In her new book, "Coming Home to Myself," country music star Wynonna Judd recounts her triumphs and heartbreaks as she skyrocketed to fame from poverty. She also writes about her relationship with her little sister, actress Ashley Judd.
Wynonna and her mother, Naomi Judd, debuted as a mother-daughter singing duo, The Judds, in 1984 when Wynonna was only 18. That year they received their first Grammy award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. In 1992, Wynonna signed her first solo record deal.
Below is an excerpt from the book.
Chapter Two: What the World Needs Now Is Love
"We'll be river rats!" Dad said, excitedly, pulling his MG convertible up to the little house.That's what the city folks called people who lived along the Kentucky River, river rats. It was winter, and bitterly cold.The place Dad rented was named CampWig. It was located between a cow pasture and a concrete block church where the congregation often sang and praised all night long.
It was an unheated summer fishing retreat, so he purchased one of those black coal-and-wood-burning stoves, and put up sheets of metallic protectors on the kitchen wall to keep the house from catching fire. We all took turns waking up through the night and keep adding wood. If Mom and Dad were gone, it was my job to keep the home fires burning. We wore clothes on top of clothes and rubbed our hands a lot. Mom, Ashley and I often slept together under piles of blankets, quilts and coats. Our pipes froze a lot in the winter, so we always seemed to be out of water.
We had to get up early at Camp Wig. Mom left before dawn for her nursing classes, driving her red VW through the back roads to the ferry across the river, and finally to the highway bound for Richmond, Kentucky. Ashley and I got up before dawn, too. We'd warm ourselves by the wood-burning stove each morning. I have vivid memories of standing and looking out the window, watching Mom bust up coal outside the kitchen door at five a.m. to warm us all up for breakfast. Afterward, Ashley and I would walk up the long driveway to the main road to catch the school bus. It was over an hour's ride to town.
The small village around Camp Wig was poverty-stricken. Many of the other river rats lived without electricity or plumbing. A few of my friends used coffee cans for toilets. Some families lived up to eight in a three-room shack, curtains hung across the room to separate the kitchen from the sleeping areas. Many of the children had never been out of the county.
Yet with all that poverty, these people were the friendliest you could imagine. They were family out there. It reminds me of a story I was told about a woman who was asked which she thought would be worse, to be too rich or too poor. She thought about it and said, "Too rich, because being too rich can be lonely. If you're poor, you may not have much but at least you know who your friends are."
As spring replaced winter, Ashley and I discovered the real magic of Camp Wig. We fell asleep each night to the sounds of crickets and frogs, and awakened each morning to the birds singing. Flowers bloomed, and finally that summer, the blackberries ripened! Dad, Ashley and I would pick the berries, then sit on the back porch and eat them until our faces were stained blue-black. Camp Wig was where I came to love the four seasons. There was always something to look forward to, even if you did have to put up with frozen pipes.
Our house was so far off the beaten path that there were days that we never saw a single soul or made it into a town. We seldom ate in restaurants or went to movies. But Dad was happier than I'd ever seen him, and it made me happy just to see him content. He'd run a trot fishing line across the river and bait twenty or more hooks to catch fish. At night Ashley and I swam out to check them. He'd watch as we'd swing from vines into the river. We'd take bars of soap and go out in the huge front yard that filled with water in places during a thunderstorm and take baths. Sometimes we'd play in the rain. I find myself going out into the rain with my children, just to feel that same joy from such a wonderful time in my life.
There was something about living at Camp Wig that was defining for me. As harsh as the conditions were at times, it was also peaceful. We had very little, but we relied on one another. It felt natural for me to be there. The lifestyle was simple and the people were real. We had lots of gatherings with neighbors where people played musical instruments and sang. Dad loved the Stones, Warren Zevon and Frank Zappa, so this was where I developed a real passion for rock 'n' roll. I also discovered my first "(s)hero," Joni Mitchell. Mom, Dad, Ashley and I were together. And we were family.
We were happy until an unusually wet season upped the ante for living along the river. Camp Wig flooded and kept right on flooding until almost all of our belongings were ruined. Mamaw and Papaw Ciminella were never happy about us living along the river anyway. After the worst of the floods, they drove out often to try and convince Dad that it was no place to raise children. By that time, Mom and Dad agreed.
Dad finally moved back to town, and Ashley and I stayed with him until we finished school. Mom – in true Judd fashion – grew restless, packed up and went searching for a new adventure. She had moved to a little one-room bungalow in nearby Berea, Kentucky. The town is home to Berea College, where low income students can work their way through school using their talents doing various jobs in the community. The entire area reflects an artisan spirit, with homage paid to its Appalachian roots. Berea is filled with arts and crafts stores and classes everywhere, as well as some of the most beautiful handiwork in America. There is a hotel called Boone Tavern that is run by students in the heart of the town. When Ashley and I were with Mom, and Mamaw and Papaw Ciminella came to visit, they stayed at Boone Tavern and took us to eat in the restaurant.
The day our lives changed – at least for a while – started out with another of those hard Kentucky rains. Ashley and I were in Berea visiting Mom, and we were driving home from the grocery store in the pouring rain. Mom was having a difficult time seeing the road, when she suddenly slammed on the brakes. Despite the downpour, we could see that an elderly woman had slipped off of the curb, and fallen into the street.
"We almost hit that woman!" Mom shouted as she jumped from the car.
Mom rushed over to help her up. We got the woman into our car, and rushed her to the hospital's emergency room. We stayed at the hospital with the woman, Caroline Hovey, waiting for her husband, a professor at Berea College, to arrive. Once Mr. Hovey got to the hospital and his wife was being treated, Mom introduced us, and explained that she was a nursing student at Eastern Kentucky, and that the three of us were in Berea looking for a place to live. Because of Mom's kind deed, the Hoveys called a professor at Berea College, Margaret Allen, and told her about a single mother with two children who needed an affordable place to live.
Margaret Allen called and said she wanted to meet with us at her home in Morrill, a forty-five-minute drive from Berea. Even though we'd lived along the river and seen poverty up close, we were unprepared for the sight when we turned off the main highway and on to the long gravel road leading to Mrs. Allen's. We passed old outbuildings and run-down trailers with farm animals running loose. Malnourished dogs with their ribs showing were tied up to old tires. There were junked cars on cinder blocks.
"Mom, are we lost?" I asked.
"No," Mom answered with a frown. "This is the road."
I looked at Ashley and shrugged. Surely a professor at Berea College didn't live here.
Then suddenly, the gravel road ended and there was a huge red gate. It was open, as if we were expected. So we entered the property and drove up the paved road. It was like a scene from a movie. There on a hill sat a lovely, cared-for house as different from what we'd just driven by as could be. Mrs. Allen came out and greeted us.
"Welcome to Chanticleer," she said with a big smile.
Her estate had two homes: Windswept, where she lived, and the house she called Chanticleer, named after one of her favorite children's stories. Mrs. Allen explained that she was a music teacher, and along with the two homes, she had cabins on the property, where students stayed each year for her music camps. Chanticleer was magical! It was completely furnished, with beautiful hardwood floors and hand-hooked rugs throughout. We each got our own bedroom, with a handmade quilt on every bed. Most of the furniture was antique, and all the furnishings seemed to match. In the kitchen, beautiful china filled the knotty pine cabinets. In the living room there was a Steinway piano beside the huge picture window overlooking the front porch. There were apple trees in the front yard, and berry bushes in back. When Mrs. Allen offered to rent Chanticleer to us for a hundred dollars a month, Mom could barely speak.
That summer we raised a garden and Mom taught Ashley and me how to can. Those are things I promise that I will make time to do with my own children. Chanticleer was where my lifelong love for animals began. We had kittens being born in the barn and homeless dogs wandering into our lives. I learned how to shear sheep, spin the yarn and weave tapestries on a loom. There was no television and no telephone. We relied entirely on our own creativity for entertainment. I loved to visit my best friend, Ramona Van Winkle, down the road. We'd go to the main road and sing Loretta Lynn songs at the top of our lungs to passing motorists. This was my first experience singing as a duo. I guess I was in training and didn't realize it!
If Camp Wig had opened my heart to nature, it was Chanticleer that opened my soul to music. It was during this time that I discovered the guitar. Someone had given one to Mom as a going-away gift when she left California. Dad had already shown me a few chords on his guitar, so that was enough to inspire me. I started singing and playing around the house. I'd sit on the porch and practice for hours. And so my life as an artist began.
Dad's love of music and my desire to play was one of the first true connections I felt with him. He often brought his leatherwork to Berea's art fairs, and I'd stay with him in a tent while he sold his wares. We'd sell by day, play and listen to music by night. It's one of my happiest memories! The big tents, the lights, the people singing and playing – it was there that I discovered jamming with other musicians. I began to play by ear. The guitar became an appendage. It was the first time I remember feeling as though I had a purpose in life.
Mrs. Allen started giving me piano lessons that summer. The lessons taught me discipline, but while I liked the piano, I was more drawn to the guitar. Still, Mrs. Allen had faith in me and even allowed me to attend her music camp free of charge. It is one of the most magical memories of my life. Mrs. Allen was so gifted. She taught us about the passion of music, the rise and fall of notes. She was the first person to show me the difference between playing technically and playing from the heart. She had such a musical style, and such a big heart. (The camp took in children from all walks of life.) At the end of music camp, the students always put on a show on her elaborate patio. That year it was "Porgy & Bess." It was my first performance. A milestone!
I was starting to get really excited. Music was becoming more than an interest – it became my passion. By the end of the summer it was just that guitar and me. I'm glad I wasn't a Top 40 kid. It was because we shopped in used record stores that I discovered Rounder Records, and the label's great collection of authentic music. I also discovered Emmylou Harris, Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley, Merle Haggard, Bill Monroe, Dolly Parton and Hazel and Alice – the Boswell Sisters. I got hooked on hillbilly music – bluegrass and the old mountain folk songs. By the end of summer I was addicted to the way that Doc Watson played the guitar. I started to learn the autoharp, and when my Uncle Mark, Mom's brother, brought me a banjo, I started learning to finger pick.
Mom loved the way Hazel and Alice harmonized and started trying to work up harmonies to my lead. Even though she had never done that before, it somehow felt natural there in the mountains, with so many singers, writers and musicians around.
One of my great influences was the Yancey family, Minnie and her four children. Minnie is the one who taught Mom to make lye soap, which would later cause television host Ralph Emery to start calling us the Soap Sisters. The Yanceys were like family to us. Minnie's daughter Sonja Bird sang and played dulcimer as well as guitar. Sonja Bird was very important in my own musical journey, since she was my first real guitar and vocal teacher.
The Yanceys lived in Berea, which Mom thought had the best school in the area, so we enrolled there. She drove Ashley and me into town each morning to the Yancey house so that we could catch a ride to school with Minnie's sons, Toddie and Garrett. We had to get up very early to be in the car by five a.m. I remember once, when I woke up to use the bathroom at about two a.m., I went ahead and got dressed for school.
After school I'd walk to the Berea College Student Center to hustle pool. I became a pretty sharp pool player, so I ended up winning money most days. Then I'd take my winnings to Mama Mia's and play pinball for hours, just killing time before Mom got out of nursing school and came to pick us up at the Yancey house. I wore the same sort of clothes every day: blue jean overalls, flannel shirts and hiking boots. All I cared about was music, pool and pinball.
I could have lived at Chanticleer forever. But Mom, being the gypsy she is, decided to move us back to California and continue nursing school at the College of Marin, north of San Francisco. She packed us up in a U-Haul and off we went. Uncle Mark came along to help. I was terribly sad to be leaving a life that had meant so much to me, to leave a place that had nurtured me and inspired me to begin taking the first steps on my journey as an artist. Living on that mountaintop gave me a sense of self and purpose that I don't think I'd had before. We had little financially, but a wealth of joy and a connection to the earth, to one another.
Since we didn't have much money for the trip back to California, we took along a mattress for Uncle Mark to sleep on when we stopped at motels for the night. Ashley and I rode in the back of the U-Haul with the furniture. Mom rigged the sliding door so it would stay open just a little and we'd have fresh air. Deeply unhappy and left to my own devices, I acted out. Ashley was lying down on the mattress when I jumped off of the chest of drawers and on top of her. I held her down and pinned her so she couldn't get up. Then I licked her face until she peed her pants.
When Ashley finally got away from me, she jerked off her T-shirt and frantically waved it out the back, hoping somebody would see it and save her. Suddenly I heard a siren. We pulled off to the side of the road. The back of the U-Haul was rolled open and there stood a highway patrolman next to Mom and Uncle Mark. The cop chewed out Mom for putting us in the back of the U-Haul. Mom chewed me out for taking out my frustration on my sister, and Uncle Mark spanked me in the bathroom of a truck stop. I'll never forget that feeling of humiliation. I worshipped my Uncle Mark.
When we got to Marin County, we moved into a small one-bedroom apartment. Mom put the mattress on the floor in the corner of the living room, and she and Ashley slept there. I got the one bedroom. Mom worked as a waitress while attending school, and also as a private nurse for an older man named Skipper, who lived next door. He adopted us as his only family, and helped Mom out financially to pay some of our bills. What a change in environment! From Chanticleer to that small apartment next door to a bar.
Between school and jobs, Mom worked all day and most of the night. There's a scene in Ashley's first major movie, "Ruby in Paradise," where her character has tried and tried to find work. She gets turned down during all her job interviews and ends up working in a Laundromat. I remember seeing that film with Mom, and watching her weep as she sat in the theater.
Mom drove by an Arabian horse farm every day when she went to work as a waitress at a restaurant named Rancho Nicasio in Nicasio, California. She says that she was concerned that I take on more responsibilities, so she got me a job cleaning tack a couple of days a week, after school. I rode my bike to and from my job. I was fourteen, and didn't mind the hard work because I got to be with horses and out in the open. The barn had a radio that played country music constantly and I found myself listening to it. Soon I was singing along, memorizing every song I heard. Merle Haggard became one of my favorites.
Mom picked me up one day when I'd finished mucking stalls, and I immediately tuned to KNEW radio. They were giving away tickets:
"KNEW is bringing you Merle Haggard and the Strangers, live and in concert at Oakland Coliseum! Be caller number ten and be a winner!"
I wasn't caller number ten.
"Mom, if I save the money for the tickets, would you take me?" I asked.
"Sure," she said. Mom loved Merle's music, too.
On the day of the show, we left Ashley at a friend's house, and off we went, country music blaring all the way. When we pulled into the parking lot, Mom just leaned out, smiled and asked to park in the backstage area, where all the buses and trucks parked. It was so like Mom to park in back, right next to the tour buses. Mom was so beautiful that she always seemed to get a backstage pass whenever she needed it. Plus, back in those days, they didn't have the security issues they have today. Just as we pulled up next to Merle Haggard's bus, he was coming out to walk his little dog, Tuffy.
"Well, hello," Merle Haggard said. I was in awe!
What he must have thought of Mom and me! We wore our best dresses, me in lace anklets, Mom in seamed hose. Mom was such a hottie and she had that Southern accent! She must have made quite an impression on Merle because he immediately invited us to come on his Silver Eagle.
Getting on that tour bus was a defining moment, my first taste of a star's world. That bus seemed to me like the mobile home of life. It had the leather seats, the kitchenette. I could see myself on this bus! I could picture myself driving down the highway on my way to the next show. I was ready to hit the road. Merle invited us to watch the show from the side of the stage. What I remember most is the audience's reaction when the lights came down. And when I saw Merle's band in matching stage outfits, that, too, was a defining moment. I could visualize myself on that stage with my own band.
When Merle invited us to go on the road with him for a few days, Mom didn't hesitate. We just left the car right there in the parking lot and we left with him. Merle introduced me to his sons, Noel and Marty. I got such a crush on Noel! After a few days, Mom and I flew home. I was heartbroken when Noel kissed me goodbye. It was back to reality and that crummy apartment in Lagunitas.
That road trip was the beginning of our adventure of going backstage at concerts. It became Mom's hobby. We heard Emmylou Harris and met her opening act, Ricky Skaggs. We went to a Dolly Parton show, and I was mesmerized by her opening act, Doc Watson. I was also into Huey Lewis and the News, as well as the Little River Band, BIG time. I discovered Tower of Power, and it was because of them that years later I added a horn section to my band when I toured. I was in love with Doc Kupka's showmanship.
Mom began to play harmonica and we started jamming some with local musicians. And although I didn't understand it at the time, the duo that would later be The Judds was being born. She started thinking that maybe – just maybe – we could put together a family act. After the divorce, Mom had gone back to her maiden name, Judd. Now she changed her first name from Diana to Naomi. She was determined to reinvent herself and a name change was a start. She bought a '57 candy apple red Chevy with "Red-Hot" on the license plate. She always said she felt like she was at the front of the parade when she drove it. And that is a little like I always felt, that Ashley and I followed along in Mom's parade.
Mom and I started singing together in small area clubs. We sang at Rancho Nicasio with a group called Susie McKee and the Cowpokes. We did charity events. We sang in church. We recorded a few songs at a local studio that a friend of Mom's owned. And we invested in a reel-to-reel recording machine, a mixing board and a couple of microphones.
In 1978, Mom decided that it was time to get serious. After a trip back to Kentucky for Christmas, Mom packed up again, and headed back to Austin, Texas. This time, I went with her. Ashley stayed in Kentucky.
In Austin, Mom started dating the harmonica player from Asleep at the Wheel. We hung out with Jimmie Vaughn and the guys in the Fabulous Thunderbirds. It's funny. I didn't have any idea who Stevie Ray Vaughn was when I first heard him jam in the kitchen of one of the band members. I just thought they were all great guitar players.
While we were in Austin I decided to change my name, just as Mom had done. I did it for the same reason Mom had – to create a new identity. I was following Mom's lead and looking for something entirely new. Ray Benson, the lead singer of Asleep at the Wheel, chose my name from one of their songs, "Route 66." The line goes: ". . . don't forget Winonna." I could change the "i" to a "y" – Christina Claire Ciminella becomes Wynonna Ellen Judd. I took the "Ellen" because it's Mom's middle name. I just remember thinking that with Naomi, Wynonna sounded better than Christina.
Wynonna and Naomi were beginning to be an act.
I felt like I was playing a part in a movie! I started pulling my hair back with rhinestone barrettes, and wearing mascara and bloodred lipstick – very forties. In a way I was mimicking Jimmie Vaughn's girlfriend, who I thought was the bomb. She wore bright red lipstick and mascara, too. I was fourteen years old, on the road and caught up in a fantasy world of being part of the backstage scene. I loved the music, but sometimes the boys who hung out with bands made me uncomfortable. The guys were much older. I was always the youngest one in the room, and it would be many years before I felt comfortable around guys. However, I did learn early how to fit in in a man's world. I had to come up with a lot of clever anecdotes and comebacks. I learned about jockeying for position and holding my own. I found a way to survive. The blessing was that this experience on the road prepared me for what was to come. The burden was that I should have been at home going to school, hanging out with high school friends and cruising the town square on Friday nights.
That I should have been in school, studying, having a normal life – that's all hindsight. Back then, the fact that I was missing school didn't concern me. I was living in my own fantasy world. I put feelings of school and home behind me. There was no turning back. I was ready to go out on tour!
Mom had wanted "something more" since she was a child, and was so caught up in her fantasies that she really had little choice. She had to follow her dreams. She was starting to write songs, and to sing harmonies. Still, I can imagine leaving Ashley behind to pursue music then, and later when we had a record deal, was something that continued to haunt her. Mom has said that the fact that Ashley was with Nana was comforting, and very helpful in easing the pain of the separation. But Ashley had to have felt on some deep level that she was abandoned.
Mom and I were starting to make music together, and I think Ashley sometimes felt that she was in the way. I have such clear memories of Ashley coming into Mom's room to say something when we were practicing our music, and Mom holding up her hand to stop her from interrupting.
"What do you want?"
Ashley would silently turn and leave the room. She definitely was not getting what she needed. I've often said that parents too often want their children to fit into their agendas. It doesn't mean that they don't love their children or make them terrible parents, but it can't do a child a lot of good to know that she has to be the one who fits in. Ashley fit in by turning inside, by being quiet and self-sufficient. She created her own reality to survive, discovering that she could travel anywhere in the universe when she read books. Her imagination and ability to survive on her own has made her the champion that she is today.
I know I took up a lot of the energy in our family dynamic. When we really got serious about music, I was a young teen, desperate for Mom's approval. I had music fever. For so many years, Ashley was there for us, and I still grieve because I was so caught up in my own success. I was trying to live up to expectations, to keep it together, and didn't take the time to nurture my relationship with my only sister. If I attend an awards show or something that is Ashley's event, I try to walk behind her so I don't crowd her light. I feel it's necessary to celebrate her – it's Ashley's turn.
After a few months in Texas, our journey took us back to California. Once in Los Angeles, Mom bought us matching letter jackets with Hillbilly Women embroidered on the front and our names on the back. "The Judds" were already being promoted. It was just that nobody but us knew it. We were having our own party and it was just a matter of time before more people wanted an invitation!
It was through my curiosity about Hollywood and superstars like John Travolta that Mom met the man who would become the great love of her life. I was sitting in a back booth, waiting on Mom to finish her shift at the Howard Johnson's in Studio City, where she worked as a waitress, when in walked a very recognizable country music star – Mickey Gilley. His entourage sat down at one of Mom's tables. She told Mickey all about "The Judds – Hillbilly Women" – and he seemed nice. So when they called me to come meet him, I didn't hesitate to ask about one of my favorite stars.
"What's John Travolta like?" I asked.
"Would you like to meet him?" Mickey responded.
I couldn't believe it. I'd recently seen "Urban Cowboy" and loved John Travolta!
Of course I'd like to meet him!
"I'm going to be on Merv Griffin today, and John's supposed to stop by. Want to come along?"
Did the pipes break at Camp Wig? Of course I wanted to come along! It just meant convincing Mom, who didn't think our clothes were nice enough to go to a television studio. Only after I threatened to never clean my room again in my life did she agree. Off we went, following Mickey's limo in our Chevy, heading to the NBC Studios in Burbank. Mom spent her time talking to Mickey, while I patrolled the backstage area in search of John Travolta. He never showed. Instead, we were introduced to Sly Stallone's brother, Frank. Nothing against Frank, but I was very disappointed!
After the show Mickey took us out for Chinese food, then on to the Palomino Club, where J. D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet were playing. That was exciting, because J. D. Sumner and the Stamps' amazing harmonies were famous for having backed Elvis Presley.
Mom didn't get to spend any time with the band's bass singer that night but he made quite an impression on her. Larry Strickland would become a major figure in our lives, bringing us food when we were down and out in Nashville, giving Mom some of her best and worst times, and managing me when I went solo. He would become my Pop.
We continued going back to the Palomino Club and even entered one of their talent contests. We didn't win, but we did meet the man who was responsible for our decision to move to Nashville. Jeff Thornton was a Nashville promoter working on a television project and he offered Mom a job. So in March of 1979, despite the fact that Ashley was missing us more and more, and the Ciminellas were infuriated that I wasn't in school, off we headed to Las Vegas, where Jeff's company was deep in production of a Lola Falana special. Since we were "with the band," so to speak, we were put up in a suite at the Aladdin Hotel. I spent my time playing guitar in the suite, playing pinball in the employee cafeteria in the afternoon, and roller-skating on the weekends. Nights I went to the Aladdin's showroom to hear Loretta Lynn.
I was instantly in love with Loretta. I think I connected to her because she reminded me of my people in Kentucky. And I loved the way she dressed – I had never seen so many ruffles in my life! There was nobody like her. Also, Loretta had backup singers – something I'd never seen before! It fascinated me. One of her backup singers was a beautiful black man with a powerful bass voice that resonated with every fiber of my being. It's like when a tuning fork is struck and everything in the room in the same key vibrates. That's how I felt. I was vibrating to his voice. He soon learned that I was a fan, and took Mom and me to church there in Las Vegas. It was my introduction to an all-black church and it profoundly influenced my music and my life. I also was impressed with the Gatlin Brothers show, because of their blood harmonies.
It was because of women like Loretta – and Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette – that I dedicated my life to music. You couldn't have forced me into any other profession, even though I did learn quickly how fast you can go from a suite at the Aladdin to the streets of L.A, because the trip to Las Vegas ended abruptly.
"Pack your bags!" Mom said, rushing into the room.
I put down my guitar and stared at her.
"Jeff's project is history!"
"So?" It still hadn't hit home.
"We're in this suite because of Jeff's show! If the show doesn't go on, we may have to pay our bill!"
That hit home. The show tickets. The room service. The suite! We threw our clothes in bags like we were crazy women, and maybe we were! Down the back stairs of the Aladdin we ran, out the back and into the red Chevy. I felt like Tatum O'Neal on the lam in "Paper Moon." Mom and me, sneaking out the back of the Aladdin one step ahead of management.
Mom said all was not lost, though. Jeff was still optimistic about our career, and promised to help relocate us to Nashville, which was where he said we'd have to be if we wanted a career in country music. Mom and I returned to Los Angeles for a very short time, staying with our dear friends Nancy and Gabriele Balaz, then soon heading to Nashville. We lived in a motel until Mom got on her feet and could bring Ashley to Tennessee. Then we moved to an old house on Del Rio Pike, just outside of Franklin. The place needed a lot of work, but Mom did her best to fix it up. She's always had a gift for taking old used things and making them look new again.
Mom went to work in Jeff's office. She continued to plan and organize. When she wasn't writing scripts to pitch to production companies or coming up with ideas for the Country Music Foundation, she was talking to people about filming artists singing their hits, a precursor to the video.
As it turned out, one of the first acts Jeff signed back in Nashville was J. D. Sumner and the Stamps. Within days of their meeting, Larry Strickland and Mom began a whirlwind romance that continues today. It must have been providence that Jeff signed J. D. Sumner and the Stamps so soon after Mom started working there, because she started nursing as soon as she got her Tennessee credentials in the mail!
Mom said it was love at first sight. From the time they went on their first date, they were inseparable. The only problem was, Larry's connection to Elvis had helped create quite a mystique around him. He sang with "The King" from 1974 until Elvis' death in 1977. Larry even had clothes in boxes under the bed that Elvis had given him when he gained weight! Larry had been on the road for years, and had developed quite a fan club among the girls. It almost drove Mom insane, but they were addicted to each other.
Ashley and I soon began to call him Pop. There was always a real sweetness to Pop, but it was like he was two people. At home he was a family man. Then he would put on those gold chains, unbutton his shirt and climb into his Corvette to go to Music Row in Nashville. I was fascinated by the dueling per sonalities. He'd come home and hang his stage clothes in the closet, and he was Pop again. He formed his own band, Memphis, and when he parked his tour bus in the drive, I'd sit on it for hours and fantasize about being on tour.
Life with Mom and Pop was always either really good or really bad. There was no in-between. He'd come home from the road and they'd fight; then Mom would throw him out. She'd pack all his stuff, and I'd sometimes help Pop carry his suitcases to the car. He'd leave. Eventually she'd let him come back, and we'd resume family life as if nothing had ever happened. One night Mom got mad and pulled her .38 special on Pop. She fired about four inches above his head, and from that night on, when we ate dinner, I'd stare at that bullet hole in the window and be reminded that things could always change quickly. I guess that's when I started becoming secure with insecurity.
I started high school, a semester behind, at Franklin High. Starting late and living so far out in the country left me feeling somewhat disconnected from the kids at school. I looked older than most of the girls, and I never wore jeans to school. My clothes were often Mom's forties-style dresses, hair was pulled back with combs, and wedge shoes with ankle straps and anklet socks. On the first day I arrived, some students thought I was a teacher.
When I enrolled, I put my name down as "Wynonna" even though I was sure it was illegal! I didn't think you could just "decide" to change your name! (As it turned out, I was right. I legally changed my name when I was eighteen and we got a record deal!)
I often drove the red '57 Chevy to school. Some of the kids started calling me "Hollywood" because, they said, I looked like a movie star. I liked having my own style, but I still wanted to fit in so badly. I didn't have much in common with the popular middle-class kids with nice clothes and parents with money. I felt that I could relate more to the misfits. Some of my friends were kids who'd been excluded from the popular cliques. Yet I went to most of the parties. I think part of it was the fact that people wanted to ride in Mom's car! I also became the designated driver, since I didn't drink back then. I wasn't a Goody Twoshoes. I just liked helping people out.
One of the times I went out to a party turned into a nightmare. I had gone to a country music club with a girlfriend who met an older guy who invited us to a party at someone's house. The guy had a friend. I was going to get into a car with two strangers – not one of my best decisions. But because of my girlfriend, I went along with her plan.
Once inside the party, I realized that I had forgotten my purse and went back out to the car to get it. One of the boys followed me. What a gentleman, I thought. But the minute we got to the car, he shoved me into the backseat, got in and locked the door. Then he held me down, and started taking off his belt. He pressed his hand over my mouth so hard that my braces cut the whole inside of my mouth. When he demanded oral sex and I declined, he slugged me.
I agreed to do whatever he wanted; then, when he calmed down and was off his guard, I punched him in the face as hard as I could. I shoved the driver's seat forward, unlocked the door and opened it. Thank God the car was old and the locks were manual. I ran inside, got my girlfriend, and we called the police. By the time a patrol car arrived, the two boys we'd come to the party with had already left, so nobody was arrested. The police drove us back to my girlfriend's car. It was a terrible experience that could have been much worse.
Because of experiences like this one, I was a late bloomer. I was a senior in high school before I had my first real boyfriend. His name was Stephen Mc- Cord, and I met him at a party at a friend's house.
We couldn't have been more different. He liked the all-American blond babe types, and I was a redhead with a guitar. He wore blue jeans and T-shirts, and drove a truck. I wore dresses and heels, and drove a '57 Chevy. He drank beer, smoked cigarettes and liked to party. I liked to hang out, listen to music and practice my guitar.
I'd been around enough beer and cigarettes when Mom and I were hanging out with musicians in Austin. I didn't think it was so cool. I guess hanging out with older people who partied a lot allowed me to see the reality of what drugs and alcohol do to people. The biggest change I saw alcohol make in those musicians had to do with the way they treated women. (And I'm certainly not talking about all of them!) Some guys were gentlemen until about the third beer; then they would come on to anyone – even an underage girl like me. It seemed to me that "alcohol" promoted "disrespect."
I made a decision when I was a teenager that cigarette smoke would damage my voice, and I was not going to allow that to happen. I challenged Stephen one night when we were sitting at a stoplight, telling him to put out the cigarette or I'd walk home. He did put that one out, but he didn't stop smoking. Stephen was one of the best-looking guys at Franklin High School. He was pure Southern good ole boy – ran with the popular crowd, had the body of a Greek god, was a bit of a hell-raiser, yet loved his mama and went to church with her every Sunday. He treated her with respect.
Stephen's mother was one of the most important influences in my teenage life. I'm not sure who I was more in love with, Stephen or his family, so much so that when Stephen and I finally broke up I felt like I lost five people instead of one. The very first time I met Mrs. McCord, I was enthralled with her faith and dedication to her family. Her husband and children meant everything to her – she lives for them. (I wanted her to be my mom!) I did feel like I was a part of the family. I went fishing with Stephen and his dad. Mr. McCord was a real "man's man." He was always working on his boat, wearing his signature ball cap.
I loved the fact that the McCord home had "Mom and Dad" reclining chairs. I loved the fact that Mrs. McCord baked and canned and served up supper every Sunday after church. She prepared great feasts of roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, green beans, homegrown tomatoes, cornbread and lemon ice box pie. The whole family ate together, and they stayed together. The McCord house was full of love and laughter. Everywhere you looked there were reminders that they were believers. There were calendars with daily words of encouragement, little boxes with pages of Scripture for each day of the year. Mrs. McCord's Bible was always on the dining room table, where she sat every single morning to have her devotional time. I had never witnessed someone who had daily devotionals, who had a Bible with so many notes on each page. She even had a prayer list with names written on it, people she believed needed her prayers. She had Guidepost magazines – a kind of Christian Reader's Digest – in the bathroom. This was all new to me.
Mrs. McCord was always spreading the faith! Yet she was one of the first highly religious people I ever met who didn't preach. Her way was to teach. And she did it with a smile on her face. She knew that her husband and her son both drank. She made them keep liquor in the garage. But while she didn't like them drinking it, she didn't give them a hard time. Her attitude was "I'm just going to hoe my own row." She is the woman who taught me about grace and forgiveness. She definitely had a light. I think she knew that her prayers covered everyone so she became a prayer warrior for all of us.
Stephen was wild as a buck, but he had a good heart. He was sweet, one of the good guys. He was never disrespectful to me on any level. He had a good, solid family foundation, and you could feel it in everything he did. I was madly in love with him and his family. I thought that I would marry him one day – it was all worked out in my mind.
Although he was the first love of my life, our relationship remained chaste for a long time. Usually the most we ever did was sit on the love seat and put our arms around each other. That's about as intimate as we were for a long, long time.
One night Stephen and I did go up to his bedroom, where the door was supposed to be open at all times. This time we closed it without thinking. Then we fell asleep on top of the covers on his bed. When Mrs. McCord walked in the room, she did what a lot of mothers would do – she assumed a lot. She woke us up and asked me to leave. I was mortified. I knew that I had really crossed the line. I went home and wrote her a long letter, explaining what had – and had not – happened. After she read it, she asked us to meet with her.
"We have rules," she said. "I can't have you two up in Stephen's room with the door closed. But I believe Wynonna when she says nothing happened between the two of you, and I believe you can be trusted to act responsibly. I love you both, and want the best for you."
I was stunned. Instead of busting in the door and screaming that we were headed straight to hell, she set a boundary, and talked to us about being responsible to ourselves. I'd never had such a loving talk when I had made a mistake. There was no shame or guilt. Just love. Mrs. McCord still drops me a note from time to time or sends me a card on my birthday. I will always remember her and be thankful that she was such a blessing to me at a time when I needed one. And to this day, when I drive by their street on Sundays, I have the urge to stop by and ask, "What's for supper?"
I fell in love with another family, and that, too, was tied to food! Dolly Gillespie was the daughter of a wealthy family. Her dad was a builder, and they lived in a big, beautiful home. As it was with Stephen McCord, Dolly and I could not have been more different. She wore designer jeans and ostrich boots. She had spiked hair and wore several earrings in each ear. She smoked and cussed. She was a rebel, and my best friend.
Dolly had a fake ID, which I thought rocked! We'd go to clubs in Nashville to dance to punk rock music. She liked me because I was quirky, and I liked to cruise with her. I liked going to her house because her mom was always home. I was fed such wonderful dinners at Dolly's house! The refrigerator was always full and Mr. and Mrs. Gillespie were always cooking.
I think Dolly liked coming to my house because she was fascinated with our lifestyle. (It sure wasn't because the refrigerator was always full!) But whereas Dolly's mom represented "home," my mom represented "hip." Actually, a lot of kids liked coming to our house. The boys thought Mom was a real babe! And our house had a creative, funky vibe. The kitchen had a tiny refrigerator with a freezer that had room for just two ice trays and one package of food. We had an antique pie safe. Our stove was old, with one of those big drawers in the bottom to store your pots and pans in.
Because our refrigerator was one of those small old-fashioned ones with a pull-down handle, I had to shop for food every day or so. Over time, I figured out a way to pocket some extra spending money for the weekend. On Fridays I'd return boxed and canned goods to the Franklin Kroger and get the cash refund. The folks there knew me well. So well, as it turned out, that when I was busted for grand-theft lipstick, they called me by name.
One night, while shopping, I decided I wanted some lipstick. Since I didn't have the money, I stuck a tube of pink and a tube of red into my pocket. I guess I thought I needed both colors to go with my wardrobe. I paid for the groceries, and as I walked back out to the car, an undercover security guard approached me. "Hey, Miss Judd. I need to talk to you for a minute."
I felt like my heart was pounding out of my chest.
He took me back inside and walked upstairs to the office, where I signed what I guess was a police report or admission of guilt. I was so horrified and scared I don't remember all the details. Then I was taken to the Williamson County jail, where they called my mom. She wanted to teach me a lesson, and left me there. Mom must have been scared to death for me, worried something very serious was going wrong with her daughter.
Franklin is a small town. As it turned out, the guy who signed me in at the jail was my school bus driver. Actually, I had never been able to get away with much while I was growing up. The first time I skipped school I even got caught!
Ask my mother.
I sat there traumatized for what seemed like forever. They assigned me a counselor and put me on probation for six months. I had to check in once a week, and looking back on it now, I realize that it was a lifesaver. Shoplifting was an obvious call for help, and I'm sorry to say that I'd taken some things before that. I think part of it was because we never had the money to buy things like some of my friends.
The counselor quickly saw how conflicted I was. I wanted a career, and wanted out of school to pursue it. I took musician magazines to school and hid them behind my books in class. I wanted a band! Instead I had chores and the responsibility for Ashley. I've seen my counselor, Betsy Jewel, several times since I made it in country music. The first time we met after I was an adult was such a strange moment for me, talking to her about that dark time in my youth. She said she knew I was a good kid all along.
I wanted so badly to be a good kid. But I also wanted to be independent of Mom. Maybe shoplifting was my way of breaking out. I hadn't been ready for the role of being in charge of so much, so young. I remember day in and day out putting my chores off on Ashley while I sat in my room and listened to music. My fantasy was that I'd go on the road with Bonnie Raitt. I was R.T.G. – ready to go! But my reality was that my mom was a single parent working double shifts at the hospital. That left me in charge of my little sister.
I often stood in the gap between Mom and Ashley. I not only was required to do a lot for Mom, I was also expected to be there for Ashley. I became her "Sister-Mommy." I drove her everywhere. At times I was all she had, when I'm sure she would have preferred Mom.
Sometimes I still drive by the house on Del Rio Pike, pull in our old drive and sit there. It was the last place where I was as connected to my sister. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I laugh. What memories! Sometimes I can still hear the eighties rock 'n' roll blasting from that old house, the place I sometimes called Ashley's Party Palace.
All her friends liked coming to our house because we had no neighbors, and they wouldn't get caught if they drank beer. I never did figure out how, if twenty kids were invited, fifty would know to show up. Ashley would wait until Mom had to work a double shift at the hospital, then put the word out. She had a lot of guts! For a long time she got away with it, and I helped her! I lived vicariously through my sister and her popularity.
Unfortunately for Ashley, we took some photos at one of the parties, and dropped them off at the local Moto Photo. Mom stopped by and a clerk gave Mom our photos in addition to her own. That was the end of Ashley's gatherings for quite a while. I'd give anything to go back and watch my funny, smart, popular little sister holding court at the Party Palace. Yet at the time when I went out on the road, I didn't think much about what it might do to her. I was too caught up in my own world.
We were forced to be together so much as children that I longed to get away. Now I long to have my sister to myself like I did back then. Besides my husband and children, my love for Ashley is the deepest I've ever experienced. I have this tender, sweet place in my heart that is reserved for her. I have so much respect for her in what she went through, and how she survived it. She thrived and flourished in spite of all she had to endure. Mom raised two high-spirited daughters under tough circumstances.
I wrote a song for Ashley, called "You Are." It's not just about her physical beauty, but the freedom and beauty of her spirit. Someday I hope to write the song for her, a song that celebrates how I feel about the two of us growing up together. I don't care how rich and famous she becomes – she'll always be my baby sister. I'm amazed that people still ask me if there was competition between us. It's all I can do not to choke them. I am very protective of our relationship. My music success is sometimes bittersweet. I've been blessed with a life full of excitement. I've traveled the world. But I also know that success is what took me away from the sister that I love so dearly.