STEUBENVILLE - Lately, Wynonna Judd's been feeling a lot like the young girl who used to sit on the back porch at night singing at the top of her lungs.
"It's as real as I've ever been, sitting on a stool playing my guitar, just me and nothing but the talents I had when I was 18," said Judd, now 49 and slated to take the stage at The Harv at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort on Aug. 2. "I have the best time on stage now - I see it not as a production, but as a time of fellowship and communicating with people in the audience. It's such a big difference."
Growing up dirt poor in eastern Kentucky, there were times when Judd and her famous half-sister, Ashley, and their mother Naomi didn't have a telephone, electricity or indoor plumbing. The sisters wore secondhand clothes and would pick blackberries "til our fingers bled," she said.
WAKE — Wynnona Judd said singing at the May 2 funeral for country legend George Jones made her keenly aware “we’re losing our legends.” -- Associated Press
"Looking back, it's a miracle we got off the 'Mountain of Ap-palachia.' It's a third-world country, you know. And I went from welfare to millionaire at 18, just out of high school. That's insane. But it's the American Dream, like winning the lottery. Most people don't survive that."
Most girls don't spend 10 years living on a bus with their mother, either, travelling from one city to another. The mother-daughter show ended in 1991 when Naomi was forced to retire due to complications from Hepatitis C.
"Look, if you can survive 10 years on a bus with your mother, you're not going to be scared of anything," Wynonna said. "I paid my dues. I knew I could go out on my own and I'd either sink or swim ... thank goodness for my fans, I'm still here. At my age, I'm aware of just how privileged I am."
But "privileged" doesn't begin to describe her career: The Judds sold more than 20 million albums between 1983 and 1991, won five Grammys and made the top 10 singles list 20 times. Wynonna's first three solo albums went platinum, several times over. She's been back in the recording studio working on a new album that she said "comes from the gut."
"It's coming from deepest place in my spirit," she said. "It's terrifying, but it's exhilarating. People will know I'm being honest, and that, to me, is a gift to myself."
Part of that "gift," she said, is being able to look her audience in the eye and let them see the 'real Wynonna' for whom life has been anything but a bed of roses: She figures she's cheated death three times over the past couple years - surviving a major auto accident as well as pulmonary embolism, and she could very easily have been collateral damage in the same motorcycle accident that cost her third husband, "Cactus" Moser, his leg just two months after they married. She spent much of the past year at home, nursing him back to health.
"I follow my heart, I tell the audience stories," she said. "People laugh, people cry. When Cactus comes out he gets a bigger standing ovation than I do because of the stories I tell them about his incredible recovery. People are mesmerized by his story, it's really important to a lot of amputees out there. We're turning his story into a message to them.
"Have you read 'Daring Greatly' by Brene Brown? She's swiftly becoming the new voice of women and men everywhere. She's nailing me to the wall with this vulnerable thing - she says it's absolutely imperative that we show our vulnerabilities, or we'll never be (free of them). I've been doing that on stage, and I've gotten more response by being vulnerable as a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister. I tell my story and people are riveted. They're convinced I'm some magical being, that I've got this formula for success. I say to them, 'Look, when I'm home my kids don't realize how famous I am. My husband was in a motorcycle accident and lost his leg..."
Wynonna says her goal is to send her fans home "feeling better than when they got there."
"Music is a healer, a soother, an inspirational tool to get people to light a fire under their butts," she said. "There was a girl in the front row who'd lost her father and tweeted me she didn't know how she was going to make it. ... I sang a song to her, to fill up that hole in her heart with song and she continues to tweet me. She says I'll never know how much that song meant to her."
She said reconnecting with her faith has a lot to do with her inner peace.
"You know what they say, religion is for people scared of hell; spirituality is for people who have been through it. I have a renewed sense of faith. I'm not a preacher, it's a teaching tool for me. All I know for sure is that I have this one day, and I try to use my time on stage to inject hope and joy and celebration into the air, God knows we need it.
"In this life you can be known for words, you can be known for causes and activism, or you can be known as a person who makes people feel. I want to be that person, I want people to feel my music in a way that helps them in their life. And I appreciate the stage now because it's my home - some days, I spend 10 or 15 hours travelling, and that magical two hours on stage is what I bask in."
(Harris can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)