Wynonna Judd reflects on feeling ‘Broken and Blessed,’ coming home to Kentucky ahead of The Judds’ Final Tour

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Editor’s note: WOUB’s exclusive interview with Wynonna Judd was conducted a few weeks before Naomi Judd’s passing, for Ohio and Kentucky summer shows that were eventually cancelled. We are utilizing the interview — and the narrator’s reflection of Wynonna’s insights, while he spoke to her from Africa, in light of recent events — to promote The Judds’ Final Tour shows in Ohio and Kentucky in their place.

Listen to WOUB’s exclusive interview with Wynonna in the Soundcloud link embedded above by clicking “play,” and find a transcript of the conversation below. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Wynonna: Listen, we come from this small town; and I think the small town reminds people everywhere — dreamers — know that you can come from nothing, and you can experience everything. You know, we went from zero to 60, welfare to millionaire, and we just are the American dream. And I think Ashland, Kentucky knows that I have not forgotten my roots, even though I’m a rocker and I love blues and jazz, my roots are so firmly planted in being a Kentucky girl.

That was Wynonna Judd, the daughter and lead singer of The Judds, speaking to me on March 30 this year. Although WOUB is the NPR affiliate for The Judds’ hometown of Ashland, Kentucky, I happened to be not in Ashland… but, Africa! Specifically, the Makumbusho village near the eastern coast of Tanzania.

Ian: Well, hello, Wynonna!

Wynonna: Helloooooo.

Ian: Hi! MY name is Ian Saint and I’m with Ohio NPR affiliate, WOUB. I’m actually in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania at the moment. Um…

Wynonna: Wow!

Ian: Yeah! And I’m in a village. So if you hear an occasional bird or goat, um, it’s not a roommate — it is a fellow critter…

Wynonna: (laughs) Well, if you hear a pig, a chicken or, you know, horses or… I’m with you, dear.

That’s in reference to the Leipers Fork farm that Wynonna calls home. Like “Love Can Build a Bridge,” I suppose, Zoom can build a virtual bridge over 8,000 miles — even from a farm in Tennessee to a village in Tanzania.

Wynonna and her band the Big Noise had a summer tour scheduled, called Herstory & Hits, and she sat down for an exclusive interview with WOUB ahead of shows in June at the Peoples’ Bank Theatre in Marietta, Ohio, and the Paramount Arts Center in The Judds’ hometown of Ashland, Kentucky.

Ian: In light of you talking with the guy in Tanzania, I’m wondering: what are a couple of places that you’ve performed, where you’re thinking, “oh my God, never in my wildest dreams, would I’ve ever imagined playing here” — and by extension, what goes through your mind as you’re performing back in your hometown of Ashland, Kentucky, after all those years of such experiences?

Wynonna: Wow, good question! I have performed at a maximum security prison. I have performed, uh, for a nun’s convention… the Pope, the White House. You name it; I think we’ve been there, and I think…

Ian: Oh, my goodness.

Wynonna: It is “oh, my goodness.” And I have a lot of those, I’ll be honest. Even after 38 years of being with… you know, country music has allowed me to be a part of — I’ve performed in people’s backyards. I just did a show, last year, for a couple who had a party at their home; and people jumped in the pool while singing “Grandpa.” I have had the most incredible experiences — from the Super Bowl halftime, to playing every county and state fair on the planet, and performing at the London Palladium. I’ve just done the wildest things! 75,000 people at the June Jam for Alabama, back in the 80s. So I’ve been around for a long time.

Ian: Yes! So then what’s it like, being back in your hometown after performing around the world, and in the wildest of settings and all the contexts?

Wynonna: That is interesting. Because the most emotional part of what I do, of course, is doing things like a hometown performance. Where I walked out front, by the doors that people come in for the show, as a little girl — going to buy school clothes with my Mamaw. So it’s incredibly emotional, bittersweet, because they’re no longer here. I was sort of raised by my Mamaw and Papaw. They raised me so lovingly, and back during a day when we didn’t have Internet, and we didn’t have video games, and we didn’t have all the things that are distracting us today. And we were present, and in the moment. So I think a lot about my memories of being from a small town; where people go to work, they come home… their family, and those things, are different today. You know, we live in such a transient world, where people’s attention span is so limited because of the Internet. I think I’ll be standing on stage, singing “Love is Alive,” and remembering Mom and me on the road, and playing the hometown, and my Nana cooking for the band and crew. I, I just… yeah, it’s a really emotional thing. I’ll get there and cry, because my people are gone; and here I am, returning to the well, as they say. And here I am, getting ready to be[come] a grandmother myself.

Ian: Awwww!

Wynonna: And here, I know that life is going by so quickly, that it takes my breath away. I’ll be honest… between songs, I honestly sleep, close my eyes, and I just spread my toes and squeeze my butt together and go, “here we go yet on another chapter of this saga, that I’ve been living since I can remember.”

Of course, I was touched by this revelation of Wynonna’s upcoming new chapter as a grandmother. And I was struck by how she segued to this revelation in such a perfectly poetic manner. It was one of several passages, during our conversation, where she weaved reflections and insights so artfully…

Unfortunately, the summer homecoming shows that we’d discussed did not transpire; and the month following our conversation was a whirlwind. 12 days after our Tanzania talk, Wynonna reunited with her mother Naomi at the CMA Music Awards, where they delivered a spine-tingling performance of “Love Can Build a Bridge” — which Naomi, herself, co-wrote — with a choir.

The Judds also announced a final tour, to take place in the fall, and many of the shows — which were being staged in arenas — sold out instantly.

Two days after this unforgettable reunion, Wynonna did become a grandmother, as her son Elijah welcomed a baby girl to birth the next Judd generation. Tragically, 17 days later, Wynonna’s beloved mother Naomi suddenly passed away.

This devastating loss came as a shock to the Judd family, as it did to the entire music world; and it obscured the fate of the plans they had made. However, at Naomi’s memorial service — staged at the historic Ryman Auditorium, and broadcast on CMT — Wynonna announced she would carry out the shows that The Judds had booked for The Final Tour.

The memorial service program on CMT was titled “Naomi Judd: A River of Time Celebration.” “River of Time” was the title track of their 1988 gold album, and it was co-written by Naomi herself. Wynonna bravely performed it at her mother’s public memorial service, at Naomi’s request.

As I watched Wynonna’s performance, one passage of the song hit me like a ton of bricks…

I became emotional, as I processed her mother’s lyrics, and how closely they evoked the reflections that Wynonna had shared with me — from across the globe, 34 years after they’d recorded her mother’s reflective rhymes, and just a few weeks prior to her loss. We talked at length about the importance of making the present count; and she recalled how this even had an effect on camaraderie among country music icons, compared to 30 years ago.

A promotional image for The Judds' final tour listing all of the tour dates

Wynonna: What I think about 1992 is we were definitely more present, and we were physical in the room face-to-face — not just Facebook. And there was a sense of community, moreso, than… I’ll give you an example, at CMA [Music Awards]. Back in, the ‘80s and ‘90s, everyone was in a room, waiting for their performance. And so you’d walk into a room, and you would see Johnny Cash, you would see Merle Haggard, and you would see all these characters in one room. And I remember thinking, “oh my gosh, these are our absolute master… they were the people that raised me. Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette in the same dressing room, along with Dolly. Are you kidding me?

Ian: Oh, my gosh!

Wynonna: Now you go to CMA, and everyone’s on their bus, out in the parking lot. So you tell me, you know, there’s a difference. And I think you have to accept it, and go, “well, back then, there was definitely the ‘good old days’ mentality of everybody was just one big community, family. You know what it was? It was a family reunion. That’s a good way to explain it. And nowadays, it’s like everyone has their own hotel room, and we hope that we can all somehow gather together. And unfortunately, it’s just on stage, when we do the big closing of the night song where everyone is present. So it’s a little bit lonely, I’ll be honest. I think the Internet has taken us away from being in the room together. But, yet, we also know that the success of the newcomers… you know, you’re looking at millions of followers, versus — you know, my grandmother was like, “Jesus only had 12 of followers.” So you look at that perspective, and you go, “Well, everything is a pro and a con today.” And you have to look at it, like, “she set a record!” Well, that’s wonderful! And yet, back in the ‘90s, I’ll be honest — the fans back then were showing up for everything, and you knew their first name[s]. So there is a little bit of a trade-off.

Ian: Yeah! Oh, my gosh, that’s so interesting. First of all, I’m now considering getting your grandmother’s phrase tattooed on me, so I can remind myself of that periodically. (laughs)

Wynonna: Yes. Those are words of wisdom, aren’t they?

Ian: They absolutely are.

Wynonna: They are words of wisdom. And they’ve helped me to gather my thoughts and wits, as I have raised my two children to be fully present. No phones at the table for dinner. Just trying really hard to say, “Hey, let’s be in the now.” Because everyone is thinking so far ahead… I wonder for myself, especially, am I living in the now? Am I listening? It’s in the present moment that we experience the most important things in this life. And look, I love being successful! I love going out on stage, and looking out and seeing familiar faces that have been there since 1984. I have fans that are so dedicated, that they too have all the t-shirts and they have everything I’ve ever done. And I think about that and I go, “wow, this is a commitment. This is like a marriage where we hold on, love is holding on and not letting go.” And in country music, our fans are so loyal, that they literally get married and bury their people to our music. It’s a very heavy, sweet thing. And it’s not something that, you know, money can buy! It’s called, “time.”

Ian: Yes! Well, you know… speaking of female elders, family, their insights, “herstory” and that theme… I do have to give credit to both my mother, Mary, and my Aunt Erin for helping me prep for this interview — not only in recent days, but also over the years, because they did acquaint me with your music. My Aunt Erin actually caught The Judds at the Canfield County Fair, kind of near Youngstown, Ohio. She thinks probably back in ’84, ’85, something like that. Her and her spouse won a rabbit in a fair game, and they named him Judd! And they adored that rabbit. (laughs)

Wynonna:(laughs) See, that’s when you know you’ve made it — when someone names their farm animal after you. And we’ve had so many, that I chuckle, because that’s a really huge… that’s a definite American dream, slash, “Wow! Our fans must really love us, because they ___.”

Going back to “River of Time,” I also thought about how the song wasn’t released as a single. Yet, the song has always remained a fan-favorite staple of The Judds’ concerts. For a female duo that had a record-setting 14 singles shoot to #1, alone, competition for set list inclusion is fierce — which makes the enduring popularity of an album cut, like “River of Time,” all the more astonishing! Once again, I was struck by how much this recalled the conversation I’d had with Wynonna, just a few weeks prior.

Ian: I started thinking about, for after your tour with the hits, if you might want to consider a tour of fan favorite deep cuts. My Aunt Erin singled out “Father Sun,” from Ask Me Why, as one of her favorite deep cuts.

Wynonna: I will do anything for the fans. Well, legally. (laughs) I am so about… it’s interesting you say this — because when I’m doing a show, sometimes the most emotional sweet moments are the deep cuts. And it’s because of the stories that are behind the songs. So I wouldn’t doubt that tour will come.

Wynonna indicated that a Deep Cuts Tour could also include some Never Before Heard Cuts; and she delved into one of them, that fans have been eager to hear…

Wynonna: Hits are wonderful! They get you invited to the party. And those are wonderful calling cards, to walk out and say, “Hey, I did this.” You know, who doesn’t love a success story? I also know that people love a comeback, and I’m definitely only one of those artists that have been loved and supported for my failures, as well as my successes. I’m very grateful that my fans know that I’m writing a song, for instance, that’s very, very intimate as a mother of someone who has been incarcerated. And has two children, and loved them, and raised them on a bus. I raised them in hotel rooms, and on a bus, and in private jets getting to the show. I’ve raised Grace and Elijah to know where they come from. We have a farm outside Nashville, that’s 500 acres, and I’ve raised them on the land — and they know who they are, because of that. They have their father’s name. They’re not written up as Judd, because they said they want their own identity. And they’re very independent. I guess my point is, as a mother of grown children, I’ve written a song called “Broken and Blessed” — because as a mother, I’m both. And I cry from my toenails, because these children have moved on, and you feel a bit lonely. And it’s a really interesting time to be a parent of adult children, because they have so many choices that I didn’t have at their age. And I’m talking Internet, TikTok, and all the things that they’re distracted by. “Broken and Blessed” is about letting go, and it’s killing me. And, yet, I feel so blessed.

They’re healthy, they’re alive, and we are family — and we’re broken, but we’re still good. And I think this song means so much to me. I’m a little nervous putting it out there, because it’s vulnerability, plus… and yet the fans really want that honesty. And I think we’re living in a time when people need to know what’s real. And I think what’s real about these tours is that I can sit and sing a song that I’ve written about, you know, my daughter and our walk together through the ups and downs, and breaking the cycle of addiction, and learning how to love each other in spite of the choices we make. And wow — it’s just, it’s so much, isn’t it, to have family? To have life, to have, yes, these choices. And I think “Broken and Blessed” is a very good indication of what’s coming, which is stories and song, which will be me sitting there saying, “well, I wrote this song when I was really challenged.” The pandemic brought out a lot of new music, because I was sitting here without an audience, and sitting here without tours, and sitting here without work. And I had to learn how to make peace with the nothingness that was taking place. And, boy, did a lot come from that! And so something comes from nothing.

“Broken and Blessed.” The phrase “broken and blessed” certainly gave me pause, and rang in my head, as I pondered how it was the perfect characterization for so many complicated chapters of life — where Wynonna’s poetic portrayal helped to better process it, and accept it. Only a month later, the world was reeling from the shock of Naomi Judd’s death, on the day before The Judds were being inducted to the hallowed Country Music Hall of Fame. In spite of the unimaginable trauma that they had just endured, sisters Wynonna and Ashley Judd attended the inauguration. And as Wynonna spoke, I was floored when she evoked “broken and blessed” — the unreleased song that we had just ruminated on, from across the globe — at her emotional acceptance speech.

(“I’m gonna make this fast, because my heart is broken. And I feel so blessed. And it’s a very strange dynamic, to be this broken and this blessed.”)

This feeling of “broken and blessed” is no doubt very relatable to a lot of people right now, as well, in the wake of a pandemic that took the lives of more than a million Americans — and also left many survivors with long-term disabilities. Our society has undergone a prolonged, mass trauma event; and Wynonna seemed acutely aware of this. She was cognizant of how performing her songs can conjure memories that she never would’ve imagined being associated with.

Wynonna: The fans, you know, they live vicariously through you; and they live with you, beside you, during these songs. And when I’m out there doing the hits, I know that there’s someone talking to themselves about, well, I left that abusive relationship. I have a girl who came to the show, and she said “that song literally was playing in the background, as I packed my car and left the abusive relationship.” These people live through this music; it’s playing in the background of all their experiences.”

Indeed — and I realized in that moment, how I now find myself in that same category. This was my first time in Tanzania, and as we said goodbye, I knew it would be impossible to reflect on that Tanzania trip without the mesmerizing voice of Wynonna Judd cueing in the cortices of my mind’s speakers. And not just with the hundreds of infectious songs in her rich musical catalogue, but also with the mindful pondering and sage advice that she gifted me and our listeners throughout our conversation. One passage particularly struck me, as an ambitious, perfectionist broadcaster; and I think it would benefit many others to heed it as well, after enduring the pains of these past couple of years.

Wynonna: You know, I’m settling, I’ll be honest with you. Anyone listening to this, you know, as you get older, you take less crap. And you won’t put up with this or that, and you set boundaries and you say, “no,” because it’s a complete sentence. And you learn this stuff after, especially 50, I’m settling and I just feel more confident. I think the ego is a hustler, and I spent a lot of my years in this business… definitely hustling, and the expectations, and trying to perform, and trying to be excellent. And my perfectionism was over the top at times. Now I just wake up, and I’m grateful. I think practicing gratitude has saved my life during the pandemic. I learned how to live simply, like so many other people. And I think we all had to go through a new… I would say reset, if you want.

That word works for me. There was a reset. And I think I’m just at a place where I wake up, I’m grateful; and I show up, and I wait for God to walk through the room. And that’s new for me, because I’ve always felt like such a performer, entertainer, artist, singer… and now I’m just grateful to be in a band, Wynonna and the Big Noise, we’re on tour now. And I just show up, and I sing, and I watch the crowd; and I’m there to be a backdrop of American life here. And people’s experiences through this music are so many.

Certainly, THIS person’s experience through Wynonna’s music in that moment was unforgettable. As I became enveloped in the depth of surreality about speaking to a country music icon from a field in East Africa, I was left struggling to stammer as we bid farewell.

Ian: Well, thank you so much. We’re really excited to welcome you back to our region, a handful of times on this exciting tour, including your hometown. And it’s been such a pleasure speaking with you — and you’ve been talking about gratitude. I’m grateful that the Wifi held up in this Tanzanian village! (laughs)

Wynonna: (laughs) It’s amazing, isn’t it?

Ian: Yeah! And, uh, my, my partner’s from… she’s from Nigeria, and she’s like, “oh, the Judds!” and… that was a great surprise, too, seeing how she was familiar with you guys all the way out there.

Wynonna: Wow! Interesting! Gosh…

Ian: Yeah! Yeah. Well, thank you once again. And, uh, we will be in touch when the segment is finished… and, I guess, break a leg!

WYNONNA: Thank you so much, dear. And I appreciate your questions. They were very thoughtful.

Ian: Oh, thank you! That really means a lot. And my mother and aunt will be over the moon.

Wynonna: Yay! All right, my dear, bye bye for now.

Ian, Nnenna, and Kezie (clockwise) having dinner in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the area of Africa that Ian interviewed Wynonna from
Ian, Nnenna, and Kezie (clockwise) having dinner in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the area of Africa that Ian interviewed Wynonna from. [Ian Saint I WOUB]
After our goodbyes, I reunited with my travel partner, Nnenna, and her 16-year-old daughter Kezie. I raved about Wynonna’s brilliance, and we had fun imagining if Nnenna and Kiki formed their own “her-story” as a mother-daughter music duo — but Nigerian, instead of Nashvillian. We went on to explore more of Tanzania and Kenya for a couple of weeks; and on my way back, I got to spend a week with my Nana’s family in Scotland — whom I hadn’t seen in several years. All the while, reminding myself of Wynonna imploring the importance of being present, and practicing gratitude while enjoying blessings of the present.

Upon returning to America, I reconnected with my Aunt Erin — the one who won her rabbit at the Canfield County Fair, as she went to see The Judds in the mid ‘80s, before I was even born, and named him Judd in their honor. And on Easter, we obtained fast-selling tickets to the Judds’ final show in Ohio on October 1, to make new family memories of singing along with The Judds all these years later.

Wynonna: You know, during “Love Can Build a Bridge” or “Grandpa,” listening to the audience sing back to me is my favorite thing in this life. Besides prayer. I love to start a song, and then hold up the microphone and let the audience fill in the blanks. That is, to me, um… we’re in agreement, you know — where two or more shall gather, we are in agreement that music is a healer. And those are my favorite things in this life, because performance is a funny thing. You feel that perfectionism coming on and you feel like, “oh, gosh, I’ve gotta get it right.” Whereas when you enter into an agreement, you can let go, and you can sort of let it spontaneously happen.

The fans are so loyal, and so committed, that I feel like it’s a town hall meeting. I don’t feel like it’s a performance, as much as I feel like I’m showing up to sing karaoke with my fans. I can hear them singing back, like they’re standing right there with me, and it’s just a beautiful ceremony. You know, it’s this wonderful moment in time, where we’re suspended between here in heaven. And it’s a remarkable time.

“This wonderful moment in time where we’re suspended between here and Heaven.” Hearing Wynonna paint this picture to me — for the first time since after her mother’s passing, while I put this segment together — froze me, as I became covered with goosebumps. Although Naomi Judd won’t be seen on stage, the thousands of revelers in the arena will certainly feel her presence throughout our collective performance as a choir of strangers… singing in unison with her daughter, and “suspended between here and heaven.”

Aunt Erin is also my godmother. So I’ll be there with a matriarch whose “her-story” with The Judds precedes my time on Earth; and I’m sure that it will be an experience I’ll share with the generation that’s blooming now — the generation that Wynonna’s grand-daughter has joined.

And we at WOUB are pleased to share that, although the Ohio and Kentucky shows that we spoke to Wynonna about were cancelled, fans in both Ohio and Kentucky can still catch her in concert this fall — with some very special guests in tow.

In Ohio, The Judds’ Final Tour will play the Huntington Center in Toledo (500 Jefferson Ave.) on Saturday, October 1. Wynonna’s special guest will be Brandi Carlisle, with whom she performed “The Rose” at Naomi’s “River of Time” memorial celebration on CMT.

In Kentucky, The Judds’ Final Tour will play its last concert at the historic Rupp Arena (430 W. Vine St.) in Lexington on Saturday, October 29. This penultimate show will feature Faith Hill for one night only. At both shows, the marvelous Martina McBride will open.