Talk about pressure: Wynonna Judd made her solo debut in front of a television audience of 35 million and a Los Angeles auditorium full of stars, including mother Naomi, with whom she had shared the stage for eight years as the Judds, country music's most successful duo. The setting was January's American Music Awards and Wynonna -- from this night on, she'd be known by that singular name -- was about to perform "She Is His Only Need," the first single from her then-unreleased album.

"I walked out and saw James Brown sitting in the front row, and my mom, and I thought, 'This can't be real, take me home!', " Wynonna recalls. "But Mom would always say, 'Go to the light, spread your wings and fly... .' "

And she did, right out from under Naomi Judd's protective wing, establishing on that winter night a claim to one of the great voices in American music. A month later, the album "Wynonna" was released, opening at No. 4 on the Billboard pop charts behind brand-new albums by Def Leppard and Bruce Springsteen (it's closing in on double-platinum sales). On the country album chart, "Wynonna" knocked Garth Brooks out of the top spot, where he'd been lodged for six months. "She Is His Only Need" also went to the top of the charts.

Of course, that wasn't virgin territory. The Judds spent a lot of time there, with 23 hits and 10 million albums sold. But Naomi Judd had been forced into retirement by chronic active hepatitis, and after the world's longest farewell tour (124 concerts and a pay-per-view finale), Wynonna found herself back at Step One.

"People don't know psychologically that umbilical cord, how strong Mom and I were as a team and how I had never done anything on my own," Wynonna recalled after a sold-out concert at Baltimore's Pier Six last month (she performs at Wolf Trap on Thursday). "I'd never even been on a stage before by myself... .

"I always felt we could conquer the world," Wynonna says of the Judds. "Mom and I were like Thelma and Louise -- we could do anything. When I was off doing things by myself, I was still a kid in many ways and that's when I got in trouble or made bad decisions, picked bad people. With Mom I always felt incredibly strong."

But, she says, "My strength was always as Naomi Judd's child. My identity was not Wynonna, child of God; it was Wynonna, child of Naomi Judd, who together could do anything."

The Judds' story is finished for now, but it's hardly being forgotten. There's a Judds box set in the works. Naomi, whose hepatitis is in remission, is writing her autobiography, and a miniseries is in development. "Plan your week around it, ladies," says Wynonna.

In truth, she finds the prospect of that last event somewhat ridiculous.

"Me in a movie? I mean, I'm 28 years old! I'm kind of busy living it right now."

The Judds' story seems well suited for a miniseries: Naomi, a single mother from Ashland, Ky., raises her two daughters in Franklin, Tenn., near enough for Nashville dreams and distant enough to allow the instilling of traditional family values. Naomi and Wynonna discover a rare power in the homespun purity of their melded voices -- Wynonna carries most leads, Mom handles the harmonies -- and they give a live audition, with Wynonna on acoustic guitar, in the president's office at RCA's Nashville division. Promptly signed, the Judds prove to be both a hit factory and award hogs (seven Country Music Awards, four Grammys). (The non-singing younger daughter, Ashley, becomes a model and actress, now in TV's "Sisters.") When they retire at the end of 1991, there's much relief in the group categories they have dominated for years, and much worry in the female vocalist field Wynonna now falls into.

As pop's only successful mother-daughter duo, the Judds rode high, with Naomi the take-charge front woman and Wynonna the 18-year-old naif who simply sang up a storm.

"I basically let Mom cut up my meat for me and got away with it," Wynonna says now, conceding that "I've never seen drugs on the road or been exposed to all the things you hear about because I was tucked safely under Mom's wing, absolutely. I always felt like I'd won the lottery -- I fell into this, I got lucky."

Less public were the tensions that naturally exist between parent and child, and were magnified by career pressures and fame.

"There were times when we would either kill each other or get it together because of the public," says Wynonna. "It was almost like a blessing and a curse at times: She would look at me and say, 'Wynonna Ellen Judd! You are responsible for upholding a good image to these people!' There were other times when we could never have a fight by ourselves; there were always people around on the bus or hotel. We were always under that microscope."

Still, it was only Naomi's forced retirement for health reasons that finally pushed Wynonna into the direction many assumed to be inevitable.

"People would always ask me, 'When are you going on your own?' But ... it's not in my makeup, in my genes, to think that I would sing without Mom. I had never sung without her and I always assumed she'd do the rhinestone-on-her-walker thing. I remember the first time I ever saw a picture of me by myself -- flipped me out!

"But if I could handle the farewell tour, I could handle anything," she adds. That seemingly endless tour "gave me and Mom a chance to merge into our change. If we had packed it all up and taken Mom home, it would have devastated her. It would have been like pulling the plug on someone's life support system. Every night on stage, it was like watching someone be healed in church; those shows were her chemotherapy, they really were, and we never wanted it to end."

Instead, there had to be new beginnings: Wynonna started working on "Wynonna" in the middle of the tour, with a new producer (Tony Brown), at a new label (MCA). The prospects, she admits, were daunting.

In fact, right in the middle of the recording sessions, "I called it off," says Wynonna. "I freaked Tony Brown out -- it was like, 'I don't want to do this, this is too much, I'm going to take a year off, I might take five years off, I can't stand the pressure.'

"But one fan sent MCA $20 and said she wanted to be the first to buy Wy's record and that literally made the difference between me feeling sorry for myself and getting up off my butt and driving myself to the studio."

Advance orders for "Wynonna" were twice what they had been for the last Judds album, though MCA was caught short by its out-of-the-box success: The album went platinum (a million copies sold) in five days. Even Judd was surprised.

"I had thought, 'What's the worst that could happen? I've had eight great years, I'll go back to the house {she owns a 22-acre farm 10 miles outside Franklin}, wear my stage clothes around the house, put on a little show for my neighbors every now and then and I'll be all right.' I thought, 'Maybe it will go gold and I can go back on Music Row and show my face.' "

Showing her solo face on stage was another matter. Wynonna says the first few months on the road alone, she would often hyperventilate between songs. "I'm starting to feel more at ease, coming into my own," she says now. "It feels like a whole new stage; the applause, even, is different to me. I think I appreciate the shows more, the details of the audience. People say that happens to you when you come close to death, that it makes you appreciate things more. And this was the most devastating thing that's ever happened in my life. But it also energized me and that's what my situation is -- give and take."

Like the criticially acclaimed album, Wynonna Judd's shows don't represent a radical departure from the Judds' sound. "I do want to try new things but I believe there's comfort in tradition," she says. "Critics of the album said they could hear 'the familiarity of the Judds.' What do they expect me to be -- Madonna?

"Yes, I'm on my own and you'll hear more cayenne pepper in the tunes," she adds. "I might do an all acoustic album ... or a gospel album. I'm like a sponge right now, literally soaking in everything."

The "Wynonna" album had a little bit of everything, from the spare gospel of "Live With Jesus" and aching laments of "My Strongest Weakness" (written by Naomi and Mike Reid) and "All That Love From Here" (about a child out on her own) to the swaggering "What It Takes" and "It's Never Easy to Say Goodbye," written by Allen Shamblin, who has penned several hits for blues-rocker Bonnie Raitt.

In truth, Wynonna and Bonnie share more than a penchant for heart-wrenching ballads, a genuine blues-rooted swagger, a pile-up of red hair and occasional man-trouble.

"I feel like we're cousins or something," says Wynonna, who has jammed with Raitt -- who in turn played slide on the Judds' "Rompin Stompin' " single. "I tell people I'm her sister. I identify with people like Bonnie because I think I can relate to her pain, to the compassionate side of her, and some of the things she's been through. I tend to like women who are strong like that, who aren't afraid to say, 'I love men, I hate them, I'm vulnerable, I'm looking for a real man.' I can really identify with that.

"And she's taught me a lesson that good things do come to those who wait and don't give in."

Wynonna sometimes feels that she's caught between two worlds. "I live on a farm and I'm very old-fashioned in a lot of ways -- I am a country girl, raised in the South more so than anywhere. But there's also a side of Wynonna that wants to let loose a little bit, throw my head back and wail. ... I spent eight years on the bus with my mom and I'm very close to my grandparents, so I'm close to that family tradition, yet I'm also a girl of the '90s."

As when she sings about inevitable heartbreak on "I Saw the Light." It's a good song to reflect the demands of Wynonna's new solo career, which led her to call off her engagement to singer Tony King (whose trio, Matthews, Wright & King, is managed by Naomi's husband, Larry Strickland). That news, she says, set some tongues wagging.

"When you're from the South and a woman and single, it's, 'What's wrong with that girl?' " Wynonna notes. "Mom said to tell people that marriage is a great institution but I'm not ready for an institution just yet. Actually, it just occurred to me that 1991 was the year of my mother; 1992 is the year of Wynonna and I want to make sure that I don't rush into another partnership, having just left one. I worried, 'Am I marrying him right now just because of a void in my life?' I want to make sure I can stand on my own, be okay being alone, and then I can move on to that.

"Plus the idea of spending my honeymoon in a truck stop is just not my idea of the big love thing."

Alone on two fronts now, Wynonna concedes that "it's really hard for me to be on the road sometimes -- during the day I'm busy, things are up and happening, and then late at night I get in this bus by myself... .

"There are times when I wish I could just shut my eyes and open them and my mom would be standing there beside me. We were plugged into something out of this world... .

"Now it's very different. But I'm in a grace period right now, and I've found a lot of strength getting through it. Life has changed."