Wynonna Judd sets out to succeed as a solo performer


April 15, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

FRANKLIN, TENN. — Franklin, Tenn.-- Wynonna Judd's red hair blows in the brisk afternoon wind as she steps from the '57 Chevy in the parking lot of Dotson's, her favorite hometown restaurant.

As funky as an aged guitar, Dotson's has been a favorite hangout for Wynonna ever since her mom, Naomi, drove that same bright red Chevy here from Kentucky about a dozen years ago. Naomi's sights at the time were on nearby Nashville and a recording contract, but she thought quiet, suburban Franklin would be a better place to raise her two teen-age daughters.

Wynonna spent hours at Dotson's, dreaming of someday joining the country music stars whose autographed photos cover one wall of the restaurant. The Judds' photo finally did go on the wall in December 1983, when the mother-daughter team's first single broke into the country Top 20.

It was followed by a spectacular string of No. 1 singles -- songs about old-time values and true love that made the Judds the most successful female team ever in country music. It was a classic partnership: Wynonna's voice -- one of the greatest ever in country music -- and Naomi's drive and showmanship.

But the Cinderella tale came to an end last year when Naomi had to stop touring because she is suffering from chronic active hepatitis.

"I was devastated after the last concert in December," Wynonna says, sitting in a booth by the kitchen door. "When we were together, I felt like we could conquer the world, but separate I didn't know."

Working with respected Nashville producer Tony Brown, Wynonna finished her solo album, "Wynonna," early this year, and it shapes up as a smash. Advance orders totaled 600,000 -- almost double the number for the last Judds album -- and reviews have been generally glowing, though there have been complaints that the material is too conservative.

At 27, Wynonna appears in total control -- able to maneuver her way through the mazes of the music business as easily as she zips around Tennessee back roads on her prized Harley-Davidson.

Not only is the album in the stores, but also promoters around the country are gobbling up tour dates. On a bill with country legend Merle Haggard, she will headline more than 100 shows. Yet uncertainties remain below the friendly, confident exterior.

One concern involves fan reaction to the Judds' split. While it seems only natural that Judds fans would embrace her, many recording artists have lost popularity in moving to a solo role.

"There were times [in recent weeks] when I'd be full of optimism and strength, but there were other times when I felt like a scared child -- though it was hard to get people to understand that. People forget I hadn't been the star. We had been the star."

But there were even reports before Naomi's illness that Wynonna was tired of sharing the spotlight with her mother and was looking for a way to go solo.

"Now, that's not true," Wynonna says, firmly. "Why would I want to go on my own? I had it made. . . . You have to remember I was 18 years old when I started, and I never had to pay my dues in bars."

Naomi was born Diana Ellen Judd in 1946 in Ashland, Ky., where she grew up in a relatively comfortable neighborhood where her father owned a gas station.

An attractive girl who made straight A's in school, Naomi -- a name she wouldn't adopt until years later -- was 17 when she eloped with Michael Ciminella after discovering she was pregnant. One week before her high school class was to graduate, she gave birth to Wynonna, whose real name is Christina Claire Ciminella.

After the baby's birth, Naomi moved with her husband to Lexington, where he studied business management in college. After graduation, the family moved to Los Angeles. A second daughter, Ashley, an actress who appears in the "Sisters" TV series, was born in 1968.

But the marriage ended in 1972 when Wynonna was 8.

Apparently worried that the children would lose touch with her own homespun values, Naomi moved the girls back to Kentucky a few years after the divorce. During these years the Judds' future took shape.

Naomi, who had gone through nursing training, dropped the name Diana, picking her new one from a biblical character who also exhibited restless tendencies. Seeing her mother change her name, Wynonna -- who had always gone by Christina -- also took a new name from Wynona, Okla., a town she heard cited in the pop song "Route 66."

By the end of the decade, Naomi headed for Nashville to try to get a foothold in the record business.

"I can't tell you how much I admire her for what she did . . . for having the courage," Wynonna says now. "Her daddy just couldn't believe she was going to take her girls and move to Nashville with the idea of actually being a star. People were telling her, 'Oh sure, you and who else?' "

Tony Brown, who produced Wynonna's solo album, was working at RCA in 1983 when manager Ken Stilts brought the duo to the label for an audition.

"Naomi gave her little spiel about being from this small town and all and she was real charming, but then 'Wy' strapped on this guitar and she just knocked me out. Her voice blew me away, and it has just gotten better.

"That's why I couldn't understand it when a lot of people around town seemed to have thought that Wynonna's career was all over after Naomi's illness."

Bruce Hinton, president of MCA Records-Nashville, says reaction the first single, "She's His Only Need," from record retailers was "tremendous."

"People kept calling saying, 'What an incredible singer.' . . . 'What a set of chops.' . . . 'I had no idea she had this kind of feel and range.'

"I was glad to hear it, but also Tony and I would look at each other and shake our heads. Hadn't they been listening to the Judds' records?"

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