Country music is chock-full of success stories, but few have gripped the imagination as much as the story of Naomi and Wynonna Judd, this year's winners of the Country Music Association's Horizon Award (for best new group). Despite being well out of the mainstream, the mother-daughter singing team from eastern Kentucky has proved to be Nashville's prize catch of 1984. They'll make their local debut Saturday at Fairfax High School with B.J. Thomas.
"We're just flabbergasted," says Naomi Judd about the swirl of events in the last year. "We're totally surprised. Wynonna and I are so brand-new, and we've just done everything backwards, so there was no predicting any of this."
The Judds' searing harmonies and straight-from-the-heart sound are rooted in the gospel, bluegrass and old-time traditions that begat country but have been left to rural memory while the music moved uptown. That changed in the last two years, mostly thanks to Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou Harris, but the Judds were already steeped in the traditions. "We've never had a lesson in our lives, and we've listened to so many stars of music, but we're just ourselves," says Naomi. "Maybe by Ricky making bluegrass more palatable to the country audience, they were able to accept us."
Although it sounds as if the Judds have been singing since Wynonna was still in the womb -- their duets are too intricate and inspired to be simply learned -- mother and daughter started the harmony only seven years ago, when they moved back to Kentucky after seven years in Hollywood. "We started singing together in Morrill, Kentucky," Naomi says. "Wynonna was only about 12 years old, and didn't know the words to any of the songs. We'd be doing chores together around the house, so I started singing a lower harmony on her -- my voice is a little bit deeper -- basically to teach her words. It all happened spontaneously. We had never sung together before then, and it was just there from the beginning. We have always been extremely close, and that helped, too."
That closeness extends to another daughter, Ashley, a high school honor student and summertime model. "I'm real determined that she be a normal kid," says Naomi, which explains why, during the family's 18 months in Morrill, they lived in a house with no television, no phones and no papers. It was, she admits, a very old-fashioned way of living. "Absolutely. I was really determined that after seven years of Hollywood, my two little girls see the flip side of the coin. I wanted them to know their Kentucky background. I have always been a single parent, and I've had to work, sometimes two jobs at a time. I wanted to spend as much time with them and I wanted them to develop their imaginations -- that was real important to me. I wanted them to learn how to plant a seed in the ground, how to take care of the animals, to learn about their rich Appalachian heritage."
Describing her own upbringing as "Walton style," Naomi Judd says her daughters now thank her for the experience. "I think if you ask Wynonna and Ashley what are some of the happiest periods in their lives, that year and a half in Morrill will probably come up first." They've told her so when the family has gathered at Thanksgiving and engaged in a ritual sharing of favorite memories. "I recommend all parents do this, because you find out an awful lot about where your children's hearts are and what has been meaningful to them."
While the children went to school, Naomi went to nursing school with dreams of becoming a midwife or country doctor. After another two-year sojourn in California, the family returned to Franklin, Ky., where Naomi worked as a registered nurse and her daughters went to high school. Eventually they started showing up on local radio shows in nearby Nashville. How they got signed to RCA is something else.
"Usually in the music business you go in the studio, plunk down a lot of money to make a tape, and then you send it around to different labels and pray a lot," Naomi says. In this case, she met producer Brent Maher while working in a small rural hospital, where she happened to take care of his daughter. "He'd come by on the way home from the studio, and we'd sit at the table by the kerosene lamp and sing songs." Contacts developed, and finally some of Nashville's best and brightest staked their reputations and credibility to get the Judds a live audition with RCA's Nashville president, Joe Galante.
If all this sounds like a Hollywood movie, or Nashville circa 1944 instead of 1984, Naomi Judd admits that "Wynonna and I didn't know any better, we really didn't. March 2, 6 p.m. -- I mean, we'll never forget it as long as we live. They told us just to wear our best dresses. We knew there was something real special going on." The after-hours audition, in the RCA boardroom, made them "real nervous. We didn't know that Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton got signed on live auditions."
What came out of it was a contract, a debut mini-album that yielded several major hits, a promotional tour in which they visited radio stations and sang live with only guitar accompaniment. "We found out that what we were doing as a natural expression of our soul was being accepted by strangers. How much better can things get?"
Better. The Statler Brothers invited them to open a week's worth of shows in Nebraska. "That was the first time we ever worked with a band," Naomi recalls. "The curtain was down, and we could hear 10,000 people on the other side, it's a hum, and we looked at these five strangers behind us -- our new band, the Judd Boys! The curtain started going up real slow, and Wynonna looked at me. 'Mommy! I want to go home now.' And I started getting cotton-mouthed."
"Now the curtain's at knee level, and I said, 'My God, what are we doing here?' And I reached over and put my arm around Wynonna and gave her a squeeze, said, 'Wait a minute. This is what you said you wanted to be doing, this is it. Let's just sing our music.' All of a sudden the curtain was up, we walked out about five feet to where the microphones were, sang the first few notes and that was it. We looked into each other's eyes and started singing our music."
Things got even better when the Judds won the CMA's Horizon Award. "That's when we felt we became real members of the country music family. We're still fans, and we'd never been to an awards show like that. Here we are sitting behind Alabama, Earle Thomas Conley is sitting right across the aisle from me, we're surrounded by heroes. And then Miss Tammy Wynette herself announces that we've won the Horizon Award? I don't even remember what I said up there, but as we were walking offstage, Tammy put her arms around me and said, 'This couldn't have happened to nicer girls.' I thought, this cannot be real, this is too wonderful.
"Wynonna and I are having a ball. It's like Christmas morning all the time."