Farewell Judds, Hello Wynonna!
It has been seven months since her mother and lifelong singing partner, Naomi, 46, was forced to leave their mother-daughter duo after contracting chronic active hepatitis. The disease, though ultimately incurable, is in remission for now, and Naomi's retirement still seems like anything but. She is writing an autobiography, due this fall, working on an NBC miniseries about her life, and serving as a celebrity spokeswoman for the American Liver Foundation. Meanwhile, Wynonna soldiers on, reluctantly, alone. Even as she scores one surprising success after another, she is plagued by a recurrent nightmare. "I have dreams that Mom dies and comes back and dies and comes back," Wynonna says. "I have it several times in a week."
At once eager for stardom and wary of going it alone, Wynonna is in the midst of a nine-month, 110-city concert tour to promote her debut solo album. Wynonna, her collection of rock, blues and gospel-flavored country tunes, sold a million copies in its first week, temporarily knocked Garth Brooks from his six-month perch atop the country charts and, on the pop front, is outdueling two new Springsteen albums combined. (Both were released the same day as hers.) Even the arbiters of hip at Rolling Stone tout Wynonna as "easily the most important release by a country artist so far this decade."
And yet there are no champagne corks being popped aboard the Judd-mobile, the tour bus that Wynonna and her mother once shared. "I go between one minute feeling like I can conquer the world," says Wy, as her friends call her, "and the next minute wanting to call my mom and have her come get me."
Opening night in Midland, Tex., last April "was like leaving home for the first time," she says. When fans stood cheering throughout her concert, showered her with flowers and cried, literally, for more, Wynonna "felt reborn. I was just ecstatic." But away from the lights, "I was sitting in my little Holiday Inn room...feeling both alone and afraid."
To help smooth Wynonna's shift into solo, Naomi watched from the wings during the tour's first week. For both mother and daughter, who were visiting many of the same concert halls the Judds once filled, it was a week of adjustment. In Sun City, Ariz., Naomi, without a backstage pass, was stopped by a security guard as she followed Wynonna into the Sundome. "I'm the mom," Naomi chirped with characteristic élan, breezing past.
"When I get to feeling sorry for myself or down from too much pressure," says Wynonna, "I stop and think how she must feel. When I'm up there singing and look over at her sitting at the monitor board looking up at me, I think how hard it must be for her to let go, not only as a mother but as a professional partner. It's like a double whammy."
Wynonna's sleepless wanderings began on her first night alone on the road and were "as big of a get-through situation as anything I've ever done," she says. "The bus was real quiet, and I was feeling the ache. Mom's room was at the back and mine in the middle, but after Mom left. I decided to lake her room, just to see what it was like."
Wynonna was in for a surprise. There on her mother's queen-size bed was her tiara and scepter, teasing gifts Naomi had received from friends who, like her husband, Larry Strickland, and Wynonna, kiddingly refer to her as the Queen of Everything. "I didn't know what it meant," Wynonna says, "whether she was turning over her crown to me or whether she was leaving it there to remind me who was the queen." Either way, "it was really a weird moment for me. I went on and slept there for a while but woke up and went back to my own room."
Naomi says she simply hoped the crown and scepter would make Wynonna feel less lonesome. So, did her daughter finally try the tiara on for size? "No," says Naomi with mock solemnity. "Sacred stuff."
As for the big bedroom itself, that too remains a sanctuary. "That's where she puts on her clothes for her show," says sister Ashley, 24, a cast member of NBC's Sisters, who joined the tour briefly to offer moral support. "But she's still not comfortable sleeping there."
At times, in fact, Wynonna hasn't been comfortable sleeping anywhere. "I feel most childlike when we're riding down the road, when I've done my show, and I'm in my big-butt pajamas with elastic—lots of elastic," she says. "The first couple of nights after Mom wasn't there, I was like the little kid who doesn't want to take the nap. I would literally keep myself awake until I was so tired I'd just fall asleep sitting up."
To pass the time, there are the TV and movie tapes ("my favorites are the ones with animals in them, like The Yearling"). And there is the refrigerator. "Food is such an emotional thing," Wynonna says. "When I'm feeling like I really want somebody to hold me like Mom used to do, rubbing my feet or patting me on the leg, I'm lonely and want to eat all the foods my mom gave me when I was a child. We all have our indulgences, and mine aren't alcohol or drugs, and I don't smoke. But food has been my reward and, frankly, I've rewarded myself a lot."
Determined to battle her weight problem, she has installed a Life-cycle on the bus and brought a full-time physical trainer with her on tour. "We're joined at the sweat glands," says Wynonna, who has dropped 10 lbs. and hopes to lose 30 more with daily three-hour workouts. Onstage, she wears black to camouflage her size; offstage, she admits that her work is cut out for her. "My weight," she says, "has been my protection from the outside world."
Another refuge is the 22-acre farm near Franklin, Tenn., where Wynonna regularly retreats during breaks in her schedule. Just eight miles down the road from Naomi's place, the renovated, three-bedroom, four-bath farmhouse is filled with blooming cacti, Southwestern antiques, Indian rugs and handicrafts Wynonna collected during past Judds tours. The library walls are covered with gold and platinum records and books that, she says, "I don't read because I don't have the patience yet." In her game room, a Wurlitzer jukebox with Dire Straits in first position splashes neon colors.
Despite the proximity to her mother, Wynonna spends most of her off-the-road time alone at home with a menagerie that includes three horses, seven dogs and 22 cats. Tabloid reports that she secretly married last winter couldn't be further from the truth, she says. In fact, she and ex-housemate Tony King, of Nashville's Matthews, Wright and King, recently broke off their engagement.
"Tony and I had planned to marry, but it's off indefinitely," she says. "It doesn't mean a year from now we won't be married. We both have a strong sense of Christian faith that will tell us when it's time."
The pair decided to split as King was preparing to leave on a summer tour. "We don't want a part-time marriage," Wynonna says. "I see people out there doing careers and marriage, but there are very few who do it successfully and are happy. They are always torn and afraid."
Wynonna herself, of course, experienced the consequences of divorce early. Born Christina Claire Ciminella in Ashland, Ky., she was 8 when her parents split. (Her father, Michael, now produces videos for Thoroughbred race tracks.) Naomi found work as a hospital nurse and struggled along as a single working parent to support her two daughters. Then came Wynonna's troubled teens.
"I was very lazy, just lying in my room playing my guitar and singing," she says. "Mom worried about me. She'd try to cow-prod me to get out and do things, and I rebelled against that. It was frustrating for her to work double shifts, come home and see me doing nothing but music."
Twice during her teens, Wynonna—who picked her stage name from a "Route 66" song lyric—was sent packing. Once she stayed with friends until Mom cooled down; another time she was sent off for a month's stay with her father in Florida. The stormy relationship between mother and daughter lasted until Wynonna graduated from high school—"just barely," she says—and the two began singing together. But to this day, Wynonna says, "I always feel like there's a little bit of me that's a rebel."
One of the ways she indulges that wild side now is by riding her Harley. "But responsibly," she says. "I wear my helmet. Mom says it's OK as long as I don't start wearing tube tops and paint FOXY LADY on my motorcycle."
On the road, Wynonna's turquoise-and-silver hog is packed onto a special trailer behind the band's bus. Outside Flagstaff, facing a three-hour trip to Phoenix and her next concert, she saddles up, her red hair tied in a long plait down her back, and roars off down the interstate. "The Harley gives me a chance to pull up beside fans just long enough for them to recognize me, and then I pull away," she says mischievously. "If you lose the child within yourself, you might as well give up."
But happy as she is on the open road and onstage, and as pleased as she is with the success of her solo album, Wynonna knows the sleepless nights will persist. And the reason will remain the same. "It was a given that Mom and I would always sing together," says Wynonna, who insists she never would have pursued a solo career if Naomi's disease hadn't intervened. "I knew someday we'd take a break, probably due to me getting married and having kids, but I could never have just left my mother. It just wasn't in my makeup. Mom and I were happiest singing together."
And the road brings constant reminders of what used to be. "I felt naked," she says after performing in the round at a concert in Cleveland. "With Mom, I'd go back and stand by the drums and hide, my little area to be safe and secure. But I don't have that anymore."
What there is now, of course, is the unshared spotlight on center stage and the responsibility that goes with it. True, manager Ken Stilts is there to handle business decisions ("I'm not good at money," shrugs Wynonna), and Naomi is never really far away. But things are different, and for Wynonna, the awareness of that keeps growing as the miles roll by. "I'm 28 years old and have gotten away with the biggest scam in the world because I didn't have to do everything that Mom had to do," she says. "Sometimes I'm excited about it all. Other times I go, 'Oh, crap, this is what they all meant when they said someday you'll be on your own.' "
JANE SANDERSON in Franklin