A Winding Country Road

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Country singer Wynonna Judd has followed a smooth upward trajectory toward superstardom.

As a member of the Judds, a duo with her mother, Naomi, Wynonna--who plays this weekend at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts and the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza--contributed her gutsy contralto to numerous Top 10 hits from 1983 to 1992. As a solo artist, billed as simply Wynonna, she’s sold nearly 8 million copies of her five albums.

But just when it seemed as if Judd was becoming the kind of artist who’s immune to failure, she hit a bump in the road.

Her marriage fell apart after two years, and after her 1997 album, “The Other Side,” became her first to sell fewer than a million copies, she switched labels, from MCA to Curb/Universal.


Instead of licking her wounds or trying to overcompensate for adversity by increasing her workload, Judd responded by turning inward and taking stock of her life.

“The world tells you that you’re only as good as your last product,” says Judd, 35. “I lived under that rule in my 20s, but I’m not gonna live that in my 30s, simply because I’ve learned that I’m worthy even if I never sing another note.”

Coming from an artist who has the financial security to retire without singing another note, Wynonna’s newfound self-actualization might strike some as disingenuous. But her career is emblematic of the ways in which even hugely successful artists can find themselves without label support and a sure audience.

“My whole label just fell apart for my last album,” says Judd about her split with MCA. “My whole promotional and marketing team just fell away. I had no support. You can make the best record in the world, but if you don’t have the team, you’re not gonna sell the way you should. I learned a lot from that experience about giving up and letting go.”

(MCA declined to comment on the singer’s statements.)

Once intensely competitive, Judd is no longer solely motivated by the desire to be No. 1. She’s taking more time to enjoy her family, ride her motorcycles and haul slop with her two kids--Elijah, 4, and Grace, 2--on her 22-acre farm outside Nashville.

“I’m in the middle of balancing between a human being and a human doing,” she says. “My whole existence has been performing and selling a million records every week. So it’s a bit hard for me to figure out how to be content with sitting at home not being on the charts, and just being satisfied with my own quiet self.”


Judd’s 1998 divorce from Nashville businessman Arch Kelly left her with the burden of raising two kids on her own. Although Judd isn’t one to expose her private life to the press, she does suggest that single parenthood isn’t exactly a radical adjustment for her.

“I’ve really always been [a single mom],” Judd says. “Even though I was married, I was on the road, but the kids were with me, so it hasn’t changed all that much. The times I feel any different are like now when I realized it was Valentine’s Day and I didn’t have a date.”

Even with a pared-down professional agenda, Judd has a full plate. After her current tour, she’ll record her sixth album in the Bahamas with Nashville songwriter and producer James Stroud (Tim McGraw, Randy Travis, et al.).

“I’ll be away from all the opinions,” she says. “I realized recently that the label may be advancing me the money, but I ultimately pay for it. I was one of those chick singers that thought I was working for someone else, but I have a gift that’s really unique and I’m really grateful for it. I don’t have to apologize and ask permission anymore.”

Judds Reuniting for Millennial Blowout

Judd also will be reuniting with Naomi--who retired in 1991 when she contracted hepatitis C--and her sister, actress Ashley Judd, for a New Year’s Eve millennial blowout to take place in Phoenix’s America West Arena--a show that is already nearly sold out. The various ancillary possibilities have yet to be worked out, though a pay-per-view tie-in and album both seem inevitable.

“It’ll be a celebration of three very high-spirited women who have come from Kentucky and ‘look at us now’ type of thing,” Judd says. “My mom’s in an incredible time right now, and this is about us being grateful for her feeling good enough to get out of bed. I’m really glad to stand up there again as her daughter.”


For Judd, the concert will be a sweet grace note to a decade in which she has emerged as a country artist of major stature--even if ’98 did not produce the results she had hoped for.

“I didn’t make as much money last year, but I’m as happy as I’ve ever been,” Judd says. “Go figure.”


Wynonna, Friday and Saturday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos, 8 p.m. $37 to $75. (562) 916-8500. Also Sunday at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., 7 p.m. $32 to $52. (805) 449-2787.