Q&A: Before Tampa concert, Wynonna Judd opens up about her mom’s death and how she’s healing on the road

The tour stops at Amalie Arena on Friday, Feb. 24.

click to enlarge Wynonna Judd, who plays Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida on Feb. 24, 2023. - Photo by Eric Anderson
Photo by Eric Anderson
Wynonna Judd, who plays Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida on Feb. 24, 2023.
“I’m an open book,” Wynonna Judd said emphatically, about two minutes into our recent phone interview. She proceeded to back up her assertion over the better part of an hour.

No topic was off the table, including the death of her mother, Naomi Judd, who took her own life on April 30 of last year, the day before The Judds were scheduled to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Wynonna discussed the often strained relationship she had with her mother, and how she’s working to lessen its impact on her life.

We also talked about music.

Wynonna is on the road fronting The Judds: The Final Tour, which celebrates the life and legacy of her mom and stops at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Friday, Feb. 24. A number of prominent female artists have joined Wynonna to sing Naomi’s parts. They include Brandi Carlile (set for the Tampa show), Tanya Tucker, Little Big Town and Kelsea Ballerini.

The tour was originally cast as a final Judds reunion, with the first 10 dates announced in April 2022. Three weeks later, Naomi Judd was gone.

For the better part of the 1980s, The Judds were an adorable mother/daughter duo that charmed audiences, won over country radio, and scored six platinum albums and a slew of hit singles. Naomi had that twinkle—she looked far younger than her years—and sang backup. Wynonna was more serious, an uber-talented lead singer who, after a time, bristled at the constraints of being a country artist.

“Management sent me to media school,” she said during our interview. “They told me not to interrupt my mother and not to roll my eyes.”

The Judds’ enchanted run was interrupted in 1990 when Naomi abruptly retired due to health complications from Hepatitis C. Wynonna continued her career as a solo act, using her first name only, touring and releasing albums that increasingly veered from Nashville convention. The Judds reunited for one-off shows and one 29-date tour in 2011.

The mother/daughter relationship was fraught with conflict, ups and downs, and even, at times, full-on estrangement. But the love never waned. For Wynonna, these days are about reconciliation.

At 58, she remains a vocal dynamo, as capable of busting out with a bluesy wail or rock snarl as a lilting country twang. On this tour, she’s performing the Judds songs true to the recordings, even without Mom looking over her shoulder.

Why? “The fans,” she said.

The following Q&A was edited for length and clarity. The questions have been shortened so you don’t have to suffer my ramblings.
After Naomi’s death, where were you on continuing with the tour?

I said, “No, absolutely not.” I was heartbroken. I couldn’t imagine it. I literally saw her body the day she died, kissed her and closed her eyes. My first reaction to the tour was, “I can’t, I won’t, I shouldn’t.”

Was there something specific that changed your mind?

Yes. Several of my counsel(ors) came to me. They said that standing on stage and singing those songs was absolutely the right thing to do. I had shut down, but they said that every step back is a set up, and that it would absolutely be healing to go out there. I said, “My gosh, I hadn’t really had a chance to think of it that way.” So I said, “I’m in.”

Now that you’ve been doing the shows for awhile, has it been what you hoped in terms of a healing experience?

Better than I thought. The other night I was onstage with Little Big Town—four of them, with me standing in the middle. I got this overwhelming sense that we were not pallbearers. They were there not to be at a funeral but to sing from their toenails and honor the music. I almost had to sit down. We did [The Judds’] “Love is Alive,” and every single person in the audience held up their cell phone—because we don’t do lighters anymore—and it was the brightest Christmas tree lights you could imagine. I couldn’t get over it.

“Every step back is a set up.”

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I have a funny story: The other day I was onstage doing soundcheck. There’s a part of the show with a video image of Mom behind me, and she’s singing with me. I turned around and saw this big video image of her and it shocked me, I was so in-the-moment singing. First thing that came out of my mouth was ‘[Mom], I’ve lost 20 pounds!’ All the guys [in the band] started laughing. What came out of my mouth was so reflexive. It was like breathing [chuckles].

I do wish she was here so I could fight with her and argue with her. But I feel like the baton has finally been passed. Now that she’s gone, I no longer have to report for duty in a way that I felt growing up. I’m an orphan now. I have permission not to ask permission anymore. I can open the refrigerator and drink straight from the milk carton. I drink rice milk, though. I don’t do dairy.

I’m sure you’ve given some thought to the fact that Naomi took her own life on the day before you were being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

It haunts me. It’s a mystery so deep. I have thought about it a million times. As far as the timing, the thing I’ve come up with is the fact that her husband was out of the country, and that she was determined to die. He would have done something to try and stop her, but she was alone in the house. That was very rare. They were never apart. It’s the story I’ve come up with.

Your sister Ashley is an orphan now, too. How has your mother’s death affected your relationship?

We’re pretty tight now. We’ve had to be. We went together to the Hall of Fame induction, holding hands. [Naomi’s death] has gotten us off a lot of our differences and forced us to talk about things, which is huge.

I read that when you and Naomi were putting the tour together, you each had certain conditions—like she wanted to do the songs Judds-style and you didn’t want a lot of wardrobe changes. You had your managers negotiate all that rather than talking directly to each other. Why was that?

It was manager to manager, so Mom and I could keep our integrity. It made the meetings mature. Mom and I were not allowed to talk about [business stuff]. For us to fight about little things, it wasn’t worth it. That made it possible for Mom to come to me and say, “My life is better because you’re in it. Thank you for being so gracious with me.” Besides wanting her approval and wanting her to love my hair and my outfit, I wanted her to know I was there for her.

Let’s talk a little more about your being liberated artistically.

I feel such freedom. I’m slinging snot [on vocals] like you can’t believe. I’ve been on stage with Bobby—I call him Robert—Weir, with the Dead & Company. He’s looking at me saying, “Our fans out there really love you.” So I’ll sing with Robert Weir one day and the next day I’ll be singing on stage with Brandi in Tampa and the next day I’m working on a song and looking forward to putting out new music.

After 40 years, I feel kind of like I earned it. I don’t have any boundaries. I’m talking about making a real backwoods gospel record at some point, and an ‘80s rock record. I’m getting ready to record a song from the Beach Boys, and a song from Linda Ronstadt. I’m on a mission to get away with as much as I can.
Your earlier solo records were very produced. Are you now trying to embrace a new rawness in your music?

I picked producers who were incredibly successful [commercially], which I did on purpose. Now I’m ready to go back to the well, using sounds that get back to the beginning of mankind, when we didn’t have electricity [chuckles]. I recently watched the Ken Burn series Jazz, and I realized I have some jazz singer in me, too. I’d love to do something live with a band, no overdubs, like when Frank Sinatra made records with everyone in one room.

Brandi Carlile is your special guest in Tampa. Talk about what she brings to the show.

Brandi wore a Judds jacket to school. She knows every single stinkin’ song and lyric in the catalog. She bounces onto the stage, and doesn’t put on a performance so much as a deep celebration of artistry. That’s very unique when you do a show, where in most cases you’re keenly aware of the production and the fact that you’re putting on a performance.

It’s become so personal for Brandi and I. We lock eyes and we are these people swinging, and when I let go she catches me. It’s like, “Whoa!”

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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