No one knows what to make of Wynonna, or how to market her. She's not a cute li'l spitfire in tight jeans mouthing the words to Mariah Carey's throwaways--which is how you get rich in new country. And she's too tacky and sincere to be noticed by the alternative country scene; none of those skinny boys want to hear her bellow about Jesus and her "little mama" without any trace of irony. Though much of her music has religious themes, it can't ever cross over to namby-pamby Christian Rock--not only did Wynonna have two children out of wedlock, she does a lot of motorcycle riding, is nonplused by tabloid allegations that she's a lesbian, and is fond of dragging male audience members onstage and making them pray to her.
Even if you gave Wynonna a personal trainer, a haircut, and an East Coast P.R. person, you couldn't tone down the voice. It's a voice that rips open the most banal manufactured songs--those little pep talks designed to convince people that life makes sense and is ordered--and leaves them shivering, lost, and alone.
Country music is about failing to be blessed with cute, pert features and trying to fix that with garishly tacky makeup and clothes. It's about being raised without money or sophistication and trying to compensate by renaming yourself "Wynonna," a name that only draws attention to how short it falls of real class. It's a desperate, failed attempt to reinvent yourself that results in a raw, bleeding tribute to who you are.
That's what got the Judds--Wynonna and her mom, Naomi--their huge, adoring following, and what saved their music from being saccharine. They packed the drama of their lives into each song and imbued them with greater meaning. At a young age Wy's adorable, sophisticated actress sister, Ashley Judd, got shipped off to boarding school by their estranged father, while Wynonna and Naomi stayed in Kentucky. Naomi worked as a receptionist, Wynonna flunked out of school, and they drove out to Nashville once a month. They took a huge risk, got lucky, and spent Wynonna's adolescence touring around the country performing beautiful, sweet harmonies driven by the depth and richness of Wynonna's voice.
The country music establishment loved the Judds--in particular, petite Naomi with her '50s dresses and gracious Southern ways. They didn't know quite what to make of giant, awkward Wynonna in her do-rags and motorcycle jackets, with her huge brooding voice. They liked to note--repeatedly--that she looked older and uglier than her mother.
When Naomi quit the biz after getting sick, the voice that had given the Judds' music an ambivalent underbelly was unleashed at full force. Wynonna's dark, sexy energy leapt to center stage, and the songs stopped being about John Deere tractors and started being about the central theme of all great country: "Having too much passion and too much faith."
The way Wynonna sings about God while making very foolish life choices (aired weekly in the tabloids) is reminiscent of Willie Nelson. Nelson opens Yesterday's Wine, a landmark album, with a meditation: "Perfect man has visited earth already and his voice was heard. The voice of imperfect men must now be made manifest." Like Willie and any other true ugly tacky country great, Wynonna sings and lives as though driven by a messianic purpose to reveal the flawed human spirit in all its awful loneliness, cheap muddy desire, and majestic capacity for hope. Willie, Dolly, Loretta, Tammy, and Wynonna know they can do one thing and one thing only, and they do it at all costs to their dignity. They do not plot career moves, but release albums and tour indiscriminately and nearly constantly. They behave as though the world needs them to sing and they need to sing to live. Whether or not anyone comes to see Willie, he's on the road most of the year playing county fairs and community colleges. The drive to keep playing and recording results in disastrous moves like Wynonna's recent cover of "Free Bird" and Willie's polka albums. All great country singers inevitably become a parody of themselves, because they sing as hard as they can without taste or restraint.
No one ever makes fun of Shania Twain's appearance, and no one ever took cleavage shots of Patsy Cline in a thong. Listen to their songs one after the other. Do I have to talk about the difference? No, because the difference is demonstrated every time Wynonna does a duet with one of her "contemporaries" for radio play. On, say, "We Can't Unmake Love" with John Berry, it's painfully obvious that her voice is the only thing keeping the song from becoming a mumbling, empty chant.
See her live, moving in perfect accord with her troupe of gospel back-up singers, her eyes gleaming, her voice rumbling with her hips. She fills the stage with a shimmering pink glow more than the sum total of lights and the glare off of her tremendous mane of orange hair.