Red-haired and powerful, with a voice that could make the earth tremble, Wynonna Judd is not the kind of person who will let anyone boss her around. With one exception - her mother. The two of them, Naomi and Wynonna, came to fame together in the early '80s as the Judds. And Naomi, it seems, still knows how to pull rank.
"I'm serious," laughs Wynonna - you can call her Wynonna - speaking on the phone from her home near Nashville, Tenn. "She irritates the crap out of me. She's still checking my moles. Telling me I should do this and that. She's a nurse," she reminds us. "She drives me crazy. She carries my 8-by-10s in her car, hands them out at gas stations."
Wynonna, who will perform with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra on Saturday, launching the orchestra's pops season, has been singing on her own since 1992. But she has learned to take her mother in stride.
After all, her sister Ashley Judd, the actress, has always gotten the same treatment.
"My mom literally sat outside the theater. She would ask people coming out, 'Did you like the movie?' She's just that way. It is sweet. But it's also irritating. We disagree on everything, you know? We've been on that mountaintop, and we've been on welfare, hoeing the rows of the garden, before we became famous for what we do. We were the Three Musketeers up on the mountaintop, and it bonded us for life. She's just a mom, dolled up and ready to be the parade waver. We call her the china doll. She has these little tiny hands, but man, it's all about strong survival. Don't you dare be a victim, child. Rub some dirt on it, and get back in the game."
It still stands as a thrilling, inspiring story, the saga of how the Judds fought their way to stardom. They were stuck in a bad domestic situation, eking out a living in Kentucky. They freed themselves, marketing themselves in Nashville until their talent was recognized. In a symbolic gesture, they even took new names.
The experience must have been dreamlike.
"It's so funny you say that," reflects Wynonna, 48. "My mom went back to her maiden name. She went from Diana to Naomi overnight. One day she was Diana. Then she was Naomi. WOW! This is America, man!!"
Her own name, Wynonna, came from the song "Route 66." "I heard, 'Don't forget Winona,' and I thought, 'Wynonna would be a good name for me!' It just happened. It wasn't just a deliberate go-down-to-the-courthouse thing. I needed a new name, for my new identity of being a rock star! It was just the funniest story. Hey, we live in the greatest country in the world. The rest is herstory." She laughs her rich laugh.
What did it feel like, going from being Christina Claire Ciminella to being Wynonna Ellen Judd as a teen?
"I was in such a dream state," she admits. "I was beside myself in anticipation. We moved to Nashville. My mother went and had jackets embroidered with our names on the sleeves. On the back it said 'Kentucky Sweetheart.' I would do anything to find mine. We were on a mission. She was Naomi, I was Wynonna. We are going to make it and here's how we do it."
With her rapid-fire conversation, Wynonna almost jumps out of the phone. She comes across as genuine and irresistible. John LaMond, afternoon personality on country station WYRK-FM, says that she's that way in person, too.
"She's one of my favorite people," he says. "I've met her several times. I found her down to earth and absolutely wonderful. What you see is what you get. I do love her. She's real. As real as you're ever going to find."
LaMond has admired Wynonna since the early days of the Judds.
"I think she probably has, seriously, one of the most outstanding voices in music," he adds. "I'm talking about all kinds of music. She has such a unique instrument. I think there are few people around whose voices can compare with hers. She's got an amazing instrument. I could listen to her all day."
Wynonna's voice is deep, rich and honest. It is the voice of a woman who has lived.
Even talking to a journalist, she does not shy away from personal matters. Right now, she admits, she is going through a tough time.
Earlier this year she married "Cactus" Moser, drummer for the band Highway 101. Last month, he lost a leg in a motorcycle accident, and one of his hands was shattered. Wynonna has said she is lucky he survived.
"I witnessed the entire thing," she says. "If you don't believe in God after something like that, God love you."
She took a break in touring to stay by her husband's side as he began his recuperation. Now that she is back on the road, she is with him in spirit. "I call him the Duke. He's my pride," she says. "I wear his wedding ring on my left hand until he can wear it again."
Wynonna and Cactus have known each other for decades. She says she had a crush on him way back when.
"When we got married, he was wearing a 44 magnum strapped to his hip," she confides. "A friend of ours texted, 'Guys like him don't get married without a 44 magnum.' He's going to make it. It's staggering what he's been through, what he's enduring. It brought us closer. This is our third month of marriage. We should be going on date night. Instead we're lying in bed crying and saying 'Honey, we're going to make it.' We're making a record. We're producing it. We're going to show everyone who is dealing with this kind of loss - I have such respect for the military. I said, 'Honey, this is what wives do.' When their soldiers come back without a limb. How do you deal with that?"
She keeps in touch with Cactus on the road.
"Right before show time, we put him on the speaker phone, during prayer circle. I sing like I've never sung before. Like a bird crying out before God. I show the world what a champion looks like dealing with tragedy. What do we do with crap that happens? We get better and better."
Wynonna sounds cheered by the good wishes she has received from fans and enjoys the personal connections she shares with them. It is one of the things that keep her humble - and sane.
"When you realize you're not the right hand of Jesus, you just go out there and sing. That's what you do," she says. "I have to remind myself to let God play me, to come through me. To zap the people in the audience. I'm cute but I'm not that cute." She laughs. "There's a higher power and I'm not it.
"There's someone, I know, who came to the concert because his wife made him. They don't want to be there. Someone there is in a bad situation, maybe he lost all his money at a casino, and there's nothing else to do."
Her job is to reach these people with her special brand of country music tough love. Of course, she puts it less romantically.
"My job is to tell people we live in the greatest country in the world," she says. "Quit your complaining."