Sexy, spray-tan endorsing country songbird Wynonna Judd has been a household name ever since 1983 when RCA Victor signed the 18-year-old spunky girl and mother Naomi as acclaimed duo the Judds. When Naomi was diagnosed with Hepatitis C in 1991, her youngest daughter began a chart-topping solo career — “She Is His Only Need,” “I Saw the Light,” “No One Else on Earth,” and “To Be Loved by You” all hurdled to number one.
Judd’s 10th solo album, Wynonna & the Big Noise [No. 14 C&W, February 2016, Curb Records], features a brand-new killer band. The ambitious undertaking, Judd’s first studio album since Sing: Chapter 1 dropped an excruciating seven years earlier, finds the singer pursuing a different, more rock and roll direction with fiancé Cactus Moser, a founding member and drummer for ’80s hit country band Highway 101, at the helm.
The supremely talented song interpreter discussed how the band found its name on her official Twitter. “When Cactus and his son were cruising in a car together, they listened to Led Zeppelin a lot,” said Judd. “If Cactus turned the music off, his son would yell from his car seat, ‘Turn on the big noise! I like the big noise!’ Since Led Zeppelin is one of Cactus’s favorite bands, that is why we came up with the name…”
In the meantime, perhaps you have pondered the thought of catching Judd live in concert but have never gotten around to making it a reality. Let’s revisit a May 8, 2010 concert held at Wild Adventures Theme Park in Valdosta, Georgia, Judd’s second appearance at the park since August 2004.
Rain literally came down in buckets a couple of hours before Judd’s performance that evening, causing many visitors to leave earlier than expected. Fortunately, about 2,000 folks braved the weather to witness an intimate, memorable 75-minute show that encompassed Judd’s complete recording career.
By the time the then-45-year-old redhead — Judd freely joked about her age repeatedly — from a Kentucky mountaintop took the stage, the sun had emerged, casting a beautiful glow on the proceedings.
Kicking things off with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “The House Is Rockin,” Judd swiftly set the tone for the evening. As the song’s title implied, concert-goers quickly got to their feet, cheering the singer on as she blurred the lines between blues, rock, gospel, and country. Surprisingly, she took the bold step of including five selections from her latest album, including the afore-mentioned song.
In comparison to previous concerts at Wild Adventures — e.g. REO Speedwagon and Lynyrd Skynyrd — Judd’s show was more sedate and restrained. However, she proved herself to be a great conversationalist, keeping her audience entertained and moved by stories from her sometimes tumultuous past.
As a result, this experience left the audience feeling as if they were in Judd’s living room. She has that unique ability of creating an experience where there is no schism between the singer and her audience.
Joking that she was “a woman with attitude who can still rock but it takes me a little bit longer,” Judd quickly moved onto one of her most beloved tunes, launching into “No One Else on Earth” . It felt like the entire crowd was singing along to the defiant tune, amazingly in good key.
The first portion of the show was devoted to her early solo hits, including “Tell Me Why,” “Rock Bottom,” and the gentle ballad “Only Love,” all taken from her second LP, Tell Me Why .
Taking over electric rhythm on her brown, white, and orange Fender guitar, Judd briefly forgot the words during the second verse of “Tell Me Why.” This didn’t faze her excellent backing musicians, as they kept on playing, with Judd recovering in fairly rapid order to deliver a forceful vocal as the crowd cheered her on.
The cheering then prompted a sincere moment from the singer: “I love you too, that’s why I came, even though this weather is so not good for my hair. But you’re good for my heart, and I’m glad to be anywhere after all this time.”
After the rockin’ but warning message of “Rock Bottom,” a lady shouted, “You go, girl!” Judd immediately acknowledged her: “Honey, I hear you talkin’ to me out there. I’m goin’ just as hard as I can. I wait for you all day out on that bus so I can see your sweet and smiling faces.” Plenty of cheers went up, and if folks were not yet on the singer’s side, they were coming around.
As the Judds were reuniting for a “final” tour in 2010, Judd discussed it a bit. During a fan campaign to name the tour, “someone, probably from Georgia, said we should call it ‘The Country Cougar Tour!’”
[Author’s Note: Eventually coined the Last Encore Tour, the Judds performed 30 sold-out dates across North America during an 11-month period that culminated on October 29, 2011, in Louisiana. Two new recordings by the Judds also surfaced on a greatest hits collection — “I Will Stand by You” and “Back Home,” which featured Alison Krauss on vocals].
Telling her audience about her humble beginnings, Judd related that she and her younger sister, actress Ashley Judd, were always grounded, since “Mom definitely believed in child labor.” Continuing, Judd said they started singing together “because we didn’t have a telephone or TV, but we had everything because we had our creativity and each other.”
The next portion of the concert featured four covers from Sing, including the big band bop of “That’s How Rhythm Was Born,” the sassy blues of “Women Be Wise”, Tammy Wynette’s “Till I Get It Right,” and Merle Haggard’s social commentary ode, “Are the Good Times Really Over [I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver].”
Explaining why she chose to cover the playful “Women Be Wise,” Judd said she “recorded it in honor of another redhead that I grew up listening to besides my mom. We must not forget our sheroes, the ones that came before us.”
“I looked forward to the day when Bonnie Raitt would pull up in my driveway and rescue me from child labor, yet she never did. But she did dedicate this next song to me when I was 16. It changed my life. I became a rocker then, and I still love the blues. The blues is just a good woman feelin’ down, and this is my advice for the next generation of girls.”
The acoustic, understated “Till I Get It Right” was truly special to the singer, as she called the song her life story and Ms. Wynette “one of the greatest female vocalists of all time. I sang with and to her, including her memorial in 1998.”
“Ms. Wynette changed my life. She taught me what being a real woman is all about and not to let anyone tell you who you are. When the Judds first started out in country music in 1983, I was 18 years old. Ms. Wynette took me under her wing, saying, ‘Just sing from your heart’. She was a woman who did just that.”
For “Are the Good Times Really Over,” Judd prefaced the song with this revealing anecdote: “This next song is about hopelessness. Merle Haggard wrote it, and he was mad as a snake. When I heard it, I thought, ‘I’m mad, too,’ so I’m just passing it on. It’s kind of relative to what we’re going through in this nation. But I’m not a preacher, I’m more of a teacher. I rewrote the last part, because my mother raised me to believe that there is still hope.”
After much applause, Judd changed the order of the proceedings with her ferocious assault of Elvis’s “Burning Love.” She prefaced it by saying, “My mom’s a Republican, my sister’s a Democrat, and I’m a Pentecostal, so that’s why I recorded this next song, ’cause I’m gonna sing it in Heaven with Elvis. That’s my goal, after I meet Jesus, of course.”
“I Can Only Imagine,” a soon-to-be standard by the Contemporary Christian band MercyMe, was a definite surprise of the evening, providing the emotional centerpiece of the concert. Showing her love and reverence for God, Judd told her audience, “We try to teach people wherever we go not to lose faith, because it’s so hard these days. Just watch the six o’clock news, which I have quit doing.
“This song reminded me that I know my heavenly father, and that I am not just a chick singer. I am more than a number on a chart or scale [a woman shouted, “You’re Wynonna!”]. Yes, I’m Wynonna, thank you for that. ‘I Can Only Imagine’ is an encouragement to me. Heaven is not a destination, it’s a journey.”
The gentle strains of “I Want to Know What Love Is” next filled the venue. Her last notable hit from 2004, Judd originally performed it on Oprah. Continuing the emotional high achieved during “I Can Only Imagine,” “I Want to Know What Love Is” can perhaps be best described as a powerful, gut-wrenching climax to an amazing night. Judd reached notes during the song’s chorus that had to be heard to be believed.
The crowd left their seats after the short encore, with many getting as close to the stage as possible to revel in the glow generating from the singer’s black, sequined fringe dress. Without a doubt, she gave her fans what they wanted to hear, two hugely popular songs by the Judds.
Donning a wine-colored Gibson acoustic guitar, Judd segued into their 1984 No. 1 hit, “Grandpa [Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days]”, giving longtime guitarist and band leader Don Potter credit for the distinctive link that opens the song.
At one point, Judd moved her microphone toward the crowd, letting them sing the immortal song about days gone by. For this writer, the song brought back the fondest memories of the evening. I still remember listening to this song in the backseat of my mom’s car when I was only five.
Speaking of the upcoming Judds’ reunion tour and her somewhat rocky relationship with her mother, Judd revealed, “You don’t get it until it’s gone. I learned that the hard way. Now that I’ve got it again, I’m lettin’ Mom act and pretend she’s the boss again. I’m trying to learn how to submit, so please pray for me.”
“Love Can Build a Bridge,” the Judds’ penultimate hit , closed the evening. The heartfelt, occasionally sappy song was dedicated to all the mothers in the venue as Mother’s Day occurred the following day.
Judd’s introduction to this song included this touching remark: “My mother used to say, ‘What are the last four letters of American?’ I would say, ‘I can.’ She would go, ‘Yes, you can, sweetheart, because we live in the greatest country in the world. So you can do anything.’ And I’m still doing it thanks to all of you.” The nearly 10-minute performance likely had some concert-goers thinking, ‘We can really make a difference.’
Before leaving the stage, the singer showed her generosity by giving a drumstick to a little boy named Austin. She joked, “Don’t beat your brother or sister with it like I did Ashley with my guitar.”
Even if Judd never has another hit recording, her unparalleled legacy of love, joy, and music was surely on full display in Valdosta. As the King of Rock and Roll ably demonstrated with a 1961 studio album title, Judd offered something for everybody and then some.
[Author’s Note: About five miles before I reached the venue, my front row ticket was nowhere to be found. Determined to not throw in the towel, I continued on my journey and purchased another ticket about 15 rows back. Obviously disappointed once I found my new seat, that feeling had completely evaporated by the third song. Isn’t that pretty amazing?].
Setlist: Wynonna at Wild Adventures Theme Park, Valdosta, Georgia, May 8, 2010
- “The House Is Rockin’” [Sing: Chapter 1, 2009]
- “No One Else on Earth” [No. 1 C&W, Wynonna, 1992)
- “Tell Me Why” [No. 3 C&W, Tell Me Why, 1993]
- “Rock Bottom” [No. 2 C&W, Tell Me Why]
- “Only Love” [No. 3 C&W, Tell Me Why]
- “That’s How Rhythm Was Born” [Sing]
- “Women, Be Wise” [Sing]
- “Till I Get It Right” [Sing]
- “Are the Good Times Really Over?” [Sing]
- “Burning Love” [What the World Needs Now Is Love, 2003]
- “I Can Only Imagine” [Her Story: Scenes from a Lifetime, 2005]
- “I Want to Know What Love Is” [No. 14 Adult Contemporary; What the World Needs Now Is Love]
- “Grandpa [Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days]” [No. 1 C&W; Rockin’ with the Rhythm, 1984]
- “Love Can Build a Bridge” [No. 5 C&W; Love Can Build a Bridge, 1990]
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