History tells of a long line of Nashville rebels, dating from Hank Williams to George Jones to the “outlaw” country of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Steve Earle. Women haven’t been as conspicuous in the rebel field, but that changed when Wynonna shocked Nashville by stepping out of her more traditional role in the mother-daughter team the Judds, in the early ‘90s.
Since then, Wynonna has rocked her way to multiplatinum albums that have widened her fan base while driving some Nashville executives crazy because she’s so unpredictable.
“I love Nashville, but I don’t really think that people know what to do with me,” Wynonna says in a recent conversation. “I don’t play the political game … I don’t fit into that antsy-schmantzy, schmoozer stuff. So I’m a bit of a rebel in this town. I love being here, but I don’t really fit in. It’s a weird deal. The musicians love me, but the business doesn’t really know what to do with me.”
Then she quotes her mom, Naomi, who said: “You don’t have to suck up to anybody. God gave you a gift. You’re a singer and that’s what you do.”
Wynonna can flat out sing, as anyone within earshot of her substantial vocal pipes can attest. Wynonna just released a greatest hits record, “Collection,” with such rock-edged country hits as “Tell Me Why” and “Girls with Guitars.” It’s an achievement because she has not only struggled for credibility as a solo artist but has had to deal with the trauma of the breakup of the Judds (Naomi retired because of hepatitis) and the gossip about the out-of-wedlock birth of her son, Elijah, in 1994. The father is Arch B. Kelley III, whom she later married after being the target of obsessive coverage by the supermarket tabloids. (They now have a second child, Grace.)
“It was a hard time. I don’t know how I got the work done that I did, between leaving mom and giving birth,” she says. “But I did it. I’m proud of myself and I’m moving forward.”
Wynonna has a new record deal with Universal/MCA, a more pop-attuned label based in New York and Los Angeles (fellow outsider Lyle Lovett is also on it). She left Curb/MCA, a more country-based label headquartered in Nashville.
Survival is what this move is all about. Wynonna is just finishing up her first CD for the new label and it boasts a song that she wrote with these telltale lyrics: “Troubled heart and troubled mind is all I’m gonna leave behind/I’m moving on down the line, so don’t shout me down/I’m doing fine.”
“This album is a big celebration for me, because I’m very proud of surviving all the changes,” says Wynonna, who is also physically trimming down with the help of an athletic trainer who introduced her to kickboxing.
“The album will be out in August or September,” she says. “One of the songs is called ‘The Wyld Unknown’ and it’s pretty funny. Michael McDonald (formerly of the Doobie Brothers) wrote a song for me that rocks my world, called ‘What Kind of Fool Does It Take.’ It’s really a diverse album.”
Wynonna may be plotting a dramatic return to the public eye, but she’s also more aware than ever of the importance of family. This Nashville rebel is not about to sacrifice that.
“There are times when I start to get really out of it and think that I’m losing my way,” she says with trademark candor. “Then I realize that the most important thing really is family. I don’t care how much money they’re offering me. If it’s my son’s first birthday, there’s no thought about it. There’s too much stress that’s taking us away from ourselves and we’re not with ourselves anymore.
“I don’t want to wake up on a bus and be flipping out on some road to nowhere. I don’t want to get to a place where I’m a prisoner. So I think right now the biggest word in my life is balance. Balance and moderation are two of my favorite words.”
Wynonna is also drawing inspiration these days from Garth Brooks, who, like her, rocks out in concert and has a formidable, no-nonsense attitude.
“Garth didn’t get this far by being a pansy,” she says. “The fact is, some people curse him because he has such an attitude. But you know what? I really understand it now. There’s a part of me that says, ‘You go, Garth!’
“He just does it, man. I admire that. I don’t always agree with what he does but I have to say, ‘Wow.’ I’ve never seen his show and I’ve wanted to. He’s doing all that stuff that everybody wants to be doing in country, and he gets away with it. Any time someone goes off on him, I can see the jealousy. I just say, ‘Get over it. The guy rocks.”’
Wynonna still gets “vulnerable,” she says, but she takes the same refuge on stage that Brooks does. An example was last summer when she made her first appearance at Harborlights in Boston. Referring to a frazzling, preshow photo shoot for In Style magazine, Wynonna said “Those people completely reined me in - and I ended up having the whole magazine staff hating me. When I went onstage, I had even forgotten my wedding ring. Arch was following me to the stage, saying, ‘Hey, you forgot your wedding ring.’ That’s how out of it I was that day.
“But I got out there on that stage and looked out and saw all these people smiling at me. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m in my element now.’ I remember saying, ‘This is going to be the best part of my day.’ I need to enjoy this, because this is what I do. I relished that time out there.”
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