Wynonna Judd opens up about moving forward after mother's death: 'I'm peacefully optimistic most of the time. And then when I'm not, I'm in hell.'

As she releases a Judds tribute album while looking ahead to new music, the candid and complex country music survivor says she's on her way "to absolutely being on fire. Watch me burn."

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The new all-star covers compilation A Tribute to the Judds features nearly every major name in Nashville, from the mother/daughter duo’s peers (Trisha Yearwood, Reba McEntire, Jennifer Nettles, LeAnn Rimes, Blake Shelton) to their followers (Gabby Barrett, Lainey Wilson, Carly Pearce, Jelly Roll, Ashley McBryde) and even legends like Dolly Parton and Carl Perkins. But Wynonna Judd, who lost her mother and bandmate Naomi Judd to suicide last year and had a famously fraught and at times even estranged relationship with Naomi, admits to Yahoo Entertainment that she has “two-sided” feelings regarding the record’s bittersweet Oct. 27 release.

“Number one, my first practical comment is I'm getting older and I'm starting to get ‘tributed’ to, and it feels really strange. I feel so alive and so young in my spirit, and my musical journey is just getting started,” admits Wynonna, who’s working on new solo music and kicks off her “Back to Wy” tour, on which she’ll play her first two solo albums in their entirety, on Oct. 26. “I'm still here, and I've got a purpose. So, on that side of it, I feel so strange, because ‘tribute’ is a weird word, right?

“But there's the other side of me now that Mom is gone that says, ‘Absolutely we should honor this music and not forget where we come from,’ that kind of thing,” Wynonna continues. “Mom and I started in 1984, and what we did was historical. We made herstory. This album is a tribute to that. So that, to me, makes total sense.”

Naomi Judd died by suicide at age 76 on April 30, 2022, just one day before the Judds were set to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and just 18 days after they’d announced their farewell tour at the 2022 CMT Music Awards, during their first nationally televised performance in more than 20 years. At Naomi’s memorial, which aired live on CMT from the Ryman Auditorium the following month, Wynonna announced that she’d made the difficult decision to do that tour on her own, to honor her “salty single mama.” Wynonna and her sister, actress Ashley Judd, also opened up about their complex family dynamic on the Ryman stage, with Wynonna explaining, “We are showing the world what a dysfunctional family does.”

Now, as Wynonna prepares to honor her late mother on A Tribute to the Judds (she duets with Yearwood on a new version of “Cry Myself to Sleep”), she’s also juggling “Back to Wy” tour rehearsals and caring for her toddler granddaughter, Kaliyah. “Oh my God, life is full. What the heck?” she gasps. But as she makes the time to chat with Yahoo Entertainment, the 59-year-old singer is just as candid as she was on that Ryman stage.

In the Q&A and extended video below, Wynonna opens up about the “weird, wacky, mysterious” grieving process; her own suicide attempt at age 17; her difficulty dealing with reluctant early fame and resentment of Naomi’s stage-mothering; the current “bump in the road” in her relationship with Ashley; her mental health these days; her personal and professional hopes for the future; being the proud "weird one" in the Judd family; and how her outspokenness has helped her connect to devoted fans who might also be struggling.

Yahoo Entertainment: First of all, how are doing nowadays? I know it must be hard revisiting all the classic music that you made with your mother on this tribute album. But you seem to be in a really good place.

Wynonna Judd: I'm peacefully optimistic most of the time. And then when I'm not, I'm in hell. It's the weirdest thing. Grief is a funny, weird, wacky, mysterious process. And I am about to cry right now … I feel so alive, and yet there's death that I'm dealing with. And so, there's life after death. When the death happens, it's just so painful and so incredibly dark. I just sit there and I close my eyes, and I breathe and I squeeze my butt together and I go, “I can make it through this.” And I just keep breathing really deeply until I feel better.

I'm so sorry you're going through that, but it seems like you have a good handle on the grieving process.

I've got a good team. I've got really good grief counselors that tell me that there's purpose in this, even in the pain. And I'm writing a song about that. I just wrote a song called “I'm Broken and Blessed,” and in the song there's a line that says, “I'm somewhere between hell and hallelujah.” Isn’t that powerful? It's just real, and it's life and it's death, and it's what we're all going to go through. I'm not any different from anyone else in that process. So yeah, some days I don't want to get out of bed and I have to force myself. I've got my granddaughter most of the time, and she's 18 months and she looks at me and goes, “Noni!” And I see that little face and I go, “Oh my God, it's snack time,” and I’ve got to go give her a snack. So, I'm caught up in the 18-month-old and I'm going on tour in five minutes and I'm trying to do wardrobe and I'm taking the baby to the fittings and I'm standing there holding this kid, going, “Oh my God, life is full. What the heck?”

Your granddaughter's birth was around the same time at your mother’s death, right?

Kaliyah was born two weeks before m'om left. She never got to meet her. So, every time I look at Kaliyah, I see this miracle that's happening in the midst of the funeral. And I think to myself, “God, life is strange.” And we all go through it. Nobody's exempt.

Wynonna Judd today. (Jim Wright)
Wynonna Judd today. (Jim Wright)

You just mentioned counseling, and even at the Ryman memorial for your mother, you talked about therapy. You even gave a shout out-to Ted, your family therapist. Do you have any stories of your fans saying the fact that you are so open about what you're going through is helpful to them?

Yes. I'm still reading the cards and letters, by the way, from the funeral time. And I look at these letters and I see people say, “I got into AA” or “I go to therapy now because of the Judds; we're dysfunctional like any other family.” Ashley and I just the other day were talking about how we need to call Ted, because we're in a little bit in a bump in the road, because she and I are so smart in terms of our own world views. And we have to remember, you can either be right or you can be loved. It's important to remember that when you're as successful as we are and you have money and choices and you have opportunities, but were also very poor. I've been poor happy and I've been rich unhappy, and I know that the difference is me. My peace begins with me. I do that about a hundred times. Every couple of hours: “My peace begins with me.” And that's why I tell my fans what I'm going through, so maybe I can help somebody else. Otherwise, it feels lonely.

I say it onstage. I'm known… as the girl who pretty much says what people are thinking, and I'm known for my mistakes as much as I am my success. And so when I'm onstage and I get dizzy and I ask for someone to hold my hand and the fans are chattering about “what's wrong with Wynonna,” it's because I'm asking for help. And that seems like a weakness to me, but it's a lifeline, and it keeps me from going into this complete hopelessness. … We have to ask for help, but it looks really weak. And I think to myself, “Isn't that so weird, how we set people up for failure like that?” … I'm just saying, I'm a walking contradiction. I'm a walking paradox. I show up, but I'm broken. I show up and I don't like my hair and I show up anyway because that's the way it works. To get past stuff, you have to show up if you want your miracle.

Were you always this outspoken, or is this something you grew into after years in the public eye?

I have to tell you a really quick little story. I was in a restaurant and there was a girl behind the bar and she could see me in the booth, and I heard her talking to the guy that was sitting there drinking alone. And I heard her say, “Yeah, Wynonna is the weird one.” And I looked up at her and I waved. … And I thought to myself, “Some people don't get it.” Some people don't understand it. Sometimes weird is the most wonderful, because you're free and you don't have this analytical intellect — you have this emotional IQ. And that's me. I've always had emotional IQ. I'm not book-smart. I think of myself as savvy, but I'm not one of those people that can quote scripture or other people. I'm just an artist. I do it because I feel it. And if you're going to feel it, you've got to feel deeply. And so, if I'm the “weird one,” OK. Being the weird one is, I think, awesome.

She might not have meant it that way, but I think that's a compliment.

I know what she meant. She meant that I'm sort of the wild, wacky one. I'm the free one sometimes, because Mom and Ashley are so good at being intellectual and getting up and speaking. I'm not a speaker in public. I'm a singer, I'm an artist. … Ashley is so good at public speaking. I never took the class; I didn't get that gift. But I tell you what I can do: I could tell a joke and I can make people laugh by telling something about myself.

Well, I think you're very well-spoken. I watched the Ryman memorial and I remember everything you said the “salty single mama” line and stuff like that. You made a lot of jokes when perhaps other people in that situation wouldn't go there.

I was desperate because I thought I was going to literally fall on the ground and weep. I literally had to do that to survive. Wisdom sometimes tells you, “Do what it is that helps you get through that darkness.” And intellect was not appropriate at that time. Wisdom told me, “Just breathe and laugh and cry if you have to.” And that's what got me through.

I thought you did a great job. Since this tribute album coincides with the 40th anniversary of the Judds, there are all these famous stories about your mother. Even though you talk about her having this decorum, she was tough. You mentioned in your funeral speech about her packing up the U-Haul and taking you girls to Kentucky. And we all know about how much she hustled to get you your RCA Records deal. Did you want that deal at the time? Or was that her idea and you were just dragged along?

I was really angry with mom for the first couple of years, I'll be honest, because I felt like I got tricked into doing something I didn't sign up for. And the reason I say that is because I signed up for music. I didn't sign up for the fame or even the fortune. I went from welfare to millionaire, and that's just too much for a 17-year-old. … I was mad at Mom. I remember telling her the first time onstage, and I remember this like it was yesterday: I said, “I want to go home.” And she looked at me and she said, “Just sing.” And there I am with my eyes really wide open, because I'm in front of 10,000 people. That was my first experience onstage.

It was too much for my brain. It was too much for any child. It would be like me handing Kaliyah the keys to my car and putting her in the driver's seat to just have at it. It was too much, and I didn't know how to process it. They sent me to media school to learn how to talk and not roll my eyes, I swear to God. They sent me to media school to learn how to do interviews, and they sent me to charm school too, to learn how to sit up straight. Mom was a snapper and she'd say, “Erutsop!” That’s “posture” backwards. She’d snap her fingers: “Erutsop!” That's how she was. She was strict. And I was 17 years old! … It's complicated. It's layered. It's very layered. The easy part was singing; the rest of it was absolutely too much for me to try to process. If you sing two songs, that's four to eight minutes, and then the rest of the time is spent being Miss America's daughter. And she's got it; she's 36 years old and she's ready for the parade. And I'm like, “I don't even know what to wear!” Put those two things together and make us really famous, and then put us on a bus and let us go.

Eventually you went on to a successful solo career, and you're still doing that now. Do you think you would've ended up on this path of country music, country stardom had you not had that push when you were a teenager from your mom?

No, I didn't have the ambition at that point in my life. I'm 17 and I don't even have a boyfriend and I don't know what to do. And I've just graduated from high school, and I attempted suicide at 17. And then I got a record deal. … It's part of the story, what's made me as strong as I am today. That's why I can talk about it. … I'm still here, and I'm an advocate. I'm an advocate for people choosing to stay. I do so myself. I struggle with my mental health days where I take a day off and I go walking in the woods. I live on a farm and I check out, and I walk the woods and I scream and I know to remind myself that I'm getting ready to go on tour. I've got shows and there's a reason for me to stay. I have pain and purpose — and I can do both at the same time. I'm really good at saying, “OK, well, that sucked,” and then I go sing my butt off and get somebody out there in the audience going, “Man, that girl can sing. I'm inspired by her!” They see me doing it and it works.

I fully believe you've probably saved a lot of lives.

Music has saved many people, and it saved me. It gave me something to do. When I was 17 years old, I was lost and my stepfather was going to send me to college. And I was desperate. I said, “I don't want to be here anymore if I can't do music.” And that's why I did what I did. And all of a sudden, I then came home to mom. We’d had a falling-out and we had a disconnect. And I went on my path and I came home with my tail between my legs and I said, “I want to sing.” So, we went and got a record deal. Oh my God, it worked! And here I am and I'm getting ready to go on tour.

I'm 59 years old. I'm singing as much as I've ever sung in my entire life, with as much conviction as I've ever had in my life. And I feel so strong. And yet, that's today. Tomorrow, we don't know. But when I go on tour and I walk out on that stage Oct. 26, the first night, I'm going to look out at those fans who were there when the first two records came out. They believed in me when I didn't believe in myself. They were there then, and they're still here now. … [Besides] “I'm Broken and Blessed,” I'm writing a song called “Get It,” and it's going to relate to every single person out there that wants to get it. Whatever it is, get it. Get up and get it. And I'm on my way to absolutely being on fire. Watch me burn.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911 or the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255, or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

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