the exclusion of all else. She often skipped school to listen to her Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt albums, and her share of the chores never seemed to get done. "Wynonna was a very difficult teenager," Naomi told Teen magazine. "She was so obsessed with music that she never helped out around the house. She'd even take grocery money to buy new guitar strings." Mother and daughter seemed to fight constantly, only coming to an accord on the occasions when they found time to make music together. In these rare moments, they discovered that they could harmonize almost by telepathy, and soon the enterprising Naomi was fantasizing about a singing career for herself and her daughters.
The Judds moved to Nashville in 1979, after Naomi had completed nursing school. While the family's finances improved, Wynonna's enthusiasm for school and household duties continued to slide. She did attend high school in Nashville, however, and there, during a talent show, she impressed the daughter of record producer Brent Maher, who had several prominent country-music clients. In 1982 Maher's daughter was injured in an automobile accident, and quite by chance, Naomi Judd was assigned to nurse her. After the girl's recovery, Maher was so grateful for Naomi's skillful nursing that he agreed to listen to a homemade demo tape that the Judds had cut themselves. It was a full month before he got to the tape, finally putting it in his car stereo on the way to work. "It takes me thirty minutes to get from the house to the studio," he told Alanna Nash, "and by the time I got there, I was on the phone calling them up." On the spot, Maher agreed to produce the Judds.
Maher called in two associates to help him with the Judds--guitarist-songwriter Don Potter and Ken Stilts, a wealthy businessman who agreed to manage the duo. Potter and Maher worked with the women for six months before they put anything on tape; most of that time was spent defining a style and building the distinctive country-jazz framework that has become the Judds' trademark. In 1983 the Judds won a contract with RCA with a live audition--a highly unusual way for an unknown group to proceed in Nashville. Stilts provided the financial resources to keep the family afloat and to begin a hectic round of national concert appearances, everywhere from Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas to tiny Arkansas community halls. By 1984 the Judds had released a mini-album of eight songs. Their first single, "Had a Dream (for the Heart)" made the country Top 20, and the second and third singles, "Mama, He's Crazy" and "Why Not Me," both topped the country charts. By 1986 they had two platinum albums, Why Not Me and Rockin' with the Rhythm. "I never thought it would happen this fast," Wynonna told Life, "--from the supper table to RCA to a couple of $200,000 tour buses."
Wide-ranging though their musical tastes may be, the Judds have one constant in their recordings: a sense of home and heart. Joe Galante, vice president of RCA Nashville told Rolling Stone that when he first heard the duo "it was just guitar and vocals and that absolute emotion in Wynonna's voice." Galante added: "I grew up in New York, I'm an old rock and roller.... I knew this was authentic country music, but I also intuitively knew that there was something hip about it, how tight their harmonies were. You could feel sensitivity, how they look at each other when they share a musical moment. Their message is open communication in most of their songs." Life correspondent Jamie James expresses a similar opinion: "Not for the Judds the mournful laments or 'cheatin-on-satin-sheets' sexy stuff," writes James. "They sing about family love and solid rural values--without ever lapsing into cornball. Their harmonies are smooth as Karo syrup and solidly supported by twangy acoustic rhythms in old-timey ballads.... Despite their dizzying ride to the top of the C&W heap, the Judds are still as unpretentious as fried catfish and hush puppies."
The Judds' "dizzying ride to the top" has caused some jealousy among industry hard-liners, some of whom feel that the pair failed to "pay their dues." Wynonna bristles at the charge. "So many people say, 'You made it so quickly and you haven't paid your dues. You haven't played in the honky-tonks for ten years,'" she said in Behind Closed Doors. "And I want to get up and go over and shake 'em. Because you have to realize that my mother had to work two jobs to put food on the table. We have worked, but it was working to survive. And in my heart, what has happened [for us] musically is something that is completely a miracle." In the same interview, Naomi also expressed gratitude for the change in her family's fortunes. "Wynonna and I consider that we aren't just one in a million," she said. "I mean, we're one in millions, to have been blessed with what's happened to us.... What is goin' on in our lives right now is so far beyond our control. I mean, it's absolutely in the Lord's will. We are doin' things that not even in my wildest imagination--which is pretty out there--I would have thought possible."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Judds, The's Career
Formed country singing duo, the Judds, 1982; signed with RCA Records, 1983; released first album, 1984, and had first hit singles, "Had a Dream (for the Heart)" and "Mama, He's Crazy," 1984. Have made numerous tours of United States and Europe, 1984--, appearing at Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas, Nev., 1985, and Lincoln Center, New York, N.Y., 1987.
Judds, The's Awards
Three Grammy Awards for best country vocal duet; four Country Music Association awards for best vocal duet; named country duo of the year by the Academy of Country Music, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, and 1989; two platinum albums, Why Not Me and Rockin' with the Rhythm.
- Selective Works
- The Judds RCA, 1984.
- Why Not Me RCA, 1985.
- Rockin' with the Rhythm RCA, 1985.
- Heart Land RCA, 1987.
- Christmas Time with the Judds RCA, 1987.
- The Judds' Greatest Hits RCA, 1988.
- River of Time RCA, 1989.
October 2005: Wynonna teamed with Eric Benet, Michael McDonald, and Terry Dexter and the First Full Gospel Choir to record a benefit song for Habitat for Humanity's Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Source: USA Today, www.usatoday.com/life/digest.htm, October 10, 2005.
- Nash, Alanna, Behind Closed Doors: Talking with the Legends of Country Music, Knopf, 1988.
- Life, February, 1986.
- Rolling Stone, July 2, 1987.
- Stereo Review, February, 1986; December, 1986.
- Teen, December, 1987.
- Time, January 13, 1986.
Judds, The Lyrics
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