BY WHITNEY YOUNGS
For Wynonna Judd, last year’s spring and summer were marked with the sort of pain and joy only life and love can bring.
The pain came in April when Judd’s mother and singing partner, Naomi, the other half of the Judds, died by suicide. She was 76. The mother-daughter duo were to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame the following day, and knowing that the show must go on, Judd and her sister Ashley accepted the honor and gave speeches.
“And while this is so much about the Judds [...] I want to take a moment to recognize my sister,” Ashley said, mentioning Judd’s influences, ranging from Hazel and Alice to Led Zeppelin, and “of course” Joni Mitchell. “Perhaps the most bitter argument to this day we’ve ever had was whether [Mitchell’s] lyrics came this way or that way,” she said. “I was wrong.”
July brought the joy when Judd found herself on stage at the Newport Folk Festival with Joni Mitchell — who was performing her first set in more than 20 years alongside a younger generation of friends like Judd, Brandi Carlile, Lucius and Marcus Mumford.
“Joni was the soundtrack of my childhood — she’s my hero — and Brandi invited me to come and be a witness to her incredible journey,” Judd told the Los Angeles Times. “I wasn’t there to perform, I was there to be. It was magic — like death and life at the same time.”
One particular song of Mitchell’s took hold of Judd that day: “Both Sides Now.” Mitchell was 23 when she wrote it. The song, replete with heartfelt retrospection, is regarded as a pop/folk standard with more than 80 artists covering it since 1967. It’s hard to pinpoint the age of the song’s character—she could be 21 or 81—and maybe that’s why the piece resonates across multiple generations and changes in meaning depending on who’s listening.
“I know I was ugly-crying most of the time, and I’m not thrilled about that,” Judd said. “Who would be? But I feel like I was there to be a messenger of how precious life is because of my mother.”
It was in the early 1970s when Naomi relocated to Nashville with Ashley and Wynonna, who were just young girls. The Judds signed with RCA Nashville in 1983, and over the next decade, the duo would record six studio albums, amass 14 number one singles, earn five Grammys and sell more than 20 million records before disbanding in the 1990s. In 1992, Judd launched a solo career with her debut album going multiplatinum.
During the pandemic on her farm in Tennessee, Judd, 58, hoping to explore her love of rock, soul and folk, began to record music uncharacteristic of what her mother called, “Judd music.”
“I feel like I’m right back where I started like I’m 18 all over again,” Judd said. “I’ve learned a lot being at home. When there’s no touring, no concerts, no band, no lights, no action, all that’s left is you and the song. All that’s left is your gift.”
Judd, hoping to leave the past behind and break free from the mother-daughter country duo category that has defined her career for nearly four decades, signed with the indie label Anti- Records. She released the album Recollections in 2020 followed by the single, “Other Side,” a duet with singer Waxahatchee, in 2022. The album features covers by Fats Domino, John Prine, Nina Simone and the Grateful Dead.
“This EP was a labor of love without the labor,” Judd explained. “As a songwriter, you can get bogged down in your own craft sometimes, but there’s something so liberating about letting go of all that and just inhabiting someone else’s writing.”
Wynonna Judd plays BeachLife Ranch September 23.