Even a diva road warrior princess has to deal with a dead armadillo now and again.
Sure, she has sold more than 30 million albums, charted 20 No. 1 hits, won five Grammys, written a New York Times best-seller and competed on “Dancing With the Stars.” But a dead armadillo waits for no woman, not even Wynonna Judd.
The country music superstar was home earlier this week at her 1,000-acre Tennessee farm getting ready to go back out on the road for the West Coast leg of a tour that will slink across the rest of the country throughout the summer. She stops in Turlock on July 11 to kick off the Stanislaus County Fair concert series. But first, there was this business of the armadillo.
“Who killed an armadillo? My dog?” she said, interrupting a phone interview with The Bee to talk with her husband, her drummer and producer Cactus Moser. “They didn’t kill it? Good. Wait, it’s squashed? No, I can’t deal with it right now. I’m doing interviews because I’m really famous.”
That self-deprecating humor is part of what has won Wynonna, who switched to the one-name moniker when she first went solo in 1992, legions of fans affectionately called Juddheads across her three-decade career. Through her very public highs (from signing a record deal when she was still a teenager with her mother, Naomi Judd, and becoming the biggest-selling country music duo of their time) to her very public lows (a DUI arrest, struggles with her weight, estrangement from family), the singer has found solace in her home off the road.
Her mother and her actress sister, Ashley Judd, also have homes on the sprawling property. But there’s still enough space for Wynonna to have more than 40 animals, from dogs to goats to buffalo.
“If you study the brain, which I do, you are born with the adrenals. They run from the bear and let you lift the car off the baby, you know, do things with Superman power for 30 seconds,” she said. “And then you need to put the brakes on and for your brain to decompress. Like a pressure cooker, it needs to release. That’s what I do here. The farm is a necessity.”
She has no computer, little phone service and rarely watches TV while there. She said she likes to ride her tractor, sleep, tend her herb garden and even bake the occasional cookie in her free time.
“I am working on the B-word, I don’t like it, but ‘balance.’ I am trying; it’s hard,” she said. “When I have time, I sit on the back porch and just go out to pet dogs at night and listen to the crickets. I need that; otherwise, I’d go looney.”
It is those quiet times that sustain the self-described “diva” and “road warrior princess” once she launches herself back into high gear. In addition to touring, the performer is working on her eighth solo studio album. In terms of completion, she said the project is somewhere between “Oh, my gosh, it’s July” and “I’ll be done when I’m freaking done.” Even at this stage in her career, Wynonna said the line between creating commerce and creating art remains a tricky one to walk.
“I’m calm, but I’m hearing urgency. Being creatively authentic when you’ve got a label saying, ‘Hello, you have one more time slot to meet deadline in August’ is crazy to try to maneuver around,” she said. “It’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to make love and it’s going to be really romantic and you have three minutes and 40 seconds.’ ”
Still, her being such a seasoned artist means fans should expect the finished product will be all her own. Wynonna isn’t trying to fit into any one format, or just put out pop-country hits to please the charts.
“We are somewhere between Americana and sometimes heavy metal. We go from A to Z; jack it down and turn it up. I can promise you this,” she said. “When you hit 30 years of being in this business, you tend to go to a place where you say, ‘I’m going to get away with as much as possible.’ I’m not worried with formulas and statistics and ‘Oh my God, will country music play this?’ I’m trying to figure out how to be authentic and have the music strike a chord in me, pun intended.”
She said the album will have wide-ranging influences from American bluegrass star Dr. Ralph Stanley and rock legend Bruce Springsteen, friends like Bonnie Raitt and artists who inspire her, like India.Arie. She is even inviting some famous colleagues like Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page to play on the record.
The music will reflect what’s influencing her and happening in her life today. That includes everything from turning 50 to facing empty-nest syndrome (her kids are 19 and 17, respectively) and her marriage of two years to Moser.
“I am not driven by fame and fortune, I am driven by the human experience. I love what I do and will keep doing it until they say I can’t anymore,” she said. “I’m 50 years old and just getting started. I’m excited to just be free; I don’t worry as much as when I was 30 or 20.”
Part of that process, she said, is just being honest about her history – or “herstory” as she likes to call it. That kind of Oprah-confessional openness is now second nature to her, and not only because she has been on “Oprah” several times and has “two very famous relatives who would sell me out if I didn’t tell the truth.”
“If I was going to live that honestly, openly with my family, I was going to have to be honest with everybody else, too,” she said. “I just know there’s somebody waiting in the wings in one of those VH1 ‘Behind the Music’ things. I have to be honest, there are too many people watching. I don’t know how these people when famous are surprised when someone blows the whistle.”
These days, Wynonna said she’s happy to follow her own whistle, even if that means some unexpected and unplanned projects. When she wanted to wear some comfortable shoes on stage and bedazzled them to look pretty, it became her own signature line of shoes (Got Soul, now available at Fred Segal and boutiques across the country). When she and her husband went to the gym, a filmmaker noticed his amputated leg – a result of a traumatic motorcycle accident two years ago – and got to talking about a feature film project following soldiers in war in Afghanistan, it became a song on the soundtrack (the film, “The Hornet’s Nest,” is opening this summer in select cities across the country).
“It is one of those wacky, wonderful things that happen to you when you’re not looking,” said Wynonna, who also has been a longtime supporter of the USO. “I just felt grateful because it is important for me to be a part of history in that way. Working with the military opened a whole new world for me. It marks my time here and lets me get into things other than myself.”
Of course, that also means continuing to laugh at herself. Wynonna said her stage show with her band the Big Noise and husband/drummer Moser is a “tragic comedy” that is part Sonny and Cher and part Bonnie and Clyde. She jokes about her next-door neighbor Carrie Underwood and Spanx and everything else.
And, if she ever forgets and gets too “diva road warrior princess” for herself, she always has things like Twitter to bring her back to her roots.
“I dealt with something on Twitter I never dealt with in my 30-year career, and I nearly went berserk,” she said. “I’ve got 30-year Juddheads and fans for years, and then I have this one 18-year-old girl calling me a ‘chick.’ I had the weirdest conversation with her the other day. She was like, ‘This isn’t you.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, it is.’ She was asking me things like I’m a new artist, ‘What songs do you sing?’ In the end I was like, ‘I have one word for you, Google.’
“She had no idea, but that’s OK. Better late than never. I have to laugh or I’d go insane. I joke about myself because I know how the world works, people.”