The Judds: A Journey to Country Music’s Highest Honor
By Hunter Kelly
When The Judds were revealed in August as the newest inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the mother-daughter duo made headlines with Wynonna’s on-camera reaction to the good news: “It’s about damn time!”
This level of unfiltered honesty is par for the course with The Judds, who have shared the intimate ups and downs of their lives with fans since their 1983 debut. But Wynonna insists her exclamation on their Country Music Hall of Fame induction was not about her at all. This recognition is something she’s wanted for her mother, Naomi, for a long time.
For the past few years, Wynonna has watched as Naomi waited to find out if it was The Judds’ year to receive Country Music’s highest honor. Wynonna says it’s her human instinct as a daughter to make sure her mother is honored for her contribution to Country Music while she’s still able to enjoy it.
“As you get older, your world gets smaller, and I’m watching my mother’s world gets smaller,” Wynonna explained. “So how significant is it in moments like this, when her world gets a little bit bigger and brighter? Who does not want that for their mother? I saw my mother get a pep in her step. That matters.”
Judging solely by the numbers, The Judds’ induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame has been a long time coming. In the span of just over six years, Wynonna and Naomi racked up 14 No.1 hits and won nine CMA Awards and five Grammy Awards. Due to health issues, Naomi announced her retirement in 1990, and The Judds’ Farewell Tour would go on to become the third highest-grossing tour of 1991 among all genres, behind the Grateful Dead and ZZ Top.
Now that their induction is officially on the books, Naomi said, “The first word that pops into my head right this minute is ‘validated.’ There’s a validation that after all these years, all these experiences, our music and story has hit a chord with people. I feel like you all have shown me that you get it. You like what we’re doing. And as an artist, that’s what you pray for.”
Music industry accolades don’t tell the full story of The Judds’ music, though. Songs like “Why Not Me,” “Rockin’ with the Rhythm of the Rain” and “Love Is Alive” are now familiar Country classics, but the diversity of musical influences behind those hits helps explain why The Judds’ music provided such a boost for the Country format throughout the ’80s.
Wynonna and Naomi first moved from their native Kentucky to Los Angeles in the late ’60s but returned to Morrill in the early ’70s. That’s where Wynonna discovered music and spent countless hours playing her acoustic guitar and finding her voice. The blues of Bonnie Raitt and the idiosyncratic confessions of Joni Mitchell were early favorites, along with female roots music duo Hazel & Alice, whose album in the $1 bin at the local record store would introduce Wynonna and Naomi to the idea of two women singing harmony.
A few years later, the family returned to the West Coast, this time to Marin County, where the mother-daughter duo added the intricate harmonies of the Andrews Sisters’ “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein” and Ella Fitzgerald’s “Cow Cow Boogie” to their remarkably diverse catalog of songs. Living in California also gave them the chance to see Country concerts by Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Doc Watson and Emmylou Harris, whose backing band featured fellow Kentuckian Ricky Skaggs.
Before ultimately making the move to Nashville in 1979, The Judds spent a few months in Austin, soaking up the Western swing sounds of Asleep at the Wheel as well as the blues-rock influence of Stevie Ray Vaughan and The Fabulous Thunderbirds.
“I was drawn to being a part of a band,” Wynonna recalled. “I wanted the human experience of playing live music. I wanted so badly to be a musician, artist, singer. I honestly was not interested in being famous, whatsoever.”
After a false start trying to secure a record deal for Wynonna as a solo artist in Nashville, Wynonna and Naomi eventually connected with producer Brent Maher, best known for his work producing Dottie West and Kenny Rogers as well as engineering Ike and Tina Turner’s classic “Proud Mary.” Maher was fascinated with The Judds’ wide range of influences and intricate harmonies. He invited his friend, guitarist Don Potter, who had a background in free-form jazz, to join him at Wynonna and Naomi’s house in the evenings to help flesh out The Judds’ sound.
The Judds had found their band. The work tapes they created as a foursome laid the foundation of all The Judds’ music to follow, with Wynonna and Naomi’s harmonies worked out among the four of them along with the interplay between Wynonna’s commanding lead vocal and Potter’s distinctive guitar licks. Once that was all arranged, they recorded the studio versions with a tight group of A-list musicians, including fellow 2021 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Eddie Bayers on drums. As producer and engineer, Maher kept the recordings uncluttered, with plenty of room for Wynonna and Naomi’s vocals to shine in the mix.
“I just remember it being simple,” Wynonna said of The Judds’ sound. “You don’t hear ’80s synthesizer and bells and whistles.” She also credits Potter’s guitar playing as an essential ingredient to their music: “When I first heard him play, I went, ‘OK, you’re not a typical Nashville musician trying to sound like what’s on the radio right now.’ I was so technically intrigued by the sound of Don’s guitar. I remember sitting there for hours and trying to play rhythm with his guitar playing. My biggest goal in life was trying to keep up with him.”
Naomi believes all the time they spent arranging every song before they ever got into the studio is a big reason why The Judds’ music still sounds fresh decades after it was recorded.
“I think our music is durable,” she said. “That’s not a sexy word, ‘durable,’ but when we start to play that guitar lick for ‘Why Not Me,’ people really respond. You see that down through the years, it still holds up.”
The Judds’ musical pedigree can also be judged by the company they kept in the studio. Harris, Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler, Carl Perkins and Raitt were among the few guest artists to lend their talent to The Judds’ music outside their core group of players.
The Judds reunited for concert tours in both 2000 and 2010, and Wynonna has been recording and touring as a highly successful solo artist since 1992. The drive to follow her muse and continue expanding her sound has left her little time to sit and reflect on what her musical legacy will be. That’s begun to change in the past few years as she’s looked at telling the story of Country Music for future generations.
“I think you have to get older to appreciate some things,” Wynonna said. “There was a long time in my life where I thought, ‘Well, we had our time, it was great.’ I didn’t think about stuff like the Country Music Hall of Fame until probably in the last few years. I guess it’s my age and having grown children and realizing life’s going by fast. Now, I go, ‘This is important.’”