She emerged from the wings, her fiery red mane draped past her shoulders. Dressed in basic black extenuated with a lightly patterned wispy overcoat, Wynonna Judd walked up to the microphone strumming her white acoustic guitar. Alone on stage she started in, belting the glorious beginning to “Mama He’s Crazy.” The band gathered around Judd, who’d taken to sitting on a stool, for the acoustic rendition of “Rock Bottom” that followed, jet setting the audience from 1984 to 1993 with seamless ease.
From the onset it was clear this would be a show unlike any other from Judd, devoid of production, and heavy on the power of that voice. Billed as ‘Wynonna and Friends: Stories and Song’ she traversed the country playing historic theaters armed with her husband Cactus Moser on percussion, a lead guitarist, an upright bass player, and her. Judd’s March 8th stop at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre brought the tour to a close.
For the next two and a half hours Judd navigated through her extensive catalog, opting for surprises over forgone conclusions. She turned soulful with her version of Eric Clapton’s Grammy-winning “Change The World” and contemplative with “Dream Chaser,” a spiritual highlight of The Judd’s catalog. Emotions ran high during “She Is His Only Need,” which had her thanking the audience for her first solo number one, and sass led the way on both “Give A Little Love” and “Turn It Loose,” which had Judd shredding on her harmonica.
“Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good ‘Ol Days)” was a revelation, a hit-upside-the-head reminder of our changing world that’s even more relevant today than it was thirty years ago. The night’s emotional and spiritual center, I was struck by the generational shift – the ‘good ‘ol days’ to kids today are the childhoods of our parents.
The stories aspect of the show was heavy on her relationship with her mother, a much-belabored subject that somehow didn’t feel clichéd. She talked about doing her mother’s hair before each show, seeking revenge by jacking it to Jesus, and reminisced about their appearances with Johnny Carson. Mom would sit next to Carson for the first segment before they’d switch seats during the commercial break.
Judd’s very open observations about the music industry were far more interesting. She lamented about the electronic recording techniques used today. She shed some light on The Judds’ first meeting with RCA Records, a showcase of family harmonies backed by their own guitars. She reminded us that Garth Brooks had opened for them back in the day, a young cowboy who had Naomi wondering if he was going to make it. She mentioned her daughter’s insistence that she hear this new Tim McGraw song, which prompted her to remember when McGraw, and his mullet, opened for her in the early 90s. Judd felt proud she’d ‘helped raise’ many of the stars who came up in her wake.
If you’ve ever followed Judd the person, you know how open she is. She traced her life back to childhood, talking about being the child of an unwed teenage mother saved only by the power of their voices in Appalachia. She then gifted us with a gorgeous rendition of a hymn she and her mother would sing together during that time. She also referenced playing for several presidents even though she didn’t agree politically with any of them.
Judd’s trademark openness became a hindrance, when nine-year-old twin girls made their way to the stage with flowers. The show stopped while selfies were snapped and interviews conducted. Turns out one of them had composed a song (“Possibilities”) Judd asked to have sent to her via Twitter. A second set of concertgoers, armed with a ‘Wynonna’ license plate, were next for pictures as was a man who jumped the stage to join in on the action. Never mind there was a woman begging for Judd’s attention, who finally got it, when she called her ‘Wy, Wy.’
When Judd returned to singing she belted “No One Else On Earth,” which required us in the audience to vigorously sing along. She turned giddy during the encore, when she introduced opening act Pete Scobell, a former navy seal, who devastated with a cover of Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues” during his opening solo set. Judd gushed about her admiration for Scobell, whom she felt should be a huge star, before he snuck on stage to sing their Chris Kyle inspired duet “Hearts I Leave Behind.” It was a tender moment for Scobell, who wore his military heart on his sleeve, and told stories about deceased friends from the Naval Academy and the time he lost 22 comrades in one day.
What struck me about the show, in addition to Judd’s voice, was her band’s passion for playing. Usually when you to a show, the band members are hired to backup a singer and make them look good. Since Judd knew most of these members personally, they were so hungry to be there, they played long after the show had officially ended. There was a joy from Scobell, Moser, and the others that I loved, and rarely see.
What I truly enjoyed the most about the evening was the chance to be reacquainted with an artist I love and see what they’re up to now. I had downloaded “Hearts I Leave Behind” prior to the show, but appreciated it so much more with the context Judd provided not only into the song but also into him.
It truly was a wonderful evening and a very vivid reminder that Wynonna Judd sings circles around every other singer on the planet. She truly is one of the strongest vocalists I’ve ever heard, a fact that only seems to be enriched by age.