Born Christina Claire Ciminella on May 30, 1964, in Ashland, KY; changed name, 1977; daughter of Michael and Diana Ciminella (later Naomi Judd, a former nurse and singer); married Arch Kelley, 1996 (divorced, 1998); married D.R. Roach (a bodyguard), 2003; children: Elijah and Grace. Addresses: Record company--Curb/Mercury Nashville, 66 Music Sq. W., Nashville, TN 37203. Website--Wynonna Official Website: http://www.wynonna.com.
The lead vocalist but very much the silent partner in country music's most successful duo of the 1980s, the Judds, Wynonna Judd found herself on her own, musically and emotionally, when her mother, Naomi, was diagnosed with chronic hepatitis in the fall of 1990. In the process of her transformation into a solo star, Wynonna discovered a new sense of personal independence and at the same time stepped out musically onto country's cutting edge. Indeed, Wynonna's popularity in the first years of her solo career equalled or surpassed the enormous success the Judds had achieved as a duo.
When she shed her last name, billing herself simply as Wynonna, the auburn-haired singer was indulging in something of a family tradition; for both Wynonna and Naomi Judd, remaking themselves has involved renaming themselves. Wynonna was born Christina Claire Ciminella in Ashland, Kentucky, in 1964. When her mother took the biblical name Naomi after her divorce in 1977, 13-year-old Christina decided to change her name as well. She got her new moniker from the lyrics to the old swing song "Route 66"--"Flagstaff, Arizona/ Don't forget Wynona." Wynonna's childhood was spent partly in California, but it was in rural Kentucky, cut off from television reception, that she, her sister Ashley, and her mother began to entertain themselves by harmonizing around the kitchen table, trying to duplicate the pure mountain harmonies of Kentucky's classic bluegrass singers. Naomi Judd knew immediately that her daughter was a gifted vocalist.
The Judds moved to Nashville in 1979, and their rise to country-music stardom assumed the character of legend. Naomi, by then a registered nurse, found herself treating the daughter of Nashville producer Brent Maher and parlayed the connection into an audition at RCA Records. The Judds won over the assembled RCA staff at first hearing, and the duo went on to rack up a half dozen gold albums and 18 Number One country singles between 1984 and 1990.
Often mistakenly classified as "new traditionalists," the Judds specialized in sentimental songs of love and nostalgia. But there was nothing traditional about Wynonna's singing; it has often been likened to that of blues-rock star Bonnie Raitt, with a low, sometimes growling, intensity equally suited to party songs like "Girls' Night Out" and folkish odes like "John Deere Tractor." Still, despite Wynonna's vocal dominance, it was Naomi who acted as spokesperson, organizer, and general sparkplug for the Judds. Wynonna "seemed to disappear between songs," noted Geoffrey Himes of Country Music magazine. So, when Naomi announced her departure from the group in October of 1990, Wynonna faced the challenge of remaking both her musical and personal selves.
Emotional Start to Her Solo Career
"I went through every possible emotion," Wynonna told Mary Murphy of TV Guide. "I felt terrified. I felt frustrated and resentful of the fact that ... all of a sudden--bam! My mother was gone. I didn't speak to Mama for a month. I had to leave home, you know, pack my bags, just take off.... It was the most alone I have ever been in my life, and the most depressed."
Under these conditions, the recording of Wynonna's debut solo album took on something of the character of therapy. "[We'd] sit there for three, four hours just talking about what was going on in her life," recalled top-level country producer/executive Tony Brown in an interview with Request's Keith Moerer. The selection of songs was painstaking, and in all Wynonna took eight months to record, by some accounts a record for a country album. But after all the work was done, Wynonna Judd emerged as a spectacularly successful solo act. She took a major risk with the first single: "She Is His Only Need" challenged the conventions of country radio with its wandering melody and four-and-a-half-minute length. Her gamble paid off as both single and album shot to the top of Billboard's country charts. The disc even reached the number four position on the pop chart. Wynonna, without surname, had become a star in her own right.
"Trying to untangle and [yet] not sever the incredible layers of emotion that Mother and I share," as Wynonna was quoted as saying by Bob Millard in his book The Judds, has had great rewards, bringing the singer a new confidence and even a bit of brashness--once she eyeballed a fan trying to slip out early from one of her concerts and commanded him back to his seat. She enjoys riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles, two of which travel with her on tour in a trailer behind her bus. Perhaps another indication of Wynonna's blossoming independence came when she broke off her engagement to country singer Tony King, telling Moerer, "I had just ended an eight-year relationship with Mom on the road, and I wasn't ready to enter into another partnership."
Wynonna's vocal style remained intact as her solo career matured, but her material, which she has always played an active role in selecting, had changed, her stylistic range expanded. In "I Saw the Light," from Wynonna, the title of Hank Williams's country-gospel classic is quoted, but it is expanded into the accusation of a woman who has discovered her lover's unfaithfulness; the song introduces a note of arch cleverness that had not been a part of the more straightforward Judds. Even farther afield, "No One Else on Earth" was one of the first country recordings subjected to the club remix treatment that became popular during country music's boom years in the mid-1990s. In fact, Wynonna's second album, Tell Me Why, released that year, featured an innovative mix of styles well beyond what most other country vocalists would attempt.
The album's title track was a middle-of-the-road soft-rock number composed by veteran folk-pop songwriter Karla Bonoff, while on "Rock Bottom," noted Country Music's Geoffrey Himes, Wynonna "invades Travis Tritt territory," southern-rock-style country. "Only Love," the second single from the disc, was a hushed, sophisticated pop love song, complete with a string section and unusual harmonic scheme; the video for thesong garnered substantial airplay on the CMT cable network. "Father Sun" displayed the splashy, keyboard-heavy rock sound and lyrically indirect religiosity of contemporary Christian music, whereas "I Just Drove By" was straight country and "That Was Yesterday" straight blues. "Girls With Guitars" partook of the combination of rock sound and country lyric wit pioneered by its composer, Mary-Chapin Carpenter. And in yet another stylistic change of course, the third single, a lush, heart-wrenching ballad called "Is It Over Yet," was as welcome to the ears of pop listeners as it was to those of their country counterparts.
Experimented with New Styles
Still, producer Brown was well aware of the dangers of moving Wynonna too far away from her country roots. "We have to think about not doing anything that would turn off Judds fans. You have to be smart about it, but at the same time, I didn't feel at any moment that our hands were tied," he explained to Moerer. Wynonna for her part insisted, "I'm always going to be country. I don't ever have any plans not to be country."
The public reacted as favorably to Tell Me Why as it had to Wynonna; the album sold a million copies within 15 days of its release and climbed rapidly to the number one position on the country charts. By the end of September, 1993, it had sold over three million copies. On a fall concert jaunt that year with country heartthrob Clint Black--the aptly named "Black and Wy" tour--Wynonna seemed poised to dispel her reputation as a weak concert draw, which she had acquired on her first outings after the nearly interminable Judds farewell tours. Critical reaction to Tell Me Why was generally favorable as well, with even the august rock journal Rolling Stone approvingly noting that the album was "comfortably packed with more emotions that most mood rings can handle." Country Music, however, dissented, opining, "Only three of the 10 songs ... capture the authoritative singer who stomped her way across our stages last summer."
Country Music held Wynonna to the loftiest standards: in its July/August, 1993, issue, the magazine ascribed to her "the potential to be the greatest female country singer since Patsy Cline." Not yet 30 years old at the time, she was still a developing artist, and there seemed few limits to what she might accomplish. Speculation as to the future aside, Wynonna had already reached an important personal plateau; as she told TV Guide, "I can go out in public and people don't say, 'Ooh, there's that girl that tried to make it on her own and didn't.'"
Indeed, she had already "made it." Even as she battled a variety of problems over the next decade of her career, she could count on a solid core of fans that never deserted her. Radio airplay for Wynonna singles became intermittent rather than constant, but none of her subsequent albums up to 2003's What the World Needs Now Is Love failed to crack the top ten of Billboard's Country Albums chart. Revelations (1996), The Other Side (1997), and New Day Dawning (2000) also progressively capitalized on the crossover promise inherent in Tell Me Why, ascending to the upper reaches of Billboard's general Billboard 200 chart and winning the singer fans from beyond the orbit of country music. The Other Side, noted the All Music Guide's Stephen Thomas Erlewine, found Wynonna "repositioning herself as a rootsy blues-rocker in the vein of Bonnie Raitt," and while Erlewine found the album "a true disappointment," it spread Wynonna's name in the pop world.
Continued to Make Headlines
Through much of the 1990s, Wynonna was as consistent a presence in the headlines as she was on the charts. After she had a son, Elijah, out of wedlock with boat salesman Arch Kelley in 1994, Wynonna was attacked as a poor role model by conservative country fans. The pair married in 1996, and their daughter, Grace, was born several months later. They filed for divorce, however, at the end of 1998 after Kelley experienced the feeling of being superfluous because of his wife's rigorous touring schedule. Wynonna's battles with physical problems---weight gain and asthma that had troubled her since childhood---were also well publicized.
In the early 2000s, Wynonna's career took an upward turn. She reunited with her mother Naomi, whose hepatitis was in remission, for a concert tour that began on New Year's Eve of 1999 in Phoenix, and the two recorded several sides (included on a limited-edition New Day Dawning bonus disc) as the Judds once again. What the World Needs Now returned Wynonna to the top of the country albums chart for the first time in a decade, and one of its single releases, a cover of the Foreigner hit "I Want to Know What Love Is" (itself an adaptation of an African-American gospel piece), cemented Wynonna's status as one of modern country music's few crossover-capable artists when it rose to number 14 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary albums chart. Wynonna married her former bodyguard D.L. Roach on November 22, 2003, with her mother Naomi and sister Ashley in attendance, and observers waited to see what would come next from one of country music's most mercurial figures and most powerful musical adventurers.
by James M. Manheim
Lead vocalist of country duo the Judds, 1983-1991; solo artist, 1991--; released Wynonna, MCA, 1992; released Tell Me Why, 1993; signed with Curb/Universal label; released The Other Side, 1997; released New Day Dawning, 2000; reunited with mother Naomi Judd and toured as the Judds, 2000; released What the World Needs Now Is Love, 2003.
Grammy Awards, with The Judds, Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1991; has won over sixty industry awards.
- Selected discography
- Solo albums
- Wynonna Curb/MCA, 1992.
- Tell Me Why Curb/MCA, 1993.
- Revelations Curb/MCA, 1996.
- The Other Side MCA, 1997.
- New Day Dawning MCA, 2000.
- What the World Needs Now Is Love Curb, 2003.
- With The Judds
- Had a Dream RCA, 1983.
- Why Not Me RCA, 1984.
- Rockin' With the Rhythm RCA, 1986.
- Heartland RCA, 1987.
- Talk About Love RCA, 1988.
- Greatest Hits RCA, 1988.
- River of Time RCA, 1989.
- Love Can Build a Bridge RCA, 1990.
- Greatest Hits, Volume II RCA, 1991.
- The Judds Reunion Live MCA, 2000.
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.
- Judd, Naomi, Love Can Build a Bridge, Random House, 1993.
- Millard, Bob, The Judds, St. Martin's Paperbacks/Doubleday, 1992.
- Billboard, April 7, 1993; September 6, 1997, p. 36; January 8, 2000, p. 29.
- Country Music, July/August 1993.
- Detroit Free Press, May 10, 1993.
- Entertainment Weekly, August 1993.
- People, May 17, 1993; May 22, 1995, p. 64; February 5, 1996, p. 62; November 30, 1998, p. 78; January 17, 2000, p. 68; November 4, 2002, p. 115; December 8, 2003, p. 92.
- Request, September 1993.
- Rolling Stone, May 28, 1992; July 8, 1993.
- TV Guide, July 3, 1993; September 25, 1993.
- "Wynonna Judd," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 3, 2004).