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The Judds: Sugar, Spice

March 01, 1987|KRISTINE McKENNA

Naomi Judd opens the hotel room door, then continues to struggle with the zipper of her jeans as she announces in a sweet Kentucky drawl, "Sorry I didn't hear the doorbell, but I was in the can."

Coming from the supremely feminine senior member of mother/daughter vocal duo the Judds, this earthy introduction is charming. It also gives a good idea of the attitude at the heart of the Judds' music.

Built on the bluegrass roots of American country, Judd Music--as Naomi and Wynonna refer to it--is simple, sweet and doesn't set much store by ceremony. Simple though it is, it's a smart enough formula to make the Judds Nashville's latest sensation.

Like Emmylou Harris, who helped forge the trail they're traveling, the Judds strip away the strings and syrupy production typical of generic country music and focus instead on an imaginative selection of material and great vocals.

"Loretta Lynn recently told me that harmony is the soul of country music and I agree with her," commented Naomi, 42, sitting down with her daughter for an interview during a recent visit to town.

Fueled on an eclectic musical mix that includes Bonnie Raitt, gospel, the Stanley Brothers and the Boswell Sisters, Judd Music is a vintage buggy that's souped up via the very big voice of Wynonna Judd.

Just 22, Wynonna sings with a sexy swagger that's evoked comparisons to Elvis Presley. It's a coy, cooing voice sassed up with a pinch of a Brenda Lee growl, and Judd Music is awash in the sultry innocence of a barefoot country girl on her first date.

The word wholesome comes up a lot in relation to the Judds and it's a quality they take pride in. "We're just two ordinary girls, out there travelin' life's highways in our Silver Eagle Bus," says Naomi with guileless sincerity.

But then, the Judds are too new to this game to be jaded. Four years ago Naomi was working as a nurse and Wynonna was in high school. Three years and a fair amount of luck have carried them to the front ranks of country music, where they're winning awards, making a pile of money and hanging around with their heroes.

"Yeah, it still blows our minds every day," Wynonna admits with amazement.

Natives of Ashland, Ky., the nomadic Judds wandered from Texas to Illinois to Los Angeles, where they lived from 1968 to 1975. Divorced and struggling to raise two daughters by herself, Naomi worked a series of odd jobs until a bout of homesickness prompted her to return to the hills of Kentucky.

The Judds took up residence there in a rustic cabin with an old radio in place of a television, and as that region of the country almost demands, they became fans of radio's Grand Ole Opry. This prompted Wynonna--who'd been singing since she was 12--to take up the guitar, and mom found herself contributing harmony vocals to Wynonna's hootenannies.

Following the completion of Naomi's nurse's training, they migrated to Nashville armed with a homemade demo tape. One fortuitous meeting led to another and in 1983 they recorded their debut EP, which yielded two hit singles and launched them on a winning streak that continues to gather steam.

Last week, they collected a Grammy for "Grandpa (Tell Me 'Bout the Good Old Days)," and their new album, "Heart Land," went to No. 2 on the country chart in its second week. "Don't Be Cruel" is headed up the country singles chart, and the duo is about to embark on an extensive European tour. They'll return to L.A. for an April 3 show at the Forum and to shoot the pilot for a TV series based on the Judd saga. Publishing rights to a book about them are in negotiation.

Naomi credits the Lord for much of what's happened to them (the Judds' religious beliefs are apparent in their music), but she also has a few earthly theories as to why they've prospered.

"I think women respond to us because I'm a single parent and a nurse. Traditionally, females do not sell country music--probably because the audience for this music is primarily female and women like male performers. Nurses are the largest female work population in America and maybe these women identify with me for that reason.

"We also have the mother-daughter thing going, although we don't exploit that in our music. But I think the main reason people like us is because we represent a return to traditional values.

"Country music has always weighed heavily on the cheatin' / drinkin' material, but our lyrics are more positive," interjects Wynonna. "We sing about the importance of family a lot, probably because Mama and I have been through so much together."

"Which is not to say we're Pollyannas," Naomi continues. "I'm divorced and I've been to the circus and seen the clowns. This ain't my first rodeo. I understand what that's all about, but we think it's important to stress the upbeat side of life."

It may not be Naomi's first rodeo, but Wynonna--just 19 when she was catapulted into the limelight--found the radical change for the Judd family a hard adjustment to make.

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